Since childhood, Cuban-American portraitist Sylvia Castellanos has been intrigued by the human face. That fascination and her love of drawing have led her to paint hundreds of portraits — from Washington, D.C., dignitaries to Central American Maya campesinos.
And with each portrait, her hope is to capture the person’s soul. Not a small task in itself, but her objective became even more challenging when she chose to paint the Church’s spiritual leaders Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“I had a personal desire to paint the popes because this is my Church and these are the leaders of my Church,” said Castellanos, who began painting Pope John Paul II in the last months of his life.
“I was in my 20s when he was elected pope,” she said. “You would have to have been there to understand the significance of this young pope who liked to ski and mountain climb, who was so vibrant, alert and intelligent.”
“With the passage of time, he had become this old man with Parkinson’s disease who could hardly walk.”
“I wanted to try to catch something to bring back into people’s consciousness that this was the real man and this is how he deserves to be remembered,” she said.
Since Castellanos immigrated with her family to the United States from her native Havana at age 9, she said she was “especially interested that John Paul came from a country enslaved by communism.”
“I learned later that he was doing things behind the scenes to fight communism, and that made him especially dear to me.”
After she completed the portrait in 2006, it was exhibited for five years at Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, where she received much praise for capturing the pope’s essence. She values such compliments highly, especially since she never met Pope John Paul, nor his successor, Pope Benedict, whom she began painting in 2010.
Mostly self-taught, Castellanos painted her first “commissioned” portrait at the age of 13. Her portrait of Abraham Lincoln for a school project drew the attention of her principal, who commissioned her to do a portrait of the assistant principal for $10.
Years later, after obtaining a graduate degree from Princeton University in New Jersey, Castellanos moved to the Washington metro area in the early 1970s. For the remainder of the decade she served as research director of the Senate Steering Committee while doing commissioned portraits for prominent people on Capitol Hill, including Congressional members and international personnel. During those years she studied with portraitist Danni Dawson at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.
“That was the only study of art I have ever done,” said Castellanos. “She taught me the things fundamental to my outlook.”
“I seek to catch emotions in the way a perfume maker captures a fragrance so that by uncorking a bottle, people can experience again the full dimension of the scent,” said Castellanos.
To capture the essence of Pope Benedict, Castellanos pored through photographs.
“People who have met Benedict talk about the kindness and holiness he gives off. I wanted to catch that,” she said.
Castellanos completed her first portrait of the pope late in 2010, but after carefully observing viewers’ reactions, Castellanos was dissatisfied with her work. She stored the painting for a year and half until this past January when she began repainting his face from scratch. This time she’s pleased with the result.
“The whole point of doing a portrait is to capture the person, his emotions and who the person is. If you don’t do that, it’s not a good portrait,” Castellanos said. “People say I’ve got the likeness now, and I hope that is the case.”
With two important dates coming up for Pope Benedict — his birthday April 16 and the anniversary of his ascension to the papacy April 19 — Castellanos hopes she can find the right place, possibly in Washington, to exhibit her work.
“The Church will be marking both these events, and maybe my painting can have a small role in whatever form its commemoration takes,” she said.
Her ultimate ambition is for the painting to be exhibited at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Castellanos hopes her portrait of Pope Benedict will appeal to those outside Catholic circles, as well.
“To the extent that it’s seen by non-Catholics, I hope they will appreciate the personal quality that I tried to include,” she said.
“And when they look at it they will say, ‘so this is what he is like as a person.’”
Posted with permission from The Catholic Herald, official newspaper for the Diocese of Arlington, Va.