While part of that community, he painted his first Paschal candle – a depiction of Christ sitting on a throne holding a book titled “I AM.”
“I’ll always remember my first candle,” Faulhaber said. “I had to pray hard for God’s help.”
He found himself in uncharted waters, so he put to good use his familiarity and experience with icon writing when painting on beeswax the first time.
When he finished, Faulhaber remembers stepping back from that first candle and whispering to himself, “What did I do?”
People stood in line inside the basilica to admire the candle. “It was the first time they had ever seen candle art. It was my first time, too.”
Faulhaber, or Brother Bob as he was known then, transferred in 2002 to Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Nebraska. He painted several Paschal candles for the abbey.
The abbey supported Faulhaber’s interest in other art forms and sent him to the prestigious Prosopon School of Iconology in Wisconsin.
There he learned the Russian method of icon writing, which uses a paste made of raw materials, egg yolk, vinegar, and wine.
Two of his icons are at St. James Parish in Omaha. Other pieces are at St. John’s Parish in Duluth, Minnesota, and Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana.
Faulhaber eventually ended up departing religious life in 2010 and was dispensed from his vows.
“I owe a lot to religious life,” he said. “The priests and brothers know how to cultivate and hone a person’s skills. They are able to identify and develop your talents. In my case, it was art.”
‘A prayerful, leisurely experience’
It takes Faulhaber 40 to 50 hours to paint a Paschal candle. Before he begins, he photographs the inside of the church where the candle will be displayed, researches the church’s patron saint, and studies the history of the church.
When the research is finished, he carves a design on the beeswax, and fills it with acrylic paint. He describes the process as a “prayerful and leisurely experience … Sometimes I listen to music while I’m painting.”
The Easter Vigil liturgy itself is an emotional experience for Faulhaber. He watches from a pew as the candle is carried in procession into the dark church, then prominently displayed in the candle stand in the sanctuary.
It is when the priest or deacon intones one of the most evocative and poetic hymns of praise in all liturgy, the Exsultet – also known as the Easter Proclamation – that his eyes fill with tears and his heart overflows with joy.
“It’s powerful knowing my hand is involved in some small way in the Church’s most meaningful act of worship,” Faulhaber said. “At the same time, I want to hide and just do my art. It’s about Jesus.”
A multi-dimensional artist
Faulhaber and his wife, Jeanna, are members of St. Bernard parish in Omaha. He has painted St. Bernard’s Paschal candles since 2014. His candles are also used in Omaha churches St. Stephen the Martyr and St. Thomas More.
It was Faulhaber’s idea to paint a candle for St. Bernard. He recognized how the church’s regal interior colors, dark wood pews, and floor tile design worked together to direct a person’s mind and heart toward the sanctuary.
He told Father Walter Nolte, St. Bernard’s pastor at the time, that like an icon, a Paschal candle should point to something beyond itself.
“Robert spent hours in the church, praying and sketching,” Father Nolte said.
Faulhaber presented him with several design concepts.
“He wanted me to choose from his ideas,” the priest said. “I refused. I told him I had complete trust in him, and I would graciously receive what he brought to us from his prayer.”
The finished design skillfully uses the small church’s Spanish mission style colors and spiral columns to depict Christ the King.
When he’s not working in the maintenance department at St. Stephen the Martyr Church, Faulhaber paints.
He considers himself a multi-dimensional artist; besides paint, his tools include chalk, pencil and airbrushes. He’s also a wood carver.
While Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio’s biggest art pieces have endured over time, Faulhaber is one of only a few artists who knowingly sets out to create something that will eventually melt from the heat of a flame.
Yet because of the role they have in the sacramental life of the Church, his creations will, in a sense, share in eternity.