POMONA, Calif. | There’s no steeple out front, no rows of pews inside, not even so much as a crucifix on display.
Still, this cramped little art studio in the middle of what, until not very long ago, was a street with as many broken dreams as it has potholes, is the closest thing to paradise that the Rev. Bill Moore has found. It’s the place where the 60-year-old Catholic priest serves God by creating abstract paintings that he sells by the hundreds.
No ordinary preacher, the man known as Father Bill throughout Pomona’s fledgling arts district long ago discarded his clerical collar in favor of a painter’s smock. Only on Sundays does he trade it for holy vestments to deliver Mass at a local church or at one of several detention facilities for youthful offenders.
At all other times, Father Moore is head of the Ministry of the Arts for the West Coast branch of his religious order, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His job is to serve God by painting whatever comes to mind.
“That’s Bill’s gift, his talent, and we have to support that,” said the Rev. Donal McCarthy, who is the order’s West Coast provincial and Father Moore’s superior. “When you’ve got a creative person, you shouldn’t stifle that creativity.”
Leaders of the order, founded more than 200 years ago in France, know of no other member whose only mission has been to paint. But then Father Moore, a child of the ‘60s who can quote the words of Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Jesus Christ with equal facility, has been a barrier breaker since he ignored his provincial’s order his freshman year of college to study either philosophy or theology. He majored in art instead.
“The next year, a letter came from the provincial saying all the students are now encouraged to major in subjects of their choice. I thought that was very cool,” Father Moore recalls with a smile as he sits in the lobby of his modest studio sipping coffee. A copy of underground comic-book artist R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis” sits on the coffee table and works by Japanese artist Kazumi Tanaka, a personal favorite, are displayed here and there.
Since early childhood, Father Moore says, he knew he had the calling - to be a painter. The call to be a priest came later.
“I was doing little abstract paintings when I was a little boy, like around 8, 9 years old,” Father Moore said. “My grandmother would just think they were the greatest things. The rest of the members of my family, they were, ahh, kind of more like art critics.”
Not that the art world has been all that harsh on him. Father Moore’s works, which are often compared to those of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, sell for more than $5,000 each, and he has been the subject of frequent shows at galleries throughout the Southwest. Any profits that he makes from those shows go directly to his order.
“His work, as abstract as it is, has a definite spiritual quality to it,” says Fenton Moore, who is curating a Moore exhibition that opened Dec. 24 at the Galerie Zuger in Santa Fe, N.M. “It could be that it comes more from his heart than what you feel from other abstract artists. Or it could also be because he’s just a very religious person.”
Although he once worked in a realistic style, doing figures and landscapes, Father Moore decided a dozen years ago that abstract expressionism would be his language.
That has caused some consternation among his order, like the time he was commissioned to do the stained-glass windows for St. Anne’s Church in Kaneohe, Hawaii, and proposed a series of abstract works.
“The pastor there said, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ ” Father Moore said. So he reverted to a traditional style for that work, as he did for a recent commissioned painting of Father Damien, patron saint of Hawaii, who was a member of Father Moore’s order when he went to live among the lepers of Hawaii’s Molokai island in the 1800s.
When he works in his studio, Father Moore approaches each new project with no specific plan. Working with acrylic paints, he lets his ideas flow spontaneously onto canvas, then adds bits of metal, glass or other discarded, seemingly worthless materials to each painting. They represent redemption, a central theme in his order’s belief that God’s love is unconditional.