Forever in bluejeans: Icon painter brings Minnesota martyr to life

Br. James Miller, who was born in 1944 in Wisconsin and shot to death in Guatemala in 1982, has been recognized as a martyr by the Vatican and will be beatified Dec. 7. (CNS, courtesy Christian Brothers of the Midwest)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Nick Markell had never heard of Christian Brother James Miller when Cretin-Derham Hall High School first commissioned the acclaimed artist to paint an icon of the martyr.

A combination of prayer and research went into his creative process, including a picture of the late missionary holding a lamb in Guatemala. Add to that the fact that he often wore overalls, and an image was emerging: the traditional ambiance of a religious icon with a contemporary twist, showing Br. James — “Hermano Santiago,” as he was known — donned in overalls with a gold nimbus encircling his head and a lamb in his arms.

“It made him more accessible,” said Markell, a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stillwater and owner of nearby Markell Studios. “Perhaps that’s why the image has taken off a bit.”

It has become the most widely known image of the Midwestern saint-to-be.

Markell spent a month painting with acrylic wash and gold leaf in his apartment; he listened to Gregorian chant, and incense filled the air.

Markell focused on Br. James’s prominent eyebrows and eyes. “I tried to capture an essence of that,” he said.

As he painted, he contemplated the message behind the martyr.

“He represented for me an everyday saint. There’s a certain status about being martyred, but this is possible for the everyday person. A lot of the icons I might do over the years are saints that seem out of reach — the great saints of history. But then you have an example of a recent saint who walked the streets with us, but their faith was strong, and then died for it.”

He said the lamb remains a reflection of Br. James’s gentle, attentive outreach, embracing each child as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did.

Markell said he was touched by the response to his icon and added, “I’m very grateful to have been involved.”

— By Christina Capecchi, Catholic News Service.