Passion Projects

Catherine Osborne

About eight years ago, I was going through a huge collection in the archives at Notre Dame, feeling out the first contours of what became my dissertation. For preservation reasons, the archivists had separated correspondence and other written material from photographs and prints, so by the time I got to this particular folder I was hip-deep in decontextualized visual material, much of which was not especially interesting to me. I was moving fast, trying to survey all the collection's boxes before my month's residency ran out, and not paying too much attention.

Then I opened a folder and stopped.

At the top was a photostat of a pen-and-ink portrait. The lines were fine, delicate, precise; the man's face shrewd, with kindly eyes, a wry smile. After sifting through so many reproductions mid-20th-century religious art that relied on bold splashes of color, kinetic brushstrokes, and blocky hieraticism to elicit strong feeling, it was the drawing's combination of formal restraint with both artist's and sitter's obviously rich emotional connection that struck me the most. It was hard to look away.

The folder was labeled "Frederick Franck." Checking the associated folder of written material, I found that this drawing, and many others, had been made at the Second Vatican Council. How interesting! I'd never heard of Franck, but I had definitely heard of Vatican II. I didn't know anyone had drawn it, though. I paged through the half-dozen other drawings in the folder, smiling at an overstuffed cardinal, pausing to enjoy the craggy face of an Eastern-rite patriarch. The artist had wit, and a clear eye, and I definitely wanted to know more. A quick look at the internet told me he'd written a memoir about his time at the Council, and I had a brief email correspondence with his widow.

It was, indeed, a fascinating story: Franck, an agnostic, was close to despair over the state of the world in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. When he read Pope John XXIII's opening statement to the Council, however, which spoke of hope, of daybreak, and of unity and cooperation among humankind, he was so moved that he dropped everything and flew to Rome, where he spent much of the next four years becoming an intimate, though highly irregular, participant in the life of Vatican II. He made hundreds of drawings, went everywhere, came to know everyone. I still wanted to know more -- but my dissertation was going off in a different direction, and I dropped the idea of "doing something with that Franck stuff."

I never could shake the mental image of opening that folder, seeing that unexpected face, however, and when I realized I'd be back at Notre Dame during the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Council, I decided to see if I could pull off an exhibit. Long story short -- and thanks to the generosity of the two collections I borrowed from, the gallery staff at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture, and the half-dozen departments who contributed financially along with the Cushwa Center -- Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck's Drawings from the Second Vatican Council opened in August.

This is the first scholarly project I've been involved with that I've done neither for financial compensation, nor with peer-reviewed publication, but simply because I really wanted to do it. It's sometimes been a little difficult to explain why I wanted to so much -- no, it wasn't part of a master plan to apply for public history jobs, although I've enjoyed engaging with "the public" very much, and would like to do that again in the future; no, I don't intend to write a post-dissertation-book monograph on Franck. It just gave me pleasure to work with these lovely drawings and to show them to other people.

What's interesting to me here, though, is that Franck also found it difficult to explain exactly why he undertook his Vatican project. It did bring him a bit more fame, at least in Catholic circles, and a bit more fortune in that he sold some of the drawings and published several books about the experience, but he could have had more of both by choosing to spend those years in the New York gallery scene, among other options. And no, he didn't do it because he was considering becoming Catholic (a frequent question at the tours I've given.) In the end, while his motivations were as complex as any person's, I think he really did it because it was what he wanted to do. He had fallen in love, in a way, with John XXIII, and as he came to know them, he also came to love the bishops and theologians he drew, sometimes once, sometimes over and over again. And certainly, he felt he was bearing witness to an event that promised to help shape the fate of the world.

So -- in the end, perhaps the process of mounting this exhibit will influence my scholarship a bit more than I thought. After several recent years spent mostly at a computer, it's certainly reminded me of the inestimable value of working directly with physical objects. But it's also made me think more deeply about the role of emotion in decision-making and in response to the world around us. "He was compelled," I've said over and over again at the exhibit, usually spreading my hands wide to indicate my helplessness, my inability to use the active voice. The passive leaves open a range of options: perhaps his feelings about the Cold War compelled him? the charisma of John XXIII? his childhood memories of his Catholic home town? the Holy Spirit? all, some, or none of the above? Though I warn my students against it -- too wishy-washy; make a decision! -- there's something to it, maybe. A way to recognize the surplus of emotion at the core of any significant event, the irreducible remnant of passion.