From churches to freeways, local artist seeks to paint 'beauty in every day'

Mary Zabawski, a lifelong parishioner of St. Anne Parish in Warren, finds inspiration for her painting in ordinary things, from freeways to small corners of churches that might be overlooked by the typical passerby. Zabawski says working on each painting is a like a prayer. (Photos by Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Mary Zabawski draws inspiration for her artwork from the unlikeliest places, but says she hopes God will use her to inspire others

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WARREN Each of Mary Zabawski’s paintings — whether of the Southfield Freeway or an adoration chapel at her local church — is like a prayer.

For nearly as long as she can remember, Zabawski, 41, a lifelong parishioner of St. Anne Parish in Warren, has always loved to draw and paint the ordinary moments.

“I have always loved to draw; it has always been a passion. It started when I was a little kid when my grandmother on my mother’s side was a fantastic artist. She was self-taught and a painter far better than me, and I used to watch (her) paint, and she would teach me how to draw,” Zabawski told Detroit Catholic. “I was always known as that kid who could draw through grade and high school.”

Zabawski took part in an art task force as a high school student at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights and attended Northern Michigan University, graduating in 2005 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She works a day job in insurance but has continued to paint as “a passion side project.” Her home has a designated art studio, and her walls are covered not only with her own artwork, but also her grandmother’s.

Zabawski says she has felt called to capture snapshots of beauty within local Catholic churches, beginning with her home parish, St. Anne.
Zabawski says she has felt called to capture snapshots of beauty within local Catholic churches, beginning with her home parish, St. Anne.
Zabawski prefers to capture ordinary, day-to-day glimpses of life in her artwork.
Zabawski prefers to capture ordinary, day-to-day glimpses of life in her artwork.

Zabawski, who primarily works in oil paints, says painting is a “holy experience.” And holiness, to Zabawski, can often be found in the ordinary.

“You could paint incredible vistas or European cathedrals, but I have always just been fascinated by the stuff in your own neighborhood; there are so many incredible things if you look for them,” Zabawski said. “Regardless of what I am painting, I feel the same way about them — I am (just) the hands, and I just try to find the beauty in every day, and that beauty comes from God.”

Recently, Zabawski has felt called to capture the snapshots of beauty within Detroit-area Catholic churches, beginning with her home parish, St. Anne. In 2022, while walking out of Sunday Mass, Zabawski looked up at the chapel entrance, visible from the pew where she sits week after week, and was struck by a moment of fleeting beauty.

“I was walking out of the church, and something about the way the light was coming into that window that morning stopped me dead in my tracks,” Zabawski explained, “I thought, ‘You know, I could paint that, and I should paint that.’ I don’t know why, but it just struck me as so beautiful even though it was something I had seen literally thousands of times in my life.”

One of Zabawski's oil paintings depicts the chapel entrance at St. Anne — a familiar scene to those in the parish, but a source of quiet beauty to those seeking a refuge from the world.
One of Zabawski's oil paintings depicts the chapel entrance at St. Anne — a familiar scene to those in the parish, but a source of quiet beauty to those seeking a refuge from the world.
An oil painting by Mary Zabawski depicts St. Anne's front garden. If all her painting accomplishes is to momentarily bring someone closer to God, that's good enough, she said.
An oil painting by Mary Zabawski depicts St. Anne's front garden. If all her painting accomplishes is to momentarily bring someone closer to God, that's good enough, she said.

Zabawski took some photos and began painting when she got home. As she worked, she wondered whether the painting would matter to other parishioners, and decided to complete it in time to donate it to the parish's silent auction to raise money for the church during its annual parish festival.

To her surprise and delight, the painting was a popular bidding item. Later that weekend, Fr. John Kopson, a priest in solidum at St. Anne, commissioned Zabawski to make a second copy of the painting.

The painting’s success motivated Zabawski to contribute a painting to this year's parish auction. As with the first painting, Zabawski found inspiration in a corner of the church that she had seen countless times before. While volunteering one day in the church garden, Zabawski looked up from watering the flowers and was struck by the beauty surrounding her.

Zabawski again took photos, completed the painting and then donated it; the garden painting did even better than her first oil painting, raising more money for the church.

One of Mary Zabawski's paintings depicts the southbound Southfield Freeway.
One of Mary Zabawski's paintings depicts the southbound Southfield Freeway.
A painting by Zabawski's grandmother, who taught her how to paint, hangs in Mary's home office.
A painting by Zabawski's grandmother, who taught her how to paint, hangs in Mary's home office.

“I was blown away by the chord that it struck with people — this is something that people see every day, but I think having it presented to them in a way that they haven’t seen before made them see it in a new way and made them realize what beautiful little spaces we have in front of us every day,” Zabawski said.

Zabawski’s paintings range from snapshots of dishes in the sink and beautiful gardens to the winding overpasses of the iconic Southfield Freeway. While most of her work is by commission, Zabawski hopes to capture the beauty of more local churches, beginning with Old St. Mary’s in Greektown and St. Hyacinth in Detroit, where her parents were raised.

Most recently, Zabawski painted a side chapel in the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, in response to a request to submit Eucharistic artwork for an art show hosted by the National Eucharistic Congress. While Zabawski’s piece wasn’t accepted, she said she felt it was a project God wanted her to do.

A side chapel in the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, painted by Mary Zabawski, was entered for consideration into an art show for the National Eucharistic Congress.
A side chapel in the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, painted by Mary Zabawski, was entered for consideration into an art show for the National Eucharistic Congress.

“Pretty much every time I sit down to make a painting of anything, but specifically these church paintings, I just say a prayer to God that He is going to help me make the painting that he wants me to make. I feel like it is His work, it’s not mine; I am just the hands,” Zabawski said.

If all God wants from a painting is for Zabawski to spend time focused on Him and have the painting be her prayer, then that is enough for her.

“Every time I have a piece, I have no expectations," Zabawski said. "I love it, and I know I'm supposed to do it, but every time it resonates with somebody, and everybody loves something enough to comment — or let alone to pay money for it — I am blown away, and it is the best feeling in the world.”

All Zabawski hopes is that her paintings make people stop in their tracks and desire to be wherever she has painted.

Zabawski hopes to capture the beauty of more local churches, beginning with Old St. Mary’s in Greektown and St. Hyacinth in Detroit, where her parents were raised.
Zabawski hopes to capture the beauty of more local churches, beginning with Old St. Mary’s in Greektown and St. Hyacinth in Detroit, where her parents were raised.
If all God wants from a painting is for her to spend time focused on Him and have the painting be her prayer, then that is enough for her, she said.
If all God wants from a painting is for her to spend time focused on Him and have the painting be her prayer, then that is enough for her, she said.

“I feel called to paint pictures of these sacred spaces (because) if I paint a chapel or a church garden and somebody says, ‘Wow, that is beautiful; I’d like to sit there,' or, 'I would like to walk that path,' it is almost like in that moment, maybe God is nudging them a little bit closer. And if that is all that comes from these paintings, that is more than I could ever ask for.”

Zabawski can be reached for commissions or prints of her previous work at her website.



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