Transformation as an artist and a Catholic allows painter to see Christ in new light

Artist Ron Teachworth explains the significance behind one of his paintings of the life of Christ on display at the Marygrove College Art Gallery in Detroit. Teachworth, a convert to Catholicism, is exhibiting 20 religious watercolor paintings at the college until Dec. 29. (Photos by Grace Turner | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Ron Teachworth's exhibition on the life of Christ on display at Marygrove College until year's end

DETROIT — A 16-year-old Ron Teachworth never thought his life would lead to evangelization.

However, 40 years into his painting career, Teachworth, who attends St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac, found this new purpose through his work.

While Teachworth attended Mass for many years, his previous work was contemporary. However, soon after being inspired by Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” fresco in Florence, Italy, Teachworth said he was urged by the Holy Spirit to make a painting on the same subject.

“It was sort of like a channel, you might say,” Teachworth said. “It was a remarkable experience and one I really enjoyed.”

Fast forward to 2018, and throughout November and December, Marygrove College in Detroit is exhibiting some of Teachworth's religious pieces, a collection of 20 watercolor paintings depicting the life of Christ. 

Art, Teachworth says, is a form of evangelization. In the early Church, people who couldn’t read depended on imagery to understand and learn about their religion.

“This is meant to be educational, especially for young people,” he said.

At the Marygrove, guests are greeted by a portrait of Jesus at the entrance to the gallery. Teachworth’s version of the Annunciation is the first on the left-hand wall, and one depicting the Ascension is the closest on the right-hand wall. The paintings are organized roughly chronologically clockwise between the two. 

Each painting is accompanied by a caption that explains the context.

Teachworth added a few personal touches to the paintings, whose subject matter has been depicted by greats since at least the Renaissance — his work is in watercolor, while most religious paintings are in oil. His paintings also include what Teachwork calls “expansive landscapes,” or those that appear to stretch for miles behind the paintings’ characters.

Each painting was started as a drawing, before Teachworth painted the background and worked his way forward. He often used different kinds of salts to concentrate and repel pigment in the sky, and a rubber masking was brushed onto the figures so paint from the background would not bleed onto them. Each painting took about two months to complete.

While most of his paintings reflect themes and stories that have been painted by artists many times over, one that he is especially fond of — “Mary Visits Jesus” — shows Mary and a teenage Jesus talking as Jesus works as a carpenter.

“This painting is not part of the history of art because this part of (Jesus’) life is not mentioned much in the Bible,” Teachworth said.

Teachworth started his work in 2011 with the painting of the Annunciation.

“At that point in time, when I did that painting, I didn’t know I was creating a story,” he said.

His Annunciation painting was accepted into the Juried Catholic Arts Competition, a national exhibition in Pennsylvania, which inspired Teachworth to create more paintings in the series. The most recent ones were completed earlier this year.

Visitors check out Teachworth's paintings at the Marygrove College Art Gallery. 
Ron Teachworth converted to Catholicism in 2008, after spending more than two decades attending Mass with his wife, Jilia. Today, his conversion is a significant factor in his artwork.

While creating the show was a long journey, the longer journey was the one that led Teachworth to Catholicism. Teachworth didn’t grow up with any religion, so his first exposure was when he met his wife, Jilia, in 1971. When the couple wed in 1972, Ron Teachworth agreed to get married in the Catholic church and to raise his three children Catholic.

“I didn’t have a faith to offer them, so I just accepted the Catholic faith, but without a lot of catechesis,” he said.

Teachworth became familiar with the Church gradually by attending Mass each week, watching his children go through sacraments, and taking them to Catechism. He wanted to become Catholic early on in his marriage and saw how much faith enriched family events, meals, and the individuals it touched.

He was also moved by a TV program on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) called “The Journey Home,” which televised interviews of Catholic converts and their experiences.

Despite his newfound interest in the faith, a career teaching art and later producing educational television on top of raising three children kept Teachworth busy.

“I was doing my best to kind of learn, but it wasn’t until 2008 (that) I decided to go through RCIA,” he said.

Teachworth retired in 2006. Despite his previous efforts to study Catholicism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults curriculum gave his learning a structure. He became Catholic and fully understood the significance of the sacraments and what it means to be in communion with the Church.

“The more you learn, the better it gets,” he said.

His faith filled a void. It's also the reason he tries to help everyone who needs it, Teachworth said.

“I wouldn’t say it was hard,” he said. “I would say it just took me time to understand.”

While Teachworth was on his journey to Catholicism, his wife was on her own.

Jilia Teachworth introduced her husband to the Catholic church, but said she didn’t feel a connection to Jesus and didn’t identify as Christian or Catholic. She believed in God and felt a connection to Him and Mary and raised her children in the Catholic church so they would have a structure for their spiritual lives. However, she was more interested in Buddhism for many years.

It wasn’t until she read a book by the Dalai Lama that emphasized the importance of knowing one’s own religion that Jilia Teachworth started to research Catholicism.

She enrolled in a master’s program at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and completed her degree in pastoral studies in 2017.

“It finally coalesced what Christianity was,” she said, adding that her studies led to a “eureka moment.”

The two were on a journey to Catholicism at the same time without realizing it.

Jilia Teachworth wrote the captions for each painting and went over them with her husband. She said she wanted the audience to keep in mind that Jesus is the center of each painting.

“To focus on Christ is really to focus on what love means, what authentic love means,” she said.

However, both she and Ron Teachworth also want viewers to interpret the pieces for themselves.

“When you see a painting or hear a piece of music, you bring your own prior knowledge into it,” Jilia Teachworth said.

She said she is proud of her husband for making his journey to Catholicism and creating the exhibition.

Another artist, Dennis Guastella, was surprised when he saw Ron Teachworth’s exhibition, given how different it is from his usual work. The two have been friends for more than 40 years and have exhibited work together.

“He felt he had to do it, and it takes guts to do that,” Guastella said of Teachworth’s change in style.

Teachworth also offered Guastella something he said is difficult to find in the art community — a willingness to discuss faith. Guastella also is a Christian.

“I consider him one of my closest friends,” Guastella said. “He’s like a brother to me. We can talk about anything. That’s rare.”

Teachworth has a bachelor’s degree in art from Central Michigan University and a master’s degree in painting from Wayne State University. He also studied at London Film School and taught at Oakland Community College. He has exhibited in more than 60 visual art exhibitions and four one-person shows.

More information about Teachworth can be found on his website, and a review of his current work from Detroit Art Review is available here.

The pieces in the exhibition are not for sale, as Teachworth hopes to make the exhibition available to area parishes. However, prints are available for $75-$300, depending on the size.

The exhibition, “Sacred Art” by Ron Scott Teachworth, opened Nov. 9 and will run through Dec. 29. The Marygrove College Art Gallery is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and is located on the fourth floor of the college’s Liberal Arts Building. People can also view the show by appointment by emailing Teachworth at [email protected].