Blind priest’s art classes at LSU teach him, classmates about faith in oneself

SHAFAQNA – Father Pat Mascarella stood at the pulpit at St. Joseph’s Cathedral wearing a vestment and sunglasses — his seeing-eye yellow lab, Pace, at his side — and told the congregation about his latest hobby: visual art.

It started when it time came for the now 73-year-old Catholic priest to retire, and he made a choice.

“I decided to keep my brain alive,” said Mascarella, a lifelong resident of Baton Rouge. “I had to do something.”

It had only been a few years since he had gone completely blind after having had vision problems since childhood. And even through Mascarella had never taken on art before, “except crayons at elementary school,” he enrolled in a studio art class at LSU.

He was always an admirer, finding something holy in art.

“It’s hard to imagine that you can stand in front … of a Monet and not be moved by the colors and the positioning and the power that’s there … It’s spiritual,” Mascarella said. But this would be a new undertaking for him, personally.

The art classes, three of which he’s taken so far, are helping him to obtain a master’s in liberal arts. After talking with a teacher who agreed to take him on as a student, Mascarella got his supplies, gathered his seeing-eye dog, a yellow lab named Pace, and trekked to campus.

“I’ve got to admit,” he said. “I sort of enjoyed it, saying ‘I’m taking art.’ You know, a blind man taking art.”

But he was nervous too, not just about the challenges of creating visual art without his sight, but about what the other students would think and how it would work.

On the other hand, it was another exercise in faith.

“My faith gives me the stability and the courage to deal with what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t just throw up my hands in exasperation and say, ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘God has abandoned me or punished me,’ but faith in the sense that there are natural occurrences that we cannot controlled … ( and) we have to learn to deal with them as best we can.”

He didn’t know quite how it would work, but it ended being a collaborative effort of the whole class. Each student in the class of about 20 would take turns helping the Mascarella, who they call “Pat.” It was a lesson in communication for them, said Alaine Dibenedetto, a fellow student.

Dibenedetto said she has poor verbal skills, and communicating her ideas helped her overcome that. “As an artist I’m more aware of the tools we use and why we use them,” she said.

For example, Mascarella would describe the shade of a color he wanted, and the student would tell him what it looked like.

“Since I’m blind, I’m not painting something that I see but I’m painting from memory,” he said, after showing a canvas painted his member of redwoods from a trip to California.

Still, color continues to fascinate him.

“My first dream after I lost my sight was like an explosion in color,” he said. “It was like a flowerbed.” He described the colors in his dreams other nights as bold primary colors, “like ‘Dick Tracy’ stuff.”

When helping Mascarella mix colors, orient a landscape or trace a circle, though, classmate Stephanie Binning Huye said she learned fast “he does not want to be mothered or pitied for helped.”

Dibenedetto phrased it another way: “He’s a man; he wants to hammer his own nails.”

Mascarella attributed his strong-willed tendencies to growing up the youngest of 10 with vision problems and a mother who wouldn’t allow his siblings to coddle him.

“People say I’m stubborn; I say I’m independent,” Mascarella said.

He said he and other people with disabilities would simply like to be treated like anyone else, just with some understanding. If an acquaintance passes him on the street, for instance, he would hope he or she would identify themselves and say “Hello,” rather than treat him like he’s invisible. The feeling of invisibility is a societal pitfall he said is experienced by many with blindness or other disabilities.

While it’s good for college-aged people to get the exposure of working with a blind student, Mascarella’s teacher last fall, Denyce Celentano, said, her other students also benefit from getting to know Mascarella as a person, with his “remarkable set of experiences.”

“Students tend to live in world of the university. Pat had much larger mindset,” she said. “It reinforced a sense of community, and that’s really in many ways what we want — our art … to engage the community itself.”

It was impressive, too, watching his art progress.

“Pat had a wonderful sense of organizing space of the painting based on his feel of the surface,” she said.

Once Mascarella got a handle on painting, he wanted to take it a step further by making the art appeal not only to those who can see but those like him, who can’t. He experimented with textures, adding sand to acrylic in one instance and incorporating a poem in brail in another. During his second semester of art class, he added another sense, smell, by working with lavender and other materials.

Museum workers watch patrons like a hawk to stop them from getting too close, he said. But when Mascarella presented three paintings at St. Joseph’s Cathedral last spring while giving his homily, he encouraged the congregation to come up and touch the works after mass.

The priest is adamant that his art makes him “no great hero of any kind,” especially considering the inspirational blind people he’s met since first learning to live with the limitation. Rather, maybe his art will add to the many examples of people who refuse to let their limitations steer their fate.

It’s not always easy. For example, in his most recent art class, ceramics, it took weeks to achieve the proper balance on the throwing wheel before he was able to “find his center.” Like anyone else, Mascarella gets mad at God at sometimes: “When I used to drive, God and I used to have shouting matches in my car.”

But when the bowl come outs of the kiln and the canvas is complete, it’s another reminder of to continue to maintain his spirit.

“Take what you have, what God has given you, and make the best use what you can and see what the impact is,” Mascarella said.

For Dibenedetto, Mascarella is a reminder that “the only thing that stops people from their dreams and goals is their self.”

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