National Lutheran News

‘Table Talk’ on the tabletop

Catholic artist Pat Benincasa brings the story of Martin and Katie to the kitchen table

In a quiet Saint Paul neighborhood stands a structure that appears to be just
another garage. But inside its doors is an artist’s studio, teeming with finished
pieces, works in progress, and tools of the trade (paints, canvases, sheets of
art glass, and power tools). This backyard studio was built by visual artist Pat
Benincasa, a woman who has traversed all art media and forms during her
30-year career. From her seven-ton glass and steel skylight at the Minnesota
Judicial Center to the Joan of Arc medal that she designed for U.S. troops,
Benincasa is equally facile at large and small-scale projects. When asked
about the lack of garage, Benincasa responds, “Priorities!”

For the 50-something, first-generation Italian-American, shaping her life
around her art is as natural as shaping her art around her faith. Standing
prominently in her studio — amidst portraits of Mother Theresa, Catherine of
Bologna (patron saint of artists), and Bernadette of Soubirous — is a 3’ by 4’
painting of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora. If Martin and Katie seem
out of place in a sea of Catholic saints, Benincasa asserts that they fit right in.

“I kind of got in trouble in high school for loving Luther,” said Benincasa, a
lifelong Roman Catholic who grew up near Detroit. “One nun asked us to
write about the person we most admired and I chose Luther. In the face of
persecution and imminent death, he said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’
and that phrase lodged in my mind. Sister didn’t respond when I told her my
choice, but her face — a study in silent displeasure — said it all!”

As a teenager in the ‘60s, Benincasa found in Luther a great role model.
“Martin Luther’s courage and faith inspired me. Here was someone who spoke
out against injustice and literally put his life on the line!”

After receiving an MFA from Wayne State University, Benincasa relocated to
Saint Paul in 1976, launching a prolific career in studio art and public
sculpture. After 9/11, she literally drew upon her faith, adding sacred art
pieces to her repertoire.

She said, “In 2003, I spotted an old kitchen table in an antique store when
the words ‘Table Talk’ flashed in my mind. I knew this tabletop had to be
made into a painting about Martin Luther!”

After paying the shopkeeper, Benincasa bolted out to her truck, and returned
to the store with a high-powered reciprocating saw. “The shopkeeper was
horrified until I told her I wanted to make this into a painting,” said Benincasa
who elicited the woman’s help in turning the table on its side. “When I cut off
the table’s legs, the poor woman was still appalled!”

Depositing the tabletop in her studio, Benincasa began researching. “I reread
Table Talk and envisioned Martin and Katie’s kitchen table, filled with
students and colleagues discussing and debating. I read his other works too
because I needed a multifaceted comprehension of Luther and his times.”
She emerged with profound appreciation for the person she was drawn to as
a teen-ager. “I appreciated that Martin was a dutiful son of the church — he
did not set out to topple it.”

Katie is as central to Benincasa’s painting as Martin. “They shared an
incredible journey,” said Benincasa. “They were in it together, and the
painting had to reflect that.”

In Benincasa’s Table Talk painting, Katie supports Martin’s hand as they hold
the German Bible that he translated. “I have them together almost as one
unit, in honor of Martin’s describing Katie as ‘my rock and my rib’.”

The completed painting, a year in the making, shows core images from
Luther’s life: The couple is framed in a pillared archway and the Luther Rose
(or Luther Seal) hovers in front of the pillar. The couple and Bible are in the
center. There is a page from Luther’s Small Catechism in the upper left, and
the archway moves to the next pillar with various Augustinian monks in the
background. The cherub on the top of the pillar looks at Martin and Katie
while another cherub glances over its shoulder at the bottom of the pillar. On
the lower right is a German woodblock print from the late 1400s depicting
the ship of church tossing on stormy waves of change.

Benincasa inscribed two quotes from Table Talk on each side of the table:
“The Lord’s Prayer binds the people together and knits them one to another
so one prays for the other; and it is strong and powerful, that it even drives
away the fear of death.” And “Little Children are saved only by faith without
any good works; therefore, faith alone justifies.”

Benincasa said, “Luther is a powerful witness to Christ; after all, Jesus spoke
out against the religious establishment of his time. Martin Luther
courageously questioned and challenged the church he loved. At a time when
it was dangerous to challenge authority, he chose to be heard. His life has a
potent message in today’s world where such courage is sorely needed.”

To Benincasa, Martin Luther and Katie von Bora show that two people really
can make a difference. “They were united in love and purpose and their lives
give evidence to the fact that truth given voice creates grace and courage.”

For further information, contact Pat Benincasa by visiting her Web site at
www.patbenincasa.com or e-mailing her at info@patbenincasaart.com. By
U.S. mail, she can be reached at Pat Benincasa Studio, 2136 Ford Parkway,
No. 154, St. Paul, MN 55116.