Creating a Sacred Art

Caleb Kortokrax, MFA

Class of 2011
Adjunct Professor of Visual Communication Design
Stevenson University
Baltimore, Md.

When Caleb Kortokrax transferred to Valparaiso University during his junior year, he had anticipated majoring in art history. But a conversation with Bob Sirko, former chair of the art department, changed Caleb’s thinking.

“I told him that I would also like to take painting and drawing classes,” Caleb recalls. “He asked, ‘Why would you want to study the history of art when you can make art? If you can make art, you should study art.’”

It was an option Caleb had not seriously considered. But it was a path he ultimately chose, later adding education as a second major and graduating magna cum laude. Caleb now teaches on the visual communication design faculty at Stevenson University, near Baltimore, Md., and continues to paint and show his work.

Caleb earned his master of fine arts in 2014 from the selective Maryland Institute College of Art’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting. At one of the only graduate programs in the country to focus exclusively on painting, the program pushed Caleb to further develop his identity as a painter.

“A few things carried over really well from Valpo,” Caleb says. “One of the most obvious is the focus on critical thinking. That was kind of the thesis for my education at Valpo — teaching me how to be a critical thinker. That prepared me in a really great way for the level of conversations [in the MFA program].”

Many of those conversations centered on the purpose of his painting. Much of Caleb’s work focuses on portraiture, capturing intimate perceptions of the subject. And there is a spiritual bent to his work, including a self-portrait as the Prodigal Son.

But the ultimate goal of his work is still a question with which Caleb grapples.

“More recently in conversation, I’ve realized that I have this tendency within myself to try to suppress any kind of overt spiritual reading of the work I’ve been making, to make it more acceptable or something,” Caleb says. “I’ve actually received a lot of feedback from everyone in the program that I shouldn’t be doing that; that I should allow myself to be very honest with my work.

“If spirituality is a big part of my life, I should let that flow in my work. I’m becoming more comfortable with that reality.”

Caleb is also trying to determine who might be most inclined to view his work.

“I guess I’ve been grappling in my mind with two different routes,” Caleb says. “One is the route of making art that you could use in the context of the church or worship spaces, or making art for gallery viewing. Trying to figure that out has been a bit of a challenge.”

He also strives to create contemporary work rooted in age-old themes.

“How do you do that today in a way that is not corny and a way that is genuine and honest to our time period?” Caleb says. “How can I make a painting about a Bible story and make it new and fresh? How do you take on the weight of 2,000 years of great Christian art and say something new?”

The notion of making art rooted in Christianity was greatly influenced by Caleb’s Valpo experience with the Chapel of the Resurrection. He grew up in a non-denominational Christian church in Lowell, Ind., where his father was the pastor. Already boasting a strong faith base, Caleb discovered the beauty of church at Valpo.

“For me, going to morning prayer and some of the Lutheran worship services was such an eye-opener for me as someone who is attracted to beauty and making something more out of a precious experience,” Caleb says. “That opened me up to a whole new sort of conversation, probably because of the artist inside of me.”

And then there came a trip to Spain, led by Nina Corazzo, associate professor of art history.

“The majority of the trip we were going through cathedrals and gorgeous worship spaces,” Caleb says. “When you walk in, you feel like you’re physically transformed or lifted into a higher reality. You feel heaven on earth for a moment, if that’s possible.

“That’s something that Valpo opened me up to — realizing that these short experiences were pretty profound.”

In describing his painting, Caleb says that it is born of daily observation. He continues to create and now teaches a next generation of artists to do the same.