People wear T-shirts announcing allegiance to Hooters, Nike and the Seahawks. So why shouldn’t beautiful Christian artwork from ages past be displayed on shirts that people wear to the grocery store? That’s Carl Wingate’s philosophy, which he enshrines on sweatshirts he paints with Christian icons from centuries past, along with images of popes and social activists.
Though Wingate creates the walking gallery just for himself, now others can admire the artwork. A book chronicling his work will be available at the St. Rose School auction Saturday night (Feb. 7) at the Expo Center.
Wingate’s friend Joe MacKenzie self-published the book, full of photos and descriptions of several dozen of the wearable paintings. MacKenzie calls it “A Heavenly Hobo,” after a Wingate painting of the same name.
“I always thought that was his self-portrait,” MacKenzie said of the image of the energetic hobo.
In the book, Wingate shares how hobo originally was short for “homeward bound;” he finds parallels between the journeys of transients and Christians.
For the 69-year-old Longview resident, painting is just one expression of his love of the classics.
Wingate retired from teaching Latin at Kelso High School in 2006, though he still teaches evening classes in Latin at Lower Columbia College. Many of his students are gardeners who want a better understanding of Latin plant names, he said.
Wingate’s interest in theology includes historical paintings of Christianity, and he and his wife, Mary, have been to Greece to see the nation’s rich heritage of icons.
Though they may look like paintings, “icons are not like Western art,” Wingate said. “It’s theology in pictures.”
His paintings include images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene done in the style of Greek iconry.
In Ireland, the Wingates viewed the Book of Kells, a decorated copy of the Gospels from around 800 A.D. Those helped inform his elaborate paintings of the Celtic Cross, with the four Gospel writers symbolized by man, lion, ox and eagle.
“You can’t teach religion in school,” Wingate said. So he painted secular inspiring messages and images of historical figures like Gandhi that he could wear at Kelso High. He did sneak a few religious slogans in, he said with a grin.
“It didn’t look religious because it was written in Latin or Greek.”
“For church, I started wearing the religious ones,” he said. He sits in the front pews at St. Rose Catholic Church, he said, so the flock behind him can read the messages. Some even glow in the dark.
Not all have the aura of a monastery. “Honk if You Love Jesus,” proclaims a slogan under a flock of geese. Another advises: “Jesus said go fishing (Luke 5:4). He never said mow the lawn, wash the car, clean the garage or paint the house.”
Wingate buys sweatshirts at Goodwill and paints them in a back room of his house, which is a few blocks from St. Rose. The whimsical Wingate home is cluttered with books on theology, photos of former students and stuffed animals that make bird and monkey noises.
Wingate is particularly fond of a dancing bear that jostles a plaque of Jesus, giving rise to the observation that few people know how Christ likes to rock.
Wingate paints the images free-hand. ”I don’t ever sketch it” first, he said. “It gives them a sense that they didn’t come out of a machine.”
He also decorates shoes to look like ladybugs. He’s quick to mention that the insect name is derived from “our lady’s bug,” after the Virgin Mary.
Wearing the shirts around town allows Wingate to share what they’re about.
“It’s amazing how many people stop you and say, ‘I like your shirt,’ “ he said.
He gets a special kick out of offering a marked contrast to the covers of magazines in the grocery store checkout line. But his images of St. Patrick and Oscar Romero would have traveled only a few miles if not for MacKenzie, 57.
MacKenzie works as a physician’s assistant at a Kaiser-Permanente clinic in Portland. In 1997, his passion for photography was rekindled during a vacation in the San Juan Islands. He set a goal of getting invited to display his works at the Longview library, which happened in 2003. Since then, he’s been accepted as a member of the Broadway Gallery.
The two men met 12 years ago when MacKenzie decided to become a Catholic and took the required class taught by Wingate at St. Rose.
When MacKenzie learned that Wingate had a basement full of painted sweatshirts, he decided to take photos and catalog the works before the shirts deteriorated.
Wingate “handed me a big stack of hand-written notes” which MacKenzie’s wife, Donna, keyed into their computer.
MacKenzie submitted the project to Ave Maria Press, a Catholic publisher affiliated with Wingate’s beloved alma mater, Notre Dame University. Ave Maria didn’t want to publish the book, but rather then sending MacKenzie a form letter rejection, he got some thoughtful advice about how to proceed.
MacKenzie found a printer in Tennessee with rates he could afford, and arranged for an all-color book.
“The idea was never to make our fortunes on this,” MacKenzie said. “I thought the story was a really positive one. Here’s one person who really does something.”
The official launch of “A Heavenly Hobo” will come during St. Rose School auction, to be held at 6 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 7) at the Cowlitz County Expo Center. Tickets are available by calling 577-6760.
Wingate also will sign books from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 5 at the Broadway Gallery.
“A Heavenly Hobo” is available for $24.95 through MacKenzie’s Web site, http://photosensography.com">photosensography.com, and online booksellers.