Sometimes it's the subject – one piece is titled "Body Parts," another "Conception." Or perhaps it's the colors - rich, explosive hues that assault the eyes.
"It's kinda if, I suppose, taking the viewer by the neck, shaking them up and saying: 'Look, life! Here's our world! It doesn't have to be drab. Your life is not drab, you know,'" the artist explains.
Jerome Tupa is not some Left Bank artist living in a loft. He is a Benedictine monk. And a priest. He lives at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., 75 miles from Minneapolis.
The Benedictines motto is "Work and Prayer." For him, that means prayer and painting. When he is not in the abbey's church, you can find him in his studio, just above the monastery's carpenter shop. He says he lives a hyphenated life.
"Monk, hyphen, priest, hyphen, artist, hyphen…I'm not sure that anybody is ever totally one thing," Father Tupa observes.
Now 61, Father Tupa joined the monastery in 1963. For eight years, he studied French, not art, at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he fell in love with painting: Mattise, Chagall, Miro - rekindling a childhood love of drawing. He began to paint. Monastic life gave him the discipline he says he needed. As for art, that's something else.
"And when I would come to the studio, then, it was a time of total freedom and liberation. It was totally different," Father Tupa says. "I didn't have anyone looking over my shoulder and saying: 'Tsk, tsk, tsk. You're bad. You really can't do that.' Nobody's going to say that. Nor should they. And I can then really follow my passion, which, to me, is whatever a person needs to find in his life."
Father Tupa believes his art has a spiritual core and so does the Vatican, which has funded some of his work. For centuries, art has used religion as inspiration. Caravaggio's "Madonna of Loreto." Botticelli's "Adoration of the Magi." Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Father Tupa says more recent works, like those of Mark Rothko, are also spiritual - but in a modern way. In Father Tupa's series "Sentinels of Fire," giant orbs, representing both God and man, rest on a female breast.
"You speak about God with color…emanating light…of this wonderful sense of power. And to me the female image of a breast is a very beautiful thing. It's nurturing. We understand God only through who we are," explains Father Tupa.
His series "Feu D'artifice" was hung at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. In "Holy Family: The Hidden Years," Mary and Joseph are teaching the young Jesus to ride a bike. In "The Cavalier and the Lady," he uses fourth century theology to talk about God.
If his religious life is dominated by rules and doctrine, his art is not. He has exhibited throughout Europe and the United States.
His most recent paintings, called "A Journey to Rome," are being shown at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC.
Three years ago, Father Tupa traveled to 21 Italian cities and shrines following an ancient pilgrimage to Rome. In the field, he did traditional drawings and water colors. Back in the studio, those classical towers began to bend, roofs began to melt like candle wax, and those boring straight lines vanished.
"I am using the patterns of those towns and putting in a new energy, maybe my sense of how these towns and villages and churches are alive. Straight lines don't create that same liveliness," says Father Tupa.
This monk prefers abstract rather than figurative art because he likes its freedom of expression. These days he's painting another pilgrimage series –"The Road to Campostela," in Spain. And, again, his canvas will be large.
"It takes away the restraints," Father Tupa notes. "Small canvas means it's going to be tight, structured. Whereas with a large one, using many different applications of paint, I'm able to find depth, color, explosions…I'm free!"
And what do his fellow monks think of his work? Father Tupa admits many do not share his enthusiasm, nor do they hide their criticism.
Father Tupa says, "With a confrere that you've known for 40 or 30 years, it can be very pointed and sharp. Deflating."
Yet he earns up to $30,000 for each painting. The money goes back into the monastery. And some of his patrons might surprise you. For example, Target Department stores, based in nearby Minneapolis, has subsidized much of his recent work. Still, he says, many in the art world are not comfortable with his double life.
"I've been told by certain galleries: 'We'll never show your work. We love it. It's great, but we won't show it because it's religious art,'" Father Tupa recalls.
And then there was a fashionable woman who came to one of his exhibits in Paris.
"On opening night, this woman – a very lovely woman – came up and she looked me in the eye and said: 'Oh, you shouldn't do this. You're a priest,' with such pity. It was like I was expending my life and throwing it away because I was doing art," Father Tupa remembers.
When the sun sets, Father Tupa puts away his brushes and paints and dons his monk's cloak to sing the evening prayer. All monks promise to spend their lives in "Opus Dei:" The work of God. He says his faith and his art help him to keep that pledge.
Note: "A Journey to Rome" moves to Marshall Field's Department store in Chicago where it will be displayed from May 23rd to June 22nd. If you'd like to contact artist Jerome Tupa, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org