Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

This Painting Priest Always Leaves Us Wanting Moore

August 29, 2017
Share this story:

SAN DIMAS, California, August 28, 2017 — If you were to seek out Father Bill Moore today, you would not likely find him in the church sanctuary or sermonizing from the pulpit at Sunday mass; rather you would find him painting in his San Dimas studio less than a mile from his Holy Name of Mary parish.

Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject

 

This is where the man who has alternately been called God’s paintbrush or the painting preacher now does his best work — his holiest work.

 

His art is his Holy Eucharist, his bread and wine. Applying acrylic paint onto canvas is what feeds him and consumes him daily. Each piece, many that have sold for as much $8,000 in galleries all over the country, is a consecration, a gift from God to God. Since 2000, his abstract paintings have been featured in more than 40 national and international art exhibitions.

 

“My art makes me a better priest and my faith makes me a better artist,” Father Bill told Western Art & Architecture’s John Goekler in a recent interview.

 

VOW OF POVERTY

Although he is a commercial success, his art doesn’t make him richer financially. As a member of the order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, he long ago took a vow of poverty. In exchange for his artwork, his patrons and clients make payment to the congregation of the Sacred Hearts. “I won’t touch a check if it has my name on it,” Father Bill said.

 

From all appearances, Father Bill wears his vow on his sleeve. Indeed, inside his sweltering studio — a sort of penance in itself in late August when you realize that with his commercial success he could be painting in Santa Fe or Carmel by the Sea — he has replaced his frock with a smock smothered and spattered with every color and hue of the rainbow.

 

When he returns to Holy Name to deliver mass, he is often wearing that same paint-splattered garment under his priestly robe. “I never wear anything else other than my work clothes,” he said. “I always wear clean shoes, however. I think it’s disrespectful to show up in my work shoes.”

 

MULTI-COLORED STUDIO

The studio itself is as if a multicolored paint bomb exploded. Even the famous abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock would have questioned the sanity of its occupant. “Watch your step,” he cautions me as I try to make my way back to his inner office, relatively paint-free for our interview.

 

On the way, we pass his easel, which holds a cheap Aaron Brothers frame that looks more like the barnacled flotsam and jetsam of a long-ago shipwreck. Surprisingly, he’s quite proud of it.

 

“You could build a house from this stuff,” he said about the acrylics, the chosen medium that he slathers his canvases with. “You can sand it and drive nails and screws into it.”

 

Getting Father Bill to put down his paint brushes to just talk is becoming a rarer privilege each day because his earthly time is so precious. He was diagnosed with a late-stage cancer four months ago and recently emerged from the hospital after an 11-day stay. “We’re trying to limit the spread, but there’s no cure for it,” he said.

 

Any resignation he harbors, however, is met with his equally incurable sense of grace and gratefulness. “I’ve had the greatest life in the world, so to me, this is all gravy,” he shared. “People at Holy Name of Mary have been so good and generous and loving to me. It’s been overwhelming. It makes me teary-eyed.

 

“I’m really quite at home with the illness,” he continued. “I’m quite at home with the impermanence of life. I’m quite happy and very much at peace. I said before and I want to repeat it, no man can be as grateful as I am for the life I have been given and lived.”

 

“For 20 years I’ve done exactly what I’ve been called to do.”

 

But only the last 20? That would take us back only to 1997. What about the more than four decades before then? For the full answer, it’s necessary to go even farther back in Father Bill’s amazing life — to the beginning — to attempt to discover who and what this reverent rebel with a cause is all about.

 

BLESSED BIO

Born in Glendale in 1949, Father Bill attended St. Dorothy’s Catholic School in Glendora, where it was known early on he had an artistic calling. “I was doing little abstract painting when I was a little boy, like 8, 9 years old, Father Bill said, adding that his grandmother responded enthusiastically to his drawings while the rest of the family acted “more like art critics.”

 

At La Verne’s Damien High School, while he struggled in math, he excelled in geometry, filling his notebooks with shapes, sizes and the relative position of figures and the properties of space.

Father Patrick Travers was his geometry teacher. “He was a great influence on my going to the seminary,” Father Bill said.

 

He also embraced Damien’s social vibe. “I loved the priests at Damien High School,” he recalled. “I respected them. They didn’t seem overly pious, which would have been a huge turnoff. They just seemed like normal, regular people.”

 

In choosing the Catholic priesthood, Father Bill couldn’t have picked a better vessel for his art, even if he didn’t quite fully comprehend the creative and religious path down which Catholicism would eventually lead him.

 

“The Catholic Church is a very tactile faith,” he explained. “We are all about oils and smells. It’s just very physical, and my art is the same.”

 

HANDS-ON

Indeed, touching is Father Bill’s most developed sense. He recalls as a young boy his parents always questioning him, “Bill, for God’s sake, do you have to touch everything!” Out of respect, he didn’t answer, but under his breath, he responded, “Yes, I do, I have to.”

 

Another thing Father Bill had to do was major in art at St. Mary’s in Winona, Minn.. His heart was set on it, although his choice directly defied the order of the Provincial (who was sponsoring his education) that all freshmen study either philosophy or theology.

 

“I was fully ready to take responsibility for my decision,” Father Bill said, but a letter from the church office informing him that he would lose his scholarship never came. “I was tense for weeks,” Father Bill added. Seeing his constant mailbox-monitoring and nervousness, some of his classmates pranked him by forging a letter “right down to the official stationery and postmark,” and had a good laugh at Father Bill’s expense.

 

Back home in Southern California for the summer after his freshman year, the provincial never brought up his majoring in art. “It showed me the largeness of the church,” he said. The following year, Father Bill added, the church encouraged students to major in the field of their choice. He also graduated with a degree in theology, so by all accounts, his affairs were squared with the church.

 

Ordained a Catholic priest in 1975, Father Bill served as Educator of Art and Religious Studies at Damien from 1975-1979 and held a similar position at Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Calif., from 1979-1990.

 

If his students expected to hear the same Catholic dogma their parents had heard, they were in for a surprise. For example, Father Bill told his attentive students that “the story of Adam and Eve is true, but it just never happened. That it is filled with so much truth is unbelievable, but to take it literally is embarrassing to me.” His students were witnessing a modernist missionary at work.

 

DESERT STORM

Father Bill arrived at Holy Name of Mary in 1990 and served as associate pastor for the next six years. Once again, his tenure was marked with creative interpretations. In recognition of the Gulf War (Aug. 2, 1990 – Feb. 28, 1991), better known as Desert Storm, Father Bill and Liturgist Margaret Haberman wanted to recreate a Desert Storm encampment in front of the rectory. The scene was apolitical, according to Father Bill, but “we didn’t want to pretend there wasn’t a war going on.”

 

To make the desertscape as realistic as possible, Father Bill and Margaret purchased a number of props, such as helmets, shell casings and empty hand grenades from the M&I Army Surplus Store on Garey Ave. in Pomona. When Father Bill handed the clerk the church credit card, the transaction was denied. Earlier in the day, Father Peter had reported the same card stolen, and the clerk suspecting that the pair were trying to pass off a stolen credit card, demanded cash. Margaret ran to the car to retrieve her wallet and pay for the supplies, but the clerk never returned the credit card.

 

“We had a good laugh imagining the results, Margaret recalled. “Bob Fleming would have to bail us out because no one would believe a Catholic priest and his ‘gun moll’ were buying army weaponry surplus goods.”

 

Father Bill touched on another part of the story that was lesser known. One night during that same fateful Christmas season, he was startled awake at 3 a.m. to the sounds of hoodlums dismantling their desert exhibit before they raucously drove off yelling at the top of their lungs, “Christmas is for children.”

 

Earlier, for another Christmas, he depicted a homeless Jesus and Mary pushing Jesus along in a shopping cart. Not everyone, over the years, has shared Father Bill’s poignant sense of humor.

 

At Holy Name, Father Bill was often upstaged by his cat, Circes, who wandered and prowled along the church soffit, putting herself in perfect position to hear one of his sermons. “Oh boy, that was awhile ago,” Father Bill reflected. “She was all white with a black and white ringed tail, with these blue eyes offset with Cleopatra-style eyeliner. She’s long gone, which just shows you the power that animals have. She was well named. She was a seductress.”

 

She also showed that Father Bill was very human and capable of sinning. “When she tore the hell out of one of the chairs with her claws, I said she didn’t do that,” his white lie a secret until now.

 

SPENT

Finally in 1996, Father Bill had reached a watershed. He was burned out. “I felt dead inside. I had nothing left to give,” he said. Others could sense it, too. He was energized by painting and being out in nature, especially fishing, and when these activities suffered because of his church duties, his homilies began to lose their ardor and inspiration.

 

His solution was to go on a sabbatical, which he had richly earned, but the provincial had a favor to ask. The church hierarchy wanted him to serve as Holy Name of Mary’s pastor for a year. He signed on. He knew the importance of the ask and the significance of the parish to the archdiocese.

 

“I don’t know if this makes sense, but being a pastor has been difficult for me,” Father Bill said. “I don’t have administrative gifts. I never did. Mass represents such a small portion of what you do.

 

“The parish is always with you. There is this expectation, and it goes deep into the DNA of Catholics, that the priest will be there.”

 

A year later, his commitment honored, he was free of official church duties. It wasn’t that he was turning his back on the church; he was looking at it with new possibilities. He moved to Hemet and converted a vacant mobile home into an art studio. His closest neighbors were a mountain lion and her two cubs.

 

In 1997, he also had a new title, head of the Ministry of the Arts. His palette replaced the pews and his canvas was his congregation. Brush strokes not words would now define him. He was simply using a new medium to convey his reverence.

 

But even with his new designation, he knew absolutely nothing about making it as a successful commercial artist. He knew art, but he knew nothing of the art business.

 

“I spent a year to find out what it meant to be a working artist,” he said. “I learned as much as I could and I worked every day. I can honestly say, I worked every day.”

 

It was his dream that he could earn enough from his art to support the church in the same manner that his religious brothers worked as chaplains or teachers, contributing to the church’s finances.

 

COMMERCIALLY-ORIENTED

“My hope was to be able to make it as an artist so that it would be my full-time job.”

 

This wasn’t some radical, elitist, pie-in-the-sky, ivory-tower notion. In the Middle Ages, church officials often worked as artists to bring in much-need income for the church. “You had a lot of priests whose ministry was making art,” Father Bill said.

 

To be successful, he knew he had to go all in, with no apologies to his bosses.

 

“You can’t make it in the commercial art field unless you’re willing to work long hours, you just can’t,” Father Bill said plainly.

 

So unless he’s giving Sunday mass at Holy Name of Mary or ministering to juvenile offenders at a probation camp, he’s working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

 

It seems like a torturous and ruinous pace. It seems like he has the madness of Michelangelo, as if he’s trying to make up for lost time.

 

EARLY INFLUENCES

Seared into his heart are memories of his combat veteran father from World World War II who he said gave up his love of gold mining and exploring abandoned mines to provide normalcy for the family. But the young boy at his father’s side remembers some of those desert adventures.

 

“Those outings with my father shaped much of my art career,” Father Bill said. “In the desert, we sought out rocks and formations of the earth to discuss what we had seen. Many people find the desert to be dry and riddled with death, however, I found the colors to be more alive than any city I had ever visited.”

 

Hence, Father Bill’s art vibrates toward the fiery side of the color spectrum — reds, oranges, yellows, golds and desert tans rusting together in some amazing alchemy.

 

From his studio, Father Bill may also be doing penance for a college art teacher he could never quite please. His art project assignment was a 10 x 40 canvas. “I worked so hard on it, and I wanted his validation so much,” he recalled. “I can’t tell you how much I put into it. I was so anxious.”

 

When the teacher finally eyed the piece, he said, “You’re still doing that shit, huh?” and walked away.

 

Decades later, he has become his own artist. He’s even at peace with that college castration of his ego. “That was the best thing that he could ever have said to me, it had to be done.”

 

 

THE MISCHIEVOUS PRIEST

 As a result, he cows to convention infrequently. When Father Bill was overseeing the creation and installation of stained glass for the arch at the back of the altar in the new church, the church let it be known that it didn’t want any red in the windows. From an artistic sense, the request didn’t make any sense, so working with Walter Judson, a fourth-generation stained glass maker that owned Judson Studios at the time, they inserted just five special red glass pieces throughout the design. The five pieces represent the Five Holy Wounds Christ suffered on the cross.

 

So in Father Bill’s view, getting the art right was more important than any religious symbolism.

 

“It was an excuse to get the red in, to be totally honest with you.”

 

At the same time, it was Father Bill’s knowledge and appreciation of the Five Sacred Wounds that gave him the religious cover to create the windows he wanted. Again, it’s his art making his faith richer, and his faith making his art better.

 

 

ALL AGLOW

“I get excited talking about it,” he said. “The light actually gets caught inside the glass, and the color just kind of glows.”

 

Today, he and his numerous clients are basking in the glory of his art. At the August “May I Have Your Attention” artist reception at the Square I Gallery in Claremont, some 30 of his pieces sold quickly.

 

Believing that we live  in “hurried times and are inundated with countless images,” he seems to have stripped his artwork of all but the essential and indispensable elements. His series of crosses featured at the reception are far more than religious symbols. “They have a universal significance,” he said. “They are found everywhere. We are surrounded with crosses and x’s everywhere we look.”

 

But on canvas, Father Bill seems to redeem each one with a physicality you can touch and take into your soul, often transforming a worthless and useless scrap of trash into something majestic and spiritual. “I want to redeem it, I want to sanctify it,” he said.

 

“Someone could be afraid to touch it because it’s so beautiful even if what they’re looking at could be an old cigarette wrapper,” he added.

 

In his world, in God’s world, there are few if any discards. Everything, under the right artistic eye, can be salvaged.

 

“I can say this with a lot of surety,” Father Bill explained. “Clients, with their discretionary income, aren’t buying my work to fill a space in their house. They buy it, for lack of a better word, because it has a presence.”

 

Ultimately, in Father Bill’s way of thinking and seeing, he is a fusionist and a creator. Ask him to name a favorite quotation or chapter from the Bible, he quickly turns to the “Book of Genesis.” In it, God is the sculptor, creating everything out of wetness and darkness.

 

For him, God is not a person, but “pure spirit.” “The whole story is about energy in everyone and everything,” Father Bill said. “It doesn’t make bad things happen. It’s just there — all sustaining, all embracing, all encompassing.”

 

An abstract expressionist, Father Bill smiles when he hears that some of his Sunday congregants describe his homilies as being abstract as well.

 

“My homilies are conversational,” he said. “I just tell stories. So if that’s abstract, then I’m abstract.” Then he adds playfully, “I do enjoy seeing connections that other people might miss.”

 

Whether or not his homilies are abstract, a lot goes into them, just like his painting. “Reading the same old thing a thousand times is such a turnoff, so when I give a sermon, I take a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to say,” he said. “I’ll jot some notes down, stuff them in my pocket and keep them for a week.

 

“I want them to experience something that is going to make them think, to give them an opportunity to thank God that they’re alive. Often, humor is involved so I can say some stupid things.”

Then he gives a shout out to Father Rich Danyluk, one of his seminary classmates who heads the Holy Name of Mary Parish. “No one can do a funeral like he does,” he said. “They should tape him and make him required viewing.”

 

But unlike Father Rich, after Father Bill’s Sunday sermons, he can retreat to his studio sanctuary, leaving the words behind and returning to his brush strokes. He has a workshop to run, not a parish.

 

It’s that beautiful place where he now does his best work — a place from which his soul and spirit will never perish.

 

LaVerneOnline wishes to thank Tom Irwin, Corinne Pantaleo, Square I Gallery, Father Danyluk and Holy Name of Mary Parish for their collaboration and assistance for this story. 

13 Responses to “This Painting Priest Always Leaves Us Wanting Moore”

  1. What a great portrait of Bill. Really great. Thank you.

  2. Such a beautifully written piece relecting the soul and spirit of Bill Moore.

  3. This is a beautiful tribute to Fr. Bill
    Reading it brings back so many memories of the things he has done.
    He is always an inspiration to us all.

  4. Bill is amazing truly real,authentic, and full of love!
    He knows that, although his sweet edgy style
    would rather not let you know. Bill thank you for allowing
    me to know you and love you. You have been a big part of our family and your art has gone to Paris and cherished with Jay away at school, and both kids have art in there homes and want more. In fact the feeling is they can’t get enough. The enough is the depth of the Spirit that had touched you and then touches all of us with the strokes to the words to the touch! Love you Bill Moore
    Debbie Lantz
    PS Blessings and thanks to all of you writers to let the Fr Bill Moore be known a little more! One fine Man,Priest,Artist, and Friend to all!

  5. Thank you, Fr. Bill. I met you during my novitiate last year. I’m grateful for your sharing your gift of art, and expressing beauty with so much wonderment and discipline. Thanks for your model of going “all in” as priest artist. God bless, Bill Gural

  6. What a wonderful article that truly reflects the insightful soul of Father Bill. So many memories of his influence at Holy Name of Mary. His artwork is abstract and beautiful and is special because there is meaning behind each piece. I am privileged to have one of his pieces in my classroom at Bishop Amat High School that I purchased from the parish when articles from the former church building were being sold. I love sharing his artistic legacy with my students!

  7. Much love and respect to the man I call my brother.

  8. Thank you,Fr.Bill.I have admired you since 1991,when you baptized my daughter.I have always enjoyed your sermons because I can always relate to them.I also have a degree in art,therefore I have a deep appreciation of your work.You have pursued your passion and been triumphant.My family and I have great love and respect for you.Thank you for all that you have given.

  9. A fine portrait of the man, the artist, the heart and soul of a priest, the comic side of the man, the essence of a friend…my friend. Just thinking about him and the experiences we’ve shared (thankfully, jail in Pomona wasn’t one of them) brings a big smile to my face and a resonance to my soul. Thanks to him, my walk in this world is much more colorful and meaningful. My times with him were golden. Margaret

  10. “This Painting Priest Always Leaves Us Wanting Moore” — author, the title of your article captures may feelings about Bill Moore –and so I want to say, out loud, Bill, you continue to bring me much joy – bless you, Bill.

  11. Irene Tipon Seawright
    August 31st, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    In one of your homilies back in 1991, you said something vitally inspirational that was the pivotal point in my life’s journey. I thank God for your talent in all you do and I thank you for your friendship with my warmest aloha, Irene

  12. What a “gentle man” Fr. Bill is. As a member of the church, I have known of him but never knew much about his life. I was fascinated by everything I read about his life. My brother is an artist and so were two of my sisters. My brother later became a commercial artist and opened up his own sign business on Northern California. He used to paint murals in restaurants, as well, and started his paintings from scratch as Fr. Bill described. Artists, he explained, start out with a plan, but it never ends as planned. Creativity is the key and just flows once it gets going. It has always amazed me how an artist can see something and put it down on a campus with such lucidity…that’s “genius”, my friend.
    I have a new-found respect for Fr. Bill and I will always think of him as a “gentle man”. God bless you, Fr. Bill for being a non-conformist and glorifying God in your own significant way.

  13. Thank you for such a beautifully written piece about a beautiful human. In many ways, Fr. Bill is the reason my husband Mike and I felt like we had made the right decision to become Catholics (as adults through HNM’s RCIA program). We were young, married, no children, never baptized and were introduced to RCIA by a dear friend. With a nudge (push)from God we started the 9 month journey. One night at class a priest came to talk to the class. He talked about how John the Baptist must have felt a bit like Clint Eastwood’s character (in one of those westerns) when he saw Jesus… and Mike and I were hooked. We knew we were in the right place at the right time. We went on to renew our vows in the church, teach the pre-baptism classes at Holy Name for 13 years and have two daughters who now attending Pomona Catholic (one of them an artist). We have loved Fr. Bill’s “abstract” homilies through the years. Sending love and prayers to this wonderful man of God.

Leave a Reply