MR. FOSTER WITH the finished painting. He usually does landscapes of ordinary places like strip malls, gas stations and mobile homes; his watercolors are at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson through Jan. 19. He used his Kateri project to teach his Siena students and considers art a vocation. "Painting, I think is incredibly sacramental and it involves this change,” he said. “Essentially you’re taking dirt [and] you’re transforming it into flesh, landscape or still life. It’s a magical process.”
MR. FOSTER WITH the finished painting. He usually does landscapes of ordinary places like strip malls, gas stations and mobile homes; his watercolors are at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson through Jan. 19. He used his Kateri project to teach his Siena students and considers art a vocation. "Painting, I think is incredibly sacramental and it involves this change,” he said. “Essentially you’re taking dirt [and] you’re transforming it into flesh, landscape or still life. It’s a magical process.”
By the time Scott Nelson Foster delivers his second commissioned painting of St. Kateri Tekakwitha to her namesake parish in Schenectady, parishioners there will have spent almost a year following his artistic process and learning about the 17th-century Mohawk woman through his blog.

The website, kateriportrait.

blogspot.com, gets up to 80 hits a day; the most popular post attracted 1,000 viewers. Mr. Foster, an assistant professor of studio art at Siena College in Loudonville, has chronicled everything from selection of paint, canvases and other materials to the historical accounts that have informed his decisions about how St. Kateri should look, what she should wear, what expression she should have and what she should be shown doing.

The project has been a boon to St. Kateri parish, which merged from the former St. Helen's and Our Lady of Fatima parishes in Schenectady in 2009.

"It's really helping to unite the parish," said Kathleen Stachnick, chair of the art committee at St. Kateri. "Having the two parishes combine - it's been quite a process, and this is just another step in that process. Learning more about [St. Kateri's] life has been meaningful to the parishioners. There's not a lot that's known about her."

New committee
There are eight people on the art committee, which began meeting last year to create a new parish logo and commission original artwork for the two parish buildings to celebrate St. Kateri, who was canonized last year.

A dozen artists from New York State and Canada responded to the committee's call; Mr. Foster's ideas seemed the right fit. A native of Idaho who came to Siena four years ago and holds degrees in painting and drawing, he called it "a fascinating research project, as well as a creative project."

He spent time learning about northeastern Native American tribes' physical qualities and garments, studied the bone structure of St. Kateri's contemporaries' descendents in photo archives of local Mohawks at the New York State Museum, read up on her life and viewed all the artistic renderings he could find of the saint, who was born in what is now Auriesville.

The artist based much of his interpretation of St. Kateri's body language and facial features on a painting her confessor created 10 years after her death. Mr. Foster used models for the first painting, which portrays St. Kateri alone, and is also doing so for the second, which shows her with two children from Kahnawake, the Mohawk community in Canada to which the saint fled in 1677 to escape religious persecution.

A Siena student who has Cherokee blood posed for St. Kateri, and children with Seneca ancestry posed for the younger subjects. "I was more concerned with expressing character than the right genealogical background."

Faith-based
Mr. Foster, who was raised Catholic, attends an evangelical church but admires the faith of his youth.

"I see the Catholic Church very much as the mother church," he said, "and I try to think of Christianity as a big 'C' with multiple denominations linking up the body of Christ."

He was initially nervous that his evangelical congregation wouldn't understand his passion for the project, which ended up inspiring his own faith, but they showed support. The idea for the second painting came to him during a Bible study.

"I don't really separate the academic from the personal," he said. Kateri "was able to take something that was new [European Christianity] and express it in her own language. That's something that we all have to do.

"I think that's why she is a saint," he added. "She was able to live the way God made her to live. To really live in [God's] grace is really what sanctifies a person. We can look to her as a role model, to emulate the zeal and the love that she had for Christ."

Details of work
The first painting depicts St. Kateri in a natural environment, looking meditative and clothed in Mohawk dress - leggings, a skirt and a blanket around her shoulders - with lilies surrounding her. Mr. Foster bemoaned the fact that some St. Kateri artwork makes her look like a member of a different tribe or a Disney princess.

The St. Kateri parish art committee visited Mr. Foster's studio and made recommendations, like adding the Mohawk River in the background as a point of reference. They will do the same as he begins the second painting, which will show a seated boy, arms wrapped around his knees, watching an exchange between St. Kateri, who's holding a wooden cross, and a young girl, who is pointing to her heart to signify her acceptance.

The saint has a maternal smile; the children look peaceful. Mr. Foster wanted to recount a likely episode in her life and "that excitement and joy she feels that's almost brimming over."

The subjects are standing in a triangle; viewers standing in front of the painting will complete the circle and "become part of the scene."

Mr. Foster said he wants to "convey the strength of her character and peace [and] also what she is now, secure in her grace and glory. I need to do the best job that I can, because it's going to be around for a while."

"St. Kateri Tekakwitha in God's Creation" was unveiled at the church in October. "St. Kateri Tekakwitha with the Children" will be unveiled next spring. Two donors funded the paintings, which took a few thousand dollars each in materials to produce.

Committee members were pleased with the first painting. Kateri "looks very contemplative, very at peace," Mrs. Stachnick said. "People could actually sit down and spend some time praying and thinking about her life."