Artist Dan Donato talking about his piece, “I Am at War” during the grand opening of “Detachment” on March 30. The piece depicts 20 charcoal drawings of a man holding different props across 30 feet of paper. SYDNEY RIDDLE/THE STATESMAN

A 30-foot-long piece of paper, depicting 20 charcoal drawings of a man holding different props, festoons a wall of the Zuccaire Gallery. In front of the drawings, Bibles, rosaries, armor, a sword, deer skin and a Catholic cardinal’s cloak are placed on the floor or on pedestals. This display is called “I Am At War.”

The drawing depicts Dan Donato, the artist behind “I Am At War.” He is one of three MFA students, alongside Dilge Dilsiz and Heather Weston, whose work is depicted in the Zuccaire Gallery’s exhibition, “Detachment.” 

“The three of us agreed on that title,” Donato said. “My detachment is within myself, with my identity as a Catholic.” 

“I Am At War” explores the symbolic role of objects in Catholicism and art history. Donato, a devout Catholic, says his work during his past three years at Stony Brook has evaluated sanctity, objects and whether faith can exist outside the Catholic Church.

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“I question the energy of an object once somebody has held it,” Donato said. “Do we need people to activate these objects we used to pray with, like a crucifix? Do we need the Church to be close to God?”

Donato began “I Am At War” two years ago. During a trip to an antique shop, he found a Bible and a rosary with a $5 price tag. 

“As a Catholic, I was curious about how these objects of spirituality that gave people strength in their worst times had a price tag,” Donato said. When he asked a clerk where the Bible and rosary came from, he was simply told a collector supplied them to the store.

“We find artifacts and need to preserve them because they’re from someone’s history,” he says. “When I saw the Bible and the rosary, I took that as a responsibility.”

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The mystery of these items’ changing hands sent Donato on a two-year journey. He returned to the antique store and purchased several items, including a free Bible whose price tag is visible in “I Am At War.” From there, Donato started drawing himself with the props. “Each character has their own backstory and heavy symbolism,” he said. 

Drawing from Renaissance and Baroque art, their depictions of Greek, Roman and Catholic history, “I Am At War” looks at symbolism as an artistic tool, as a way objects carry or don’t carry culture with them. “Does an object need to exist in a certain time or place to be spiritually activated?” Donato said. “When we die, does a rosary stop being a rosary?”

Not every prop in “I Am At War” is Catholic. The installation displays a vintage doctor’s bag, an Alaskan deer pelt and a buffalo rib. “The one thing these items have in common is that they have some kind of people energy,” Donato said. “Renaissance and Baroque art depicted Greek mythology. Was it for the Church? For God? For political power?”

Donato seems to challenge standard notions of Catholicism too. “Some Catholics say that if you’re not practicing the traditional Latin way, you’re a pagan. So I embraced that.”

“I Am At War” interrogates the modern Church and its role in the Catholic faith. Donato’s previous work explored the clerical abuse scandal, which has thousands of victims worldwide. In Donato’s studio, there is a painting of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 after years of credible sexual abuse allegations.

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“The hardest part of the abuse scandal is that churchgoers expected it,” Donato said. “We expect priests or any type of religious figure to succumb to temptation and abuse power. I’m not sure who I was madder at: the Church or my fellow Catholics.”

Donato, sitting in his studio amid his work, becomes somber. “There’s always some kind of fire that gets lit in an artist that makes them go off on a research journey. That was the fire for me. I couldn’t accept that the abuse was so accepted.”

Community seems to keep Donato afloat. “I’m a big believer in the faith,” he said. “I’m a member of my church because I believe in my community and my church leaders. They have not steered me wrong yet.” 

“I Am At War” offers no straightforward answers to the questions of faith and institutional Catholicism. “I prefer for people to enjoy it as a work of art,” Donato said. “People have told me what they think my work looks like. It’s pretty chemical.” 

Donato could just as easily be talking about a religious experience. “It’s like the circle of life. I collected the objects from an antique shop. Someday I will either pass away or return them to the antique shop, and somebody else will collect them.”

“When archaeologists come across something, it has a great meaning or history that’s no longer activated,” Donato said. “I love drawing objects. I hope people get pulled in and look for little clues.”

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