A Book You Should Know: An Interview and Giveaway with Stefan Salinas of Catholic Churches Big and Small

I've got a birthday coming up this month, so over the next couple of weeks, I'm pleased to be able to offer you, my dear readers, some hobbit-style birthday presents in honor of the occasion. First up: a book and a fine art print!

I am really excited today to introduce you all to a lovely little picture book that I'm pleased to have in our home. Catholic Churches Big and Small by Bay Area artist and Catholic convert Stafan Salinas is unlike any other book in our family's collection. The illustrations are detailed yet whimsical. The story is entertaining yet informative. Each page is a little work of art.

I liked it so much, I asked Stefan if he'd answer a few questions for us today. And he agreed. So here comes my first ever blog interview with someone who does NOT live in my house.

First, thank you for creating your book, Catholic Churches Big and Small . We've had it here for a couple of weeks now and my kids love looking at it. You've found a good balance of entertainment and information.

From your website, it appears that you have "real" artist credentials. What made you want to create a children's book?

I have been sending picture-book proposals to publishers, little by little, for almost twenty years. The first ones make me wince -they are so bland! Attending author/illustrator conferences and taking classes on children’s books has helped with my development, but what taught me the most has been reading lots of picture books and listening to authors’ interviews. To me, a children’s book is like a mini exhibition of paintings, or a small movie. They engage our imagination and sense of wonder about the world. The best books speak to children and adults alike, with a deep simplicity. My hope was that this book would appeal to children, along with their older siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy… everyone. And so I am delighted to learn that children and adults like it!

How long did the book take to complete? Which part took longer, the writing or the illustrating?

It took almost two years to create. A few summers ago, on weekends and days off, I visited churches with my camera and sketchbook. Little by little, between a retail job and other projects, it took shape. Once I decided to self-publish, I kept my nose to the grindstone after work, almost daily for over three months. Each illustration took one to three evenings to produce, which doesn’t take into account figuring out the compositions and choosing the right images to depict. The writing made me nervous, for visual art is my strong suit. I rounded up a friend to edit it and a few priests to check it for ecumenical accuracy and advice. The paintings took the longest.

One of my favorite things about the Catholic Church is how, well, catholic it is. I love that there are so many different kinds of saints, from so many different backgrounds. Men and women, rich and poor, married and single, famous and obscure. Do you have a personal favorite saint?

Yes, I love the variety! What did James Joyce famously say about us? “Here comes everybody.” I must admit, I admire qualities in many saints, but find it difficult to pray to any one in particular, besides Mary. The mystical ones intrigue me, like St. Hildegard of Bingen. Those individuals trying to balance the traditions of their day with fantastic messages they receive from the Holy Spirit, and are deemed insane because of them.

You show us in your book that there is a similar variety in physical Catholic churches. They are big and small, humble and grand, but they all get the job done. Do you have a favorite among the churches you've illustrated in the book? Did you visit them all, or did you draw them from photographs?

A favorite church? Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I even like churches I don’t like, if that makes any sense. Do you see why I had to write this book? Currently, St. Paul’s is my favorite. It was the one featured in the movie Sister Act, and is nestled in Noe Valley. It’s tall, pointed spires quite strikingly take command of the neighborhood, like antelope or gargoyle horns. And the body of the building is a thick, stone fortress. Once inside, you are surrounded by a regal setting, full of delicate details. Gold stenciling, painted portraits… But I also love, love, love the deep blues in the windows of St. Vincent de Paul. I could swim in that ocean for hours.

It was important for me to personally visit every church, with open eyes and an open heart. I believe I got to notice things many parishioners may not see anymore, and outsiders know not of. I live in San Francisco, and since there is a fairly good variety of architectural styles here, this city seemed perfect. Books tell kids about St. Peter’s in Rome and other grand sites in exotic locations, but what about the value of their own neighborhood church? They too are special, and are here to help serve the families’ spiritual needs.

Were you raised Catholic? Or did you convert? Or both?

My parents raised me in the Modern Spiritualist tradition. Then, after college, I joined the Unitarian Universalists. Although I originally dreamt up this book idea five years ago, I didn’t convert to Catholicism until 2011. I truly believe this project was one of the devices God used to draw me closer to Him. From clerical mentors, to Catholic volunteer work, to “coincidences beyond coincidence”…

Is your book self-published, or did you have a traditional publisher? Why did you choose to publish it in the way you did? Would you recommend doing it that way to others?

I sent this book proposal to publishers far and wide. One major house accepted it, then changed their mind a few days later. It was then when I decided this baby needed to get out into the world by hook or by crook, so I looked into self-publishing. It is too early for me to recommend either road to anybody else, but either way, an author still has a lot of footwork to do. At least with self-publishing, I am gaining an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the business, instead of simply letting somebody else figure it out. Now that I’m building an audience, a “platform”, I am beginning to send the book out to publishers again. Who can beat their lower production costs and wider distribution?
You have generously offered to give away a copy of your book and a fine art print to one lucky winner among my readers! What can you tell us about this print?

I designed Communion in 2010. This giclée print has gold paint detailing. Some spiritual healers claim that their hands warm up when they perform a laying on of hands, so Christ’s hands are red. Also, the red in His hands and white of His garment are reflected in the red wine and white host. He speaks, and the Holy Spirit flies out of His mouth. This was influenced by a famous sculpture of a Buddhist priest, who’s chanting is depicted as a line of tiny monks marching out of his mouth. Christ’s body is like an hour glass. He is with us and within us, during all of our life, from generation to generation, and He is eternal, just as the hour glass can be turned over again and again. His eyes stare at us intently, like the figures do in Ethiopian icons. Other influences include the sculptures by Benny Bufano and the graphic works of Virginia Broderick.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you for this opportunity, and for all your hard work with Catholic All Year!

You'll find more information about Stefan's book: Catholic Churches Big and Small, including more illustrations, and some Easter eggs to find inside the book (including Pope Francis' 1984 Renault 4), at the book's blog.

You can see more of Stefan's art at his website.

You can buy his book at Amazon . (Affiliate link alert.)

But one of you won't have to, because ONE of you will WIN a copy, along with a beautiful, high-quality giclée print of Communion (pictured above). All you have to do to win is leave a comment telling Stefan the name of YOUR favorite church.

I will randomly select one winner, to be announced in a blog post NEXT Wednesday, September 17th. Please make sure your blogger comment profile is hooked up to an email address, so I can also email you if you're the winner!

Linking up with Jessica at Housewifespice for What We're Reading Wednesday!