By Becky Sindelar
November 7, 2014 — Bringing the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador to life in portraits may seem like a daunting task for a college student, but artist Mary Pimmel-Freeman found a way to create an intimate bond with her venerated subjects. She worked on her canvases in her Rockhurst University townhouse, and before too long the six Jesuits, who had been murdered because of their work for social justice and the poor, were dubbed "the padres.” The name stuck.
Pimmel-Freeman first learned about the 1989 murders of the Jesuit professors and two lay women at the University of Central America — the UCA — through Rockhurst’s social justice club. “I heard a little bit about their story, but I was curious to know about who they actually were, which was the inspiration for undertaking the project,” she explains.
Pimmel-Freeman created the paintings in 2006 for her undergraduate thesis. “Painting the Jesuits allowed me to know them in a pretty intimate way — they were still the martyrs and they were still role models, but I felt like I could understand them and feel closer to them. I wasn't intimidated by them as much because they were just the padres.”
But before ever picking up her paintbrush, Pimmel-Freeman immersed herself in the lives of the martyrs, reading about them and traveling to El Salvador for an alternative spring break trip. “Being there and seeing all the pictures made it come to life for me,” she says.
When it was time to paint, she would sit with everything she had researched about the person. She also used prayer. “I would pray to the Jesuit,” she says. “I would pray a lot before starting the painting, and then during the process of painting I would try to focus on expressing what I felt was the essence of their personality or their work.”
For Pimmel-Freeman, color played a large part in highlighting each martyr’s personality. For instance, she used purple as the main color for the portrait of Jesuit Father Ignacio Martín-Baró. She combined blue, to represent his academic side, and red for his artistic side, as Fr. Martín-Baró was a psychologist who also played guitar.
“They said if you saw him on campus, he might not even realize you were there; he was very focused on his work. But when he ministered in the rural parishes, he would come to life and play the guitar and he was completely different. He had these two seemingly opposite parts of him that came together in a holistic way of living his calling,” Pimmel-Freeman explains.
The painting of Elba and Celina Ramos, the mother and daughter who were murdered along with the Jesuits, features red roses. After their deaths, Elba's husband and Celina's father, Obdulio Ramos, who worked at as security guard on campus, planted roses in the garden near where their bodies were found.
Pimmel-Freeman views the paintings as puzzle pieces that fit together to express an overall message of the El Salvador martyrs. Today, the originals are displayed on Rockhurst University’s campus.
“I love the connection between social justice and art,” says Pimmel-Freeman, who served as a Jesuit Volunteer after her Rockhurst graduation and then received a master’s in social justice from Loyola University Chicago. She’s been inspired to explore the connection between spirituality and the arts by her new job at Casa Romero in Milwaukee, a Jesuit-run organization that aims to strengthen families in Milwaukee’s Latino community, and she’s currently working on a portrait of Óscar Romero, an El Salvadoran Bishop assassinated while saying Mass in 1980.
The martyrs project “made it feel possible to connect my passion for social justice with my art. I physically had the ability to express what I wanted to express, and I could do it in a very powerful way.”
Pimmel-Freeman also says that her connection to the martyrs has changed over the years. “They’re really dynamic — people see them as heroes, which I think they are. I think too, the more that I painted them, the more I realized these are totally ordinary guys — ordinary men called to live extraordinary lives and to give an extraordinary sacrifice.”