Ryan Batcheller creates unique crucifix from washers, using inspiration from school's car club

DETROIT — For one theology class at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, students need a notebook, pen, and — on some days — their paintbrushes.

Last year, the all-boys school introduced a new, one-semester elective for juniors and seniors, Sacred Art and Symbols. The class is both a theology class and an art class, taught in partnership with the art department.

Two years ago, the school’s theology department chair, Mark Mals, challenged theology teachers to brainstorm new electives based on their own interests, resulting in five new classes.

“I first researched the theology curricula of every Jesuit high school in the country and discovered the wide variety of courses already being offered,” Mals said. “I then invited our theology teachers … to consider how they might combine their passions with ways to make God alive and real for our students within their lived experience — ways that celebrate the beauty of Church teaching, especially Catholic social teaching, while promoting dialogue between faith and culture — a truly Jesuit approach to education.”

The instructor for the Sacred Art and Symbols class, James Slaughter, considers himself an amateur artist, making his own stained glass and mosaics when he finds the time. Slaughter thought the class, which is similar to one he researched at a Jesuit high school in San Francisco, would be an ideal way for him to share his passion for art with his students and help them “find God in all things,” as St. Ignatius did.

Theology instructor James Slaughter teaches his Sacred Art & Symbols class, an elective course for juniors and seniors at University of Detroit Jesuit High School. (LaMar Price | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“Pope John Paul II talked about how important it is to express faith through art,” Slaughter said. “Our spiritual life is much more than going to Mass or theology class. We have to figure out how to live our faith every day, and being creative is one way to do that.”

In the class, students study sacred art, architecture and religious imagery, then create their own works in stained glass, painting, photography, mosaics, string art, even pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs). The course description says the projects allow participants “to embrace the universal call of the Beloved to us, His instruments, and our response — an expression of praise. Students gain an ability to understand the role of the creative spark in their lives.”

Senior Ryan Batcheller took the Sacred Art and Symbols class during the 2018 fall semester. He admits he enrolled more because he liked the instructor, and less because of an interest in art. But, in the end, he enjoyed the class and produced a final project that got attention in the school community and on social media.

His work, a wooden cross with a silhouette of Jesus made from washers welded together, was a surprise even to Batcheller, who initially wasn’t sure what to do for the assignment. But thanks to his involvement on the school’s Shell Eco Car Marathon team, where he learned how to weld, he came up with the idea for the modern interpretation of a crucifix.

The adviser for that club, Byron Marquis, helped Batcheller with his theology project. The result was a 3-foot-by-2-foot cross titled “Wash(er) Away Our Sins.”

Batcheller has recreated the piece in various sizes for those who saw the cross on the school’s Facebook page or at the University of Detroit Jesuit December art fair and wanted one of their own. He is still reeling from the response to his project, given that he never considered himself an artist.

The title of the piece, “Wash(er) Away Our Sins” was suggested to University of Detroit Jesuit senior and artist Ryan Batcheller by Mary Catherine Costello, assistant director of campus ministry. (Karla Dorweiler | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“I think it’s popular because it’s so different. The crosses we typically see are made of nice wood or metal, but this one’s wood is sort of beat up, burned, then stained, then burned again.  The washers are dirty and worn,” said Batcheller, who says he tried cleaning the washers but received input from others, including his principal, that the less refined version was more symbolic.

Participants in the Sacred Art and Symbols class take a field trip each semester, touring churches in Detroit to learn about the stained glass and the history of each.

Now in its fourth semester, the class has been well received by students, as have the other new classes such as Church History, Environmental Justice, and African-American Spirituality.

“The ultimate goal of all of our courses is to offer inviting opportunities for students to discover and encounter God in a variety of ways, with the hope that they will be sent forth to seek out and experience a world ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ),” Mals said.