Father Frans Claerhout has spent most of his life in occupied countries. When he was studying for the priesthood in his native Belgium, the Nazis invaded. Not long afterward, in 1946, Claerhout moved to the Republic of South Africa where he still lives near Tweespruit in the Orange Free State–teaching, distributing food and clothing, and running interference between his poor, black parishioners and the white power structure.

But Claerhout has built a reputation beyond his good works since 1957, when he embarked on a second vocation as an artist. His oils, watercolors, and sketches have begun reaching a wider audience thanks to a trip Claerhout recently made to Chicago. Support for the visit was spearheaded by Jim Vrettos, owner of Evergreen Fine Foods and a longtime admirer of Claerhout. It was Vrettos who put Claerhout in touch with Gallery 1616, where Claerhout’s art went on display in June, and Nicole Gallery, where the show moves next week. Profits from the priest’s paintings support his mission center back in Africa.

From the start Claerhout’s subject has been black African life. “Naturally, I painted what I saw and who I was living with,” he says. Formally unschooled, Claerhout cites as his strongest influence the Flemish expressionist Constant Permeke, whose paintings from the 1920s and ’30s, like Claerhout’s, are concerned with peasants and the land they tend.

A deep strain of Christian spirituality runs through the work–sometimes overtly, as in his biblical series “Christ and the Other Person,” but more often by suggestion. The sun and its earthbound stand-in the sunflower symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth; a strangely sublime peace in the faces of an impoverished mother and her child recalls that Jesus, too, grew up in occupied territory; and one powerful image shows a woman, her face expressing fear, love, determination, and elemental dignity, cradling a large crucifix in her arms like Mary holding the body of Jesus in the classic pieta pose. “She has faith,” Claerhout says of his subject. “She knows that her sons and daughters will take the nation and lead it to peace and happiness.”

Father Frans Claerhout’s art is on display through July 26 at Gallery 1616, 1616 N. Damen (486-7942). On July 28 it transfers to Nicole Gallery, 734 N. Wells (787-7716). Call the galleries for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.