A calling from above

Weehawken native traded priesthood for artistic expression

Millions of people each year take a trip to the Holy Land to become closer with God, to discover the deeper meaning in one’s life. Weehawken native Kevin McCaffrey had a transformative experience in Jerusalem too, but not in the traditional sense.
McCaffrey, a member of the Dominican Order, was living in the manger of Christianity when he realized that his true calling lay not in the church, but in the passion of art.
“If not sincerely dedicated to that life, those vows can very difficult.” – Kevin McCaffrey
Ten years after entering the priesthood, McCaffrey exchanged his frock for paint-splattered clothing and moved back to Weehawken to capture the beauty of his hometown through various artistic mediums.

From vows to oils

McCaffrey entered into the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1994. After completing his studies in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., he was assigned to a Dominican library in Jerusalem.
After the turn of the century, McCaffrey was tempted to leave the priesthood to pursue his passion for art.
Though he had never formally studied art, McCaffrey was born into a family of amateur and professional artists and naturally gravitated toward drawing and painting as a child.
“Art really came roaring back into my life,” he said. “I gave a whole lot of consideration to being a priest, and I gave a whole lot of consideration to not being a priest.”
Ultimately, McCaffrey decided that being in the priesthood wasn’t the life he was meant to lead, that it wasn’t a “true” expression of who he was as a human being.
“[Being in the priesthood] can be a very strict life…the vows of poverty and chastity and obedience,” he said. “If not sincerely dedicated to that life, those vows can very difficult. Instead of freeing you, they can really chain you.”
In 2004, McCaffrey closed that door on priesthood and went after his true calling, art, which he describes as “a very constant and strong and intense presence in [my] life.”

A whole different medium

McCaffrey returned to his hometown of Weehawken and enrolled in New York’s Art Student League, where he still takes class today.
He initially started in the watercolor medium, but that inclination was soon eclipsed by interests in pencil drawing, oil painting, and, most recently, printmaking, he said.
Although most of his works are oils so far, good oils, he said, arise from good drawings.
“I feel like you can’t really do the painting unless you’re really an active draftsman…unless you’re really there with your pencil and paper,” McCaffrey said.

Hudson County inspiration

His inspiration and best work, he said, comes from the landscape of his hometown, where he traces family roots back to the 1890s.
“It’s a little unusual to be next to New York City, one of the greatest art capitals in the world, and yet focus my efforts here, right next door in Hudson County,” he noted.
The Meadowlands, especially, is a great draw for McCaffrey, who finds it to be a “fascinating” mixture of nature and industry.
“It’s sort of declining, nostalgic-looking industry intermixed with blue heron and marshlands,” he explained.
McCaffrey also tends to keep it local and regional when exhibiting his work.
“These days, you can send your jpegs to California or Texas if you want. But I have no associations with California or Texas,” he said. “I like to look for what’s been done around here.”
One Weehawken establishment, in particular, he said, can entreat him to exhibit outside the confines of a gallery show.
“They say serious artists should only exhibit in galleries,” McCaffrey said. “Yes, I agree, but [Paula at Rigoletto restaurant] is an exception. Weehawken is an exception.”
When he’s not exhibiting at juried and non-juried shows, McCaffrey also serves as a member of the United States Coast Guard Artists Program, a program whereby artists accompany the Coast Guard on its diverse missions and document in art the valuable and lifesaving work they do, from maintenance of buoys to clean up of the Gulf oil spill.

A spectrum of artistic endeavors

Painting and poetry go hand in hand for McCaffrey, who said, “I think you paint with words and you can make poetry with images.”
Sometimes, McCaffrey said, he is unable to convey the intensity of his feelings through art, and finds the answer in poetry.
“There’s a certain depth and ambiguity in words,” he said.
Poetry aside, McCaffrey finds artistic relief in his newest passion – printmaking and etching, in particular – which he finds to be rewarding with its use of technical skill and “workshop atmosphere.”
“There’s a traditional rivalry, you might call it, between line and color,” he said. “You have artists…you look at their painting and see the line in it. Others, like Monet, you see the color. I’m on the line side.”
The art world is McCaffrey’s for the taking, but right now, he’s waiting to hear back from two graduate art programs that will bestow upon him a degree so he can teach his passion to others.
Deanna Cullen can be reached at dcullen@hudsonreporter.com.

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