In this installment of the Sojourners column we meet and talk to a ‘young’, but accomplished, artist and Freemason – Ryan Flynn. With his art, Flynn brings to the fraternity an unmatched graphic skill to match the patient and certificate makers of old in their typographic excellence and aesthetic composition. Equal parts artist, graphic designer and a true Freemason, Flynn captures the essence of what it means to BE a mason – translating those esoteric ideas into traditional drawings and paintings. No, this is not the print, cut, carve, hack, hew, etch, letter or engraving of the secrets of Freemasonry, rather, Flynn’s work takes a post-modern approach into the little trod corner of the Masonic landscape by capturing it’s ideas in the rendered image. I think you’ll enjoy this Sojourner’s visit as much as I did and will come away from it with a new take on art and Freemasonry and the synthesis between them.
Greg Stewart (GS) – Ryan, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule and sitting down to talk to me. I suppose, let’s start with the basics on how long you’ve been a part of the fraternity?
Ryan Flynn (RF) – I was raised on June 22, 2010 in Ancient York Lodge no. 89 in Nashua, New Hampshire.
GS - What was your first introduction to the fraternity?
RF – I had a couple of friends from other states join in 2008 and 2009 and it peaked my interest.
After doing some research on the craft, I called my local lodge and visited for dinner. The next week I put in my application.
GS – Do you remember what ultimately induced you to join?
RF – I am a history buff, more particularly an art history buff, and the idea of symbols in art and architecture was always something I enjoyed learning about.
I also was never part of the armed forces or anything else that served “something bigger than myself,” so when something like Masonry presented itself to me, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.
GS – Since you’ve joined, have you found your way into any of the other bodies or related groups?
RF – As of right now, I am the Junior Warden of Ancient York Lodge no.89 in Nashua, NH. I am a 32º Scottish Rite mason and member of the Philalethes Society and this upcoming year I plan on joining the York Rite.
GS – One of the things that intrigue me most is the artwork you create, in particular the Masonic art, much of it you have up on your website. With that in mind, I’m curious what your biggest influences to making it are?
RF – I have always been artistic. While attending high school, Lexington Christian Academy, my teachers realized this and always pushed me to be more artistic, even those teachers that taught classes that didn’t directly involve the fine arts. I particularly remember the motivation I received in World Literature class after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy with its amazing abstract symbolism. The work taught me to take symbolism in my art to another level.
As for history, my teachers were so impassioned with the subject that I couldn’t help but get motivated. I especially was intrigued with the history of art and the renaissance.
I was very fortunate with my high school. I had hands on training in painting, drawing, graphic design, stained-glass mosaic work, set design and sculpture. And my professor always pushed me harder than the others.
GS – Did you ever have any formal training? How did it influence you in your work now?
RF – After high school, I attended the University of Massachusetts and studied graphic design, painting, drawing and art history. Yet again, I was fortunate to have a professor that motivated me to learn more, and I started diving into learning about symbolism, sacred numerology and mythology.
In 2006, I studied painting and art history in Florence, Italy. I had the privilege of studying the great renaissance masters in person, and I particularly loved learning about the history of art, especially the beginnings of the renaissance. My time in Italy highly motivated me to create, and to create with purpose. I truly believe that I left for Italy as a student, and returned as an artist.
GS – How so? What changed?
RF – While attending college in Massachusetts, I was taught color theory, methods of lighting, brush work and drawing techniques, but MEANING was never discussed. Studying in Italy, I would have these moments of complete harmony with the art, moments to contemplate on what you are looking at, it changes you, and motivates you.
When I came back from Italy, I wanted to paint ideas, not images, and with being initiated into the craft, I had direction.
In Italy, I began to truly understand that works of art were really the culmination of research, practice and years of work. Michelangelo’s “David” transformed from a large nude man, to a blatant political statement, warning the enemies of Florence to fear the repercussions of challenging them. The Sistine Chapel became a lesson book for deep religious and philosophical thought, and at the same time a motivation to stand up to oppression and to use your mind and talents to bring light to others.
It was simply motivating. I recently returned to Florence, and found myself again, sketching, and really looking at the art and architecture again, this time with Masonic eyes. When I returned home, I immediately started working again. To put it plainly, Florence is with out question my muse.
GS – So, from your background, where do you see art mingling with Masonry? Do you think the two have always been in close proximity to one another?
RF – Masonry is based on art, and highly symbolic art at that. Our ancient brethren were artists, and anyone who has put a chisel to a piece of Marble understands how gifted and dedicated they were. And, just as I try to do with my work, they used their talents to share concepts that simply cannot be done by speaking. Hence why we as Free and Accepted Masons use symbols as the base of our degrees and lessons. I firmly believe that a successful work of art can sum up more feeling and emotion than a 30 minute lecture.
And there are great examples of artists predating what we would now call Freemasonry hiding symbols of what became the basis of our craft into their works. Artists like Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo and William Blake made it a point to reference Pythagoras, Kabbalah and sacred geometry in their works because they knew it was important knowledge to pass down.
Masonic artists should be no different.
GS – For those who might be unfamiliar with your artwork, how would you describe it to them stylistically?
RF – I’ve dabbled in a lot of styles, but I have been working as of late in a style that mimics the medieval Italian style.
I have a mechanical method of creating; I always need to know how something works before I paint it. So when I learn something, I become motivated to create something referencing it. If anyone ever sees me in lodge, I’m always carrying a sketchbook and notebook. When listening to the ritual, sometimes I get an idea and need to jot it down.
Once I had a good amount of ideas in there I realized I had my own Codex, which inspired me to create my first Masonic series, the Middle Chamber Codex series, in which I re-organized some of my notes to mimic the codices of DaVinci. This in turn led me to try making illuminated documents.
My future works will continue in this style until I am led into something else, it’s one of the things I love about being an artist, I set my own path.
GS – Of the work up on your site, which is your favorites?
RF – Without question my authentic Master Mason Patents.
I love the fact that is the real deal, real gold, real calf skin parchment and all by drawn by hand. I take a lot of pride in them. I also like that it’s the only work that the client does not see until it’s finished. I never do one the same as the others; everyone gets their own unique patent.
As any artist will tell you, to know that something you create will be around a lot longer then you will be is a comforting thought. And because they are authentic, these patents potentially can last for hundreds of years.
A little scene that keeps popping in my head is of my daughter’s great-grandson finding my patent a hundred years from now and seeing how much Masonry meant to me.
GS – This may be out there a bit, but do you see juxtaposition between Masonic art and, say, more obscure, esoteric, or symbolic art?
RF – Absolutely, Masonry is about gaining light. And all forms of art can produce amazing “Eureka” moments in the viewers mind. I find that looking at abstract art can be a wonderful method of meditation and reflection.
GS – Your work, how do you create it? Is it hand made, mixed or digital media?
RF - Each project is a little different, but it all starts with pencil on paper.
Pretty much with all my prints I will hand draw elements of the project on paper, then scan them in and position and color digitally. For my Limited Edition prints, I then Gicleé print them and complete them by hand, coloring them with metallic infused inks.
As for the authentic patents, they are 100% hand made. I order only the finest parchment from a small family owned company in upstate New York. And once they arrive I press them for a couple days under some large books to keep it flat. Then I sketch out my design on paper and using a small tracing table that I built, transfer it to the parchment. It’s a time consuming process with no room for error. If I mess up, I start over. After the sketch is completed, I ink it with high quality inks. Finally, when that is done, I Apply 23kt gold leaf and a wax seal that I designed.
As for my watercolors and paintings, they are all 100% from the brush. I sketch out my projects with light graphite and start applying the paint from light to dark.
GS – Have you had much response to your work from the Masonic world? What’s been the response?
RF – When I originally produced the window designs for my lodge, the images went viral, I think they were shared on Facebook over 1000 times, and they were featured on the covers of some magazines, I was in shock at how many people adored them.
My codex series was a big hit. I unveiled them at the Masonic Restoration Symposium in August and had many brothers not only purchase them, but have long conversations with me about why it was important to masonry for me to continue creating them.
I also have received some welcomed support by some fellow brothers. My good friend, Wor. Paul C. Smith, has helped me by pointing me towards information, by offering me council as well as recommending books and reading. His help has been immeasurable.
GS – Your patients look like illuminated manuscripts from the middle ages. How did you master that technique? Is there a subtext to styling them the way you styled them?
RF – Easy, I haven’t mastered it.
When I finished my first one, I looked back and said to myself “this is amazing.” Then I did my second one and it blew the first one away. As for training, having extensive knowledge in drawing, painting and design can lead you to learn anything you want.
Some things didn’t work out so well. I tried to create my own inks and failed miserably at it. I’ll try again soon.
As for gold leaf techniques, I learned by making mistakes. I bought some faux gold leaf and applied it to heavy paper and spare scraps of parchment. It took me 3 or 4 tries to get it to work the way I want.
GS – Given your proximity with Masonry and the arts, beyond the work you create are there any artists or artistic influences that come to mind that you think should (or do) have an influence on Masonry?
RF – As for the fine arts, I encourage every lodge to have someone take the time and learn about Filipo Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and William Blake.
Brunelleschi, for those who are not familiar with him, started the renaissance by stepping back, travelling and learning about geometry, science and the knowledge of the past. This to me sounds like the perfect example of what we as masons should strive to accomplish.
Michelangelo should be a patron saint of symbolism. He knew of Kabbalah, sacred geometry and numerology and he put in into all of his masterpieces. The Sistine chapel is a love letter to the Kabbalah, and learning about how he hid those messages into this work will open up your eyes on how to contemplate on a work art.
And Blake – Blake is the prime example of what a Masonic artists should strive to be. His tremendous works engulf the viewers with blatant Masonic symbolism, but upon further inspection, the real messages can be found within. Each of his paintings could be its own lecture in lodge.
GS – So what’s next, any new Masonic works on the horizon?
RF – I carry around with me a notebook of all my potential works. I don’t want to reveal most of them yet because I have not perfected them, and as any artist or writer will tell you, a first or second draft will rarely look like the final project.
However, I can say that I have detailed plans for a tracing board that will be like nothing else in Freemasonry. I’m also working on an illuminated manuscript of the Middle Chamber lecture and a series of prints that mimic the Egyptian style.
Unfortunately all my big projects require funds so it’s a slow and steady process, but God willing I have a lot of time to get working and make and hopefully make a small difference in Masonry.
My thanks to Ryan, to whom I appreciate the taking of his time. I very much appreciate his tremendous body of artwork and will definitely keep an eye out for your up coming projects. You can see more of Ryan Flynn’s artwork at his website, and, if you’re in the New Hampshire area, you can see Ryan’s lodge windows in person by visiting Ancient York Lodge.