Spiritual art: Cornish paints a message without words

I thought I was prepared. When I first decided to interview
Daryl Cornish, S.J., I was aware of his disease. He has multiple
sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that I was
familiar with after interning at the National Multiple Sclerosis
Society last summer. I thought I was ready.

This, however, turned out to be my most difficult interview.
After my four years of interviewing top administrators, professors
and students, among others, I thought I knew the tough questions. I
was wrong.

When I first met Cornish, I didn’t know what to do. I had seen
photos of him, at an earlier point in time, when the disease wasn’t
as bad. Now, the MS has progressed, taking the use of the
53-year-old’s arms and legs with it. In addition, the muscles in
his throat had weakened. His speech was muffled at best, mostly a
slur of indecipherable sounds. I didn’t know what to do.

I told him I would be right back, and walked out into the
hallway searching for Cindy, an assistant that seemed to understand
him better than I did. Together we communicated with Cornish, and
realized that he wanted to take me to his studio. Yes, his studio.
Cornish is an artist.

His bedroom displayed a few of the works of art that he had done
over the years, but it was the studio where most of his work was
kept. Hundreds of paintings lined the walls of the small room, with
an easel in the middle. Using his mouth, Cornish paints.

Most of his artwork is spiritual, including several portraits of
Jesus, alone and with the disciples. Not all are religious he
points out, looking at two portraits of his friends.

Cornish entered the Jesuit seminary in 1972, and was ordained 10
years later in St. Louis. He then spent about nine years at the
Sacred Heart Retreat House in Sedalia, Colo., where he served as
retreat master and spiritual director.

Then Cindy left the studio, leaving the two of us alone. I knew
I couldn’t understand him, so I was unsure of what to do.

So, I did what any person does when they are nervous–I started
talking about myself. We had already established that he was the
oldest of the six children in his family, so I told him that I was
the oldest as well, and that it was a difficult job, keeping the
younger kids in line. His eyes lit up at the statement, and I
realized that it wasn’t about getting the answers to questions, but
having a conversation with someone who most people don’t bother
attempting to communicate with.

By asking yes or no questions, or questions that required only a
one-word response, I revealed that he favorite color is blue, but
yellow comes in a close second. They remind him of the sun and

Being an English major in college and an English teacher at St.
Louis University High School in the 1970s, Cornish was delighted to
know that I was reading The Catcher in the Rye, though his eyes
widened when I told him it was my first time reading the book.

Although he has a love for reading, his true passion lies in
art. He taught art at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, as well
as at SLUH.

However, with his diagnosis of MS in the ’70s came the loss of
the ability to use his hands. Out of frustration, he quit

Then, a few years later, Cornish was introduced to the mouth
stick as a device for drawing. Since then, he has had exhibitions
in Colorado, Kansas City and St. Louis. He has not completed a
painting in recent weeks, however, due to a sore jaw.

“Drawing has become an important ingredient in my prayer life,”
Cornish said in an interview years ago. “Drawing helps me visualize
the scripture text and draw deeper meaning from it. And the
drawings make it possible for me to look at the same passage many
times, and pray and allow God to speak.”

I asked Cornish if he had always known he was an artist, and a
smile came across his face. I told him I couldn’t draw at all and
the smile turned into a laugh.

Cindy then returned and we went back down to his room where
Cornish could recline in his motorized wheelchair, in the hopes
that he would be better able to speak. Cindy left the room again,
and once more I searched for words, a question to ask that he would
be able to answer.

We talked about sports (he doesn’t like them, except baseball
and Billiken basketball), President George W. Bush (he grimaced)
and University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., whom he has not
met, to which I replied that not many of us had. In fact, Cornish
does not see many people anymore, with the exception of staff and
volunteers in Jesuit Hall. He made sure I knew that he has a bunch
of friends–he just gets lonely sometimes.

At this point, the interview was less of an interview and more
of a companionship. I didn’t want to leave. Although I was doing
most of the talking, I knew that he enjoyed my presence. His eyes
widened when I told him I was graduating. He asked me what I was
going to do, and I told him that I didn’t really know yet, but that
I was okay with that. He laughed again.