When artist, author, and Catholic brother Michael O'Neill McGrath walks around Camden just after dawn, he keeps his eyes wide open - for subjects to sketch.
Some of the vivid illustrations inspired by McGrath's early morning walks will be featured in a Stedman Gallery show called "Visions of Camden."
The show will include canvases by the painter William Hoffman; photographs by Camilo Vergara and Ken Hohing; vintage Camden postcards; and artifacts unearthed at a downtown construction site.
It opens Jan. 17 in the Fine Arts Building on the Rutgers-Camden campus. The show is McGrath's first in the city that became his home three years ago.
"You can't choose to live in Camden if you're the fearful type," the ebullient Northeast Philly native, 55, says in an obvious reference to the city's troubles with crime.
He offers me coffee in his Waterfront South studio, where richly colored depictions of traditional and contemporary religious themes and personages hang on the walls.
McGrath is as down-to-earth as any man of faith I've ever met. One minute he tells me a hilarious tale of a former neighbor hand-sawing a stolen utility pole for scrap. The next, he's wiping away a tear as he reflects about holding on to faith amid the "ugliness" of modern life.
"The way for me to overcome fear is to create beauty through art," he says. "Even Camden looks beautiful at sunrise. There's faded glory here, and good people doing good things. That's where the beauty is."
McGrath, who earned a master's degree in fine art from American University, lives with his brother Oblates of St. Francis de Sales at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown. He opened his Jasper Street studio in 2010 at the invitation of Msgr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church.
The church, the waterfront, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge figure prominently in McGrath's secular work. He uses a pen and liquid acrylic paint to create bold, occasionally whimsical, images with geometric elements suggestive of stained glass.
One sketch shows the face of a neighborhood boy named Justin, who asked McGrath to put him in the picture. The focal point of another is a line of people - waiting to go to the dentist.
Pieces like these caught the eye of Cyril Reade, director of the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts and cocurator, with Nancy Maguire and Charlene Mires, of the Stedman show.
"We're looking at Camden in an impressionistic way," Reade says, noting that "the colorful, optimistic vision" of McGrath and Hoffman contrasts with the "more realistic" photographs, including interior and exterior views of the ruined Carnegie Library on Broadway.
"The show offers a treasure of images and objects that points to a past and a present," he says. "We're not trying to gloss over the challenges Camden faces. It's a balanced way of looking at the city. It's also very hopeful."
Having hope does not require an artist to wear rose-colored glasses, says McGrath.
His decision to quit teaching art history at DeSales University and devote himself to a ministry of art arose in 1994 while he was grieving for his parents. The subsequent deaths of two dear friends deepened not only his sadness, but his faith as well.
"In the midst of grief, art has such a healing presence," says McGrath, adding that when he speaks at retreats and other gatherings nationwide, "I share my paintings and tell the stories behind them. I talk about broken-heartedness and healing, and how we're all searching."
McGrath has written and illustrated a dozen books; his latest, about the social justice activist Dorothy Day, is titled Saved by Beauty.
"Art was always kind of my little place of refuge," he says. "It still is."