Artist searches for ‘Sanctuary’ at Penn College

Behind artist Timothy McCoy’s disarming, thick, Texan accent, lies a world of meaning.

Unlike many photographers, McCoy doesn’t just want to share what he sees, he wants to capture the significance of the story behind his subject as well as convey the awe that its history inspires in him.

He specifically remembers the first time he saw an artwork that did this to him.

“I went to the Southwest Craft Center in San Antonio and was working with Frederick Sommer,” he said. “… he had a picture, Fred did, of coyotes rotting in the desert … I understood it immediately … I realized that I found more meaning in that kind of dramatic picture than I would in some documentary about the lives of a coyote pack.”

When McCoy was an art student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he said that photographs of contemporary city life were popular.

“When I went to museum school, there was this photography movement – I guess you’d call it street photography- that was in vogue,” he said. “But I knew I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to take pictures of cars passing, of poor people, of tattooed ladies, of people on the street. So, I started in on the type of work that you see.”

The work McCoy is referring to is the photography that makes up his “Sanctuary” exhibition, which will open with a reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. today in the Gallery at Penn College.

The show includes photographs of castles, churches, graves, ruins and more, sometimes in sprawling landscapes and other times up close with strange, manipulated angles. Each photograph carries a piece of history with it and many of them are windows to moving stories that make one view the works with a whole new perspective.

One in particular, “Last Refuge 1244,” was taken in Chateau Montsegur, France, where, on March 16, 1244, a group of “heretics” met their demise at the hands of the Catholic Church.

“These people, the Cathar people, were dualist Christians in Southern France,” he said. “At the time, Southern France was a pretty lawless place and the Catholic Church wasn’t exemplary. These people took up heretical religious trends. They considered themselves Christians but they weren’t Catholic. They were part of the Gnostics. They said, ‘We don’t care about the hierarchy of the church, we care about the internal search of the truth … they didn’t believe in the virgin birth or the crucifixion. They didn’t believe in all that stuff; it represented something other than spiritual enlightenment. They were declared heretics. The first crusades, the Albigensian Crusades, were waged by the French crown and the Catholic Church against them.”

According to McCoy, it’s believed that more than 200 Cathars were forced to either recant their beliefs or burn to death.

“Early morning, March, 16, 1244, the sun rose, but it wasn’t the sunrise that lit the sky, it was the funeral pyre. They captured Montsegur, the French king and the crown. And they told them, ‘We’ll give you a choice. Stop all this foolishness and renounce Catharism and we’ll let you go, or you can burn.’ And they said, ‘We’ll just burn.’ “

McCoy said the Cathars threw themselves in the fire.

“They had no choice,” he said. “That’s a simple image. That’s what Mountsegur represents and if you go in the castle [at the site], you will feel it.”

McCoy takes his photographs with a Deardorff 8×10 field camera, which allows his final images to have a high resolution.

“Because of this camera, the fact that it has that 8×10 negative, when it’s scanned, my final images are 16×20,” he said. “It gives the photos tremendous detail.”

The process he uses to develop the photos is called Palladium and is too detailed (and would require too much space) to explain in this article.

So, artgoers, you’ll just have to go to the talk today and find out for yourself what it’s all about. From the look of the photos and the depth of the stories, you probably won’t regret it.

For more information about McCoy, visit For more information about the Gallery at Penn College, visit