About this project – the Iowa and Illinois Artist

This blog has been created to chronicle my journey to discover art works by the artist known as Sister Mary James Ann, B.V.M., a Sisters of Charity nun, and my only maternal aunt, neé Seraphia Walsh.  Decades after her death, and years after my mother’s, when there is no one around anymore to probe for questions, I have discovered that I missed a huge opportunity to connect with and learn about an incredible family artist.

Geisha on silk, an early work. Before 1955 at least

I knew from my early childhood that my aunt was a talented artist. Two of her work hung in my family’s dining room – exquisite Asian figures on silk. All of us appreciated their beauty, my mother designed an Asian dining room around them, but we also took them somewhat for granted. They were always there. A photo of one, a Japanese geisha, is featured left. This was the kind of artist we thought she was-the standard of her talent. As they hung on our wall, never changing, my aunt, a thousand miles away, was growing as an artist – experimenting and exploding with color, texture, medium and form. We had no idea!

Given my aunt’s religious vocation, vows and somewhat restricted lifestyle (she experienced significant changes and freedom in the late 60s after Vatican II) -our family’s visits with her were spaced out about every two or three years and rarely centered around her life and accomplishments. She visited us, rarely the other way around!  We placed her on a huge pedestal because of her “nun-ness” and because we didn’t get to see her as much as we did my dad’s family. Her infrequent visits focused on her only, younger sister Ursula, her brother-in-law Jim, and their three adorable (smile) children, Jimmy, Michele and Barbara.

George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that, “youth is wasted on the young.” As I came of age in the 1960s and 70s, I never sat down with her and enjoyed a real in-depth talk about art -or sought to discover the expanse of her talent. It was odd for me to pass up such an opportunity. An aspiring artist myself,  I was very interested in the topic! My only inexcusable excuse is that like most kids and young adults, I was preoccupied with “me”- my school, my interests (the Beatles), my boyfriend.  I do recall conversations about art- my art! I showed her my sketches and pen and ink drawings done in high school. I remember her encouragement (She gave me my first real art supplies, a set of Mr. Sketch markers when I was very young!). But it was my art we ended up talking about – not hers!

Now an aging boomer, I am still focusing on me, but in much more inclusive way!  Knowing who we are involves knowing where we’ve been and understanding that each individual is part of, and connected to, something larger. That is why genealogy is so meaningful to so many. I’ve been infected by the family history bug-and all those searches on Ancestry.com, filling in the blanks and taming the quivering leaves, I couldn’t help but notice my mother’s side of the family tree was woefully stunted.

So I wrote to the Sisters of Charity in Dubuque, Iowa and asked for information about my aunt, just to get some additional facts (convents were known to record extensive family histories upon first entering). I did not anticipate that the archives, mailed back to me in an 8 by 12 envelope, would launch a larger quest.  I received the biographical information and family history I sought – and a great deal more.  Best of all were of all copies of newspaper clippings from the 1950s and early 1960s – second generation black and white images that begged for a bigger story to be told. Photocopies from decades past, paying homage to an award winning woman, artist, nun, offered hints of a prolific oeuvre heretofore unknown to me. These snippets suggest color, confidence and diversity of technique. They beckon investigation and long overdue curiosity. This new knowledge has awakened in me, amazement, pride, hunger and regret.  She did this kind of work? How did we miss this? Our family always celebrated that she was a nun – we made a very big deal about that part of her life.  But sadly, we never properly celebrated her as an artist.

Artist nun prepares for Dubuque art show

Sample of a clipping sent to me by the Sisters of Charity at Mt. Carmel, Dubuque Iowa

Email inquiries to her convent and sub-quality inventory photos followed. Despite not being professionally photographed, these email attachments were jewels beyond value! My aunt was the head of the art department at Clarke College. Her art, especially her later work, is trippy, wild and fluid. She was hip and cool!  Her work invites interpretation. They explode with color and expression. These images were nothing like the two paintings that adorned our dining room walls. Earlier religious subjects appear to yield, in later years, to the natural and abstract.  Is this significant? Cézzane, Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe  initially came to mind when I first saw them- but frankly, I don’t know enough about art to comment on who her influences were. All of this discovery is still sinking in and with the few glimpses allowed to me thus far, I can only write about what I feel, and hope through formal thesis and research to present a more erudite, yet personal  portrait of an artist as a nun. She deserves this tribute and based on non-family feedback I have received so far, this effort has value and relevance beyond my family.

Much of her work remains hidden away in private and personal collections. The Internet is

Untitled. Date unknown. Likely early 60s. Courtesy of Clarke Univ.

my best hope for reaching out to those institutions, families and individuals that have been able to appreciate and see value in her work. She has fans out there! It’s my hope we can exchange information. I’ll trade the back story for a good photograph! I hope to catalog as many of her works as I can – and personally visit as many as possible. In these past few weeks, all these revelations have accumulated within, a call for me to be in their/her presence, to see where her paint collected, where her path of media and brush might indicate frustration or elation -tranquility or peace – pain or joy. My first stop will be in Iowa, where I suspect the vast majority of her pieces still exist. I have several good leads to pursue!

My aunt was a woman hidden under black, with embellishments of starched white for most of her life, a life that vowed charity, humility and poverty. A life devoted to others in service of her faith. I remember her kind nature and great Irish laugh. She was more than a nun. She was a confident, creative human being, encouraged (thankfully) by her B.V.M. order to pursue advanced studies and travel broadly to hone her artistic voice.  I can only thank God she didn’t enter into a cloister at 17, but chose a more progressive society in which to fulfill her mission and share her faith.

Sister Mary James Ann, B.V.M.

My aunt in 1969, long after the B.V.M. habit

No longer can I pick up the phone and call her – but I am beginning to see her diary (one slow page at a time) that landed in strokes on canvas. I am having the long overdue conversation with her now and I am going to have to listen to her carefully. Her gentle presence urges me on. I hear her calm, sweet voice in the back of my head, modestly saying, “well, if you must….”

I must. I am compelled. My aunt was an artist, art historian and teacher of students. She loved teaching at the college level. Armed with two advanced degrees, teaching took her from Iowa to California, with several trips to Europe in between, and on the West Coast, right in the thick of the San Francisco scene where clothing, hair, song and attitude were all artistic expressions, she blended right in with her creative insight and tolerant, open mind. She talked the art jive.  Still a practicing nun, but sans habit, and calling herself “Miss Ann Walsh,” she related well with her students at Guadalupe and West Valley Colleges, and continued to teach the public as a paid docent at the respected de Young Museum in San Francisco, a position she held until her death in 1980.

So it’s appropriate now, as I pursue a graduate degree late in life, that I am her eager and willing student, and she my posthumous professor.  I know her. She’d be excited to take on a new student, desiring only for that student to look within and find the personal voice and a uniquely personal way to express it. She will not be able to tell me what was going in inside her thoughts when she created her pieces. Instead, a successful dialogue will depend on trusting my own instincts, first impressions and inner voice and marry them to my research of her collected work- much of which is currently beyond my reach.  Her work, be they sketches, pen and inks, watercolor, tempra or oil, small or large, once found, need to be evaluated in their entirety. They represent her moods, her growth, her feelings about faith and spirituality. Where and how she saw God at work in the natural world and in people she encountered. So far, it looks as though she had a lot to communicate! Trying to find all of her artistic output is going to be a challenge. They are my equivalent of a stack of brown letters found in an attic, tied together with a faded blue ribbon. My aunt’s letters are scattered all over the U.S., hanging in the living rooms, dining rooms and hallways of unknown homes and galleries.

Can I take a peek? Will you share the images you value – images you bought or inherited-so that I may have a fuller and poignant understanding? I make no claim to their ownership – rather, I crave a better insight of her vision- the full resonance of her voice – so that I may paint a proper portrait of her with my words.

It is my hope that as I move through this journey that others will join me, and her work will be appreciated beyond the small circle who knew her in her modest lifetime.  Discovering Seraphia, the woman and artist who became Sister Mary James Ann, is going to be a challenging project. I won’t stop until I have learned all I can- and give her her due- a family honor she never sought, but so richly deserves.

21 Responses to About this project – the Iowa and Illinois Artist

  1. Helen Thompson, BVM 1746 Addison St. Berkeley CA 9403 (510) 841 8791 says:

    Hi Michele,
    What a beautiful Website you have created honoring the work of “James Ann” – Ann Walsh, as she was better known in California. My friend Sara McAlpin sent me an email in which she shared the website.

    Reoberdette Burns, BVM, a close friend of James Ann, and I had recently come to live in Berkeley a few blocks from her and just before she died. “James” was great for Roberdette, who is now 101, because she introduced her to the SF Bay Area while I was still in The Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. We both loved James’ work!

    Her diagnosis precipitated a sudden departure from Berkeley leaving her apartment “as is”. We fell heir to whatever we valued. We already had a painting she had given Roberdette in Dubuque. Consequently, I have several small pieces of her work – whatever we found and liked.

    I’d be delighted to talk with you – especially after I have purused your website more thoroughly. It’s really attractive!

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Helen

  2. Helen, hearing from you is such a delightful surprise. I never got to visit her in California, but my sister did and she relayed how wonderful and meaningful it was to share that time and experience with her. I would love to talk further with you and possibly see some photos you may have of her and of her work. I too remember being surprised by her illness. She was too young to leave us at 67, for as you know she was so young at heart and had a great deal of creativity left over. God had other purposes, and I am sure her creativity is put at wonderful use- and I feel she is guiding me through what I hope will become my (and my family’s) tribute to her.
    I am glad to see she still used the James! I wasn’t sure that she had. But I think she liked the name as she adored her brother-in-law and nephew who also shared that name! Hope to hear from you soon. Sara has my main email!

  3. kibblesbits says:

    I wonder — there is an exhibit now at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium called “Women Spirit” and they cover the art that nuns all over the USA have done. I’ll look next time I am there but you might want to see if the curator of the exhibit has any information, both the local curator (who got local stuff for the exhibit) and the national one, because it is a travelling exhibit. In other words, it’s kind of a generic exhibit, but they customize it when it is placed in an area.
    http://www.mississippirivermuseum.com/
    http://www.womenandspirit.org/

    • Thank you for this information! I will look into it. Before I have a link on Women and Spirit featured, not the art exhibit, but I think how women express spirituality through art is a focus I may hone in on when get to writing my thesis. I believe my aunt sold quite a few pieces and I have reason to believe her art is hanging on walls all around the mid west and therefore some of her work may have indeed been included in this traveling and changing venue!

  4. Mary Ann Ludwig says:

    I was pleased to see your interest in pursuing information about your Aunt, Sr. James Ann, BVM. I remember her well because she was head of the art dept. at Clarke when I was there from 1955-1959. There was a whole group of art majors in our class that took art all 4 years. Sr. James Ann was very professional, quite modest, and a good teacher. We painted to music in the art room and had clothesline sales outside in the Spring to sell our works. We got a good education in techniques as well as the history of art. I know we studied the principles of balance, contrast and unity. I remember I didn’t like modern art at all when I started as a freshman but then really came to appreciate it.
    I went on to get a MEd in Art and Related Disciplines at Loyola here in Chicago and later a PhD at the University of Illinois in Curriculum and Development. I enjoyed teaching art through the years and still volunteer in the Education department at The Art Institute of Chicago. I’m sure Sr. James Ann played a part in my choices. Her example as a practicing artist made an impression on all of us.
    I was so surprised to see the Geisha on silk from earlier years because all of the paintings of hers that we saw in my days at Clarke were very modern. I lost track of her through the years but did send her a letter of thanks and prayers when I found out that she was at Marian Hall at Mt. Carmel before she died. I wondered if the lead in the paint she used could have been a cause of cancer. I do remember telling her that she was a real champion and that I was in her corner.
    I could give you names of others who were in my class but they are probably reading your information on this website and may respond on their own. I look forward to hearing from you and hope my classmates remember a lot more than I do.

    Sincerely,
    Mary Ann Ludwig, PhD

    • Dear Mary Ann,

      Thank you for taking the time to write and sharing your memories. I have also written to Verna F. who has shared some wonderful memories and some images that I hope to post on this website soon. I am glad to hear she was such a positive factor in your life. I had a chance to speak with Ed Demers who also taught there, and he told me about the outside art shows and how much she enjoyed promoting her student’s talents.

      I think because of her modesty, many of her students (and her family) were unaware of the variety and diversity of her work. As surprised as you were to see the Geisha (there is also under gallery page a Chinese Madonna and Hail Mary in ancient Chinese calligraphy), that was our family’s only knowledge of the kind of art she did. We did not see, because she never pointed or craved attention for herself, the kind of artist she had become.

      I was so pleased to see the Clarke alumni put a mention of my project in their e-newsletter. I would love to feature a page to highlight some of her students’ work or at least provide links to their web pages. If you would like to share anything, I would love to see it. Also I am hopeful to hear any leads about where some of her paintings may be located, any clippings, letters, etc. that her students would be willing to share. Thank you again for sharing and I hope we may remain in touch. Warm regards,~Michele

  5. Joan Lyons Garrity says:

    Sister James Ann recommended me for the wonderful job I had throughout my years at Clarke – illustrating a small religious education book series, “Come and See,” for the Department of Hearing Services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. She was a wonderful teacher and I so appreciate her for having given me the opportunity for having the experience of doing this work.

    • Dear Joan,

      Thank you so much for writing back. This has been an exciting week hearing from her students. I owe Katie a big thank you for promoting this website and my project in the newsletter. As I replied to Mary Ann, I intend to start a page that will feature an image or two, or a link of her students. Most creative people, be they writers, poets, artists or musicians, freely credit their influences. When I hear that Paul McCartney credit Brian Wilson and the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album as a major influence to Sgt. Pepper, well I went and listed to the inspiration, and now I can hear that in Sgt. Pepper. I think the same may hold true to visual artists. I have been curious who influenced my aunt, and seeing how she was an influence I think would round out the portrait, don’t you think? So if you have anything to share in that regard- I would love to see it and or share it too! Please stay in touch! ~Michele

  6. Pat Holm says:

    I have a painting Gray Mountains of Colorado on a stone wall over the living room fireplace done by James Ann while I was at Clarke (graduated 1961 as Patricia Mackey). I bought it on time through the Bursar’s office and paid a local carpenter to make a frame. As I recall, I paid $25 for the painting and $5 for the frame. But you must understand that I also had to take out a $100 NDEA loan through the Bursar’s office to finish my senior year, and then had to pay it off $100/mo for 10 years! My husband and I married in 1961 and lived in a furnished one-bedroom apartment in Madison WI paying $90/mo rent. Does that put the cost into perspective? I have had that painting on my living room wall everywhere I have lived, and it is always admired. Thanks for the opportunity to share this. I honor SM James Ann.

    • Dear Pat,
      Thank you for responding. I am very excited to be hearing from her students and I am touched by the high regard in which she is held and remembered. I must be honest and say I am happily envious of your painting, and I am hoping that you might be able to share a copy, either privately and or in this blog. I know she studied for her MFA in Boulder and I have had the pleasure to also visit Boulder in the 70s, so her capturing that natural beauty is quite understandable! Speaking of Boulder, I was able to obtain one of her paintings, Blue Psalm, which is quite unusual and very red. U of C in Boulder was divesting itself of some paintings during a move and I caught it just in time. It has a little damage or canvas ash that I have to get cleared up and then I have to figure out how to frame it (it had to be cut off the stretcher in order to ship it. It is quite large.) Oh, if I could only get it framed for $5!!! But I do appreciate what it took and meant to you to get that painting – because it meant something to you. Did she talk about her artwork that much with her students? I knew she exhibited in the Midwest and I would love to hear how she marketed her paintings, how she moved in those circles so to speak. I have a copy of one of her exhibitions and I am surprised at the prices, but we are talking the 1960s- so much has changed, hasn’t it?

  7. Pat Holm says:

    Mistake. $100/year for 10 years!!

  8. Mary Alice Weldon-Schwarz says:

    Dear Michele, Clarke told me you would like this info about your grandaunt Sr. Mary James Ann..I first met her when a 1957 freshman at Clarke. I had a limited backround in art, i.e., in 8th grade I receied 3 awards for an original pastel in a contest entitled “Fun with Family.” At Clarke we had to be interviewed by the dept. head, and you aunt accepted me. I loved all the many art classes I took. I wanted to be an interior designer. After graduation, I worked at Carson Pierie Scott on State Street, in the Buying office and then 1 1/2 years in the Home Furnishing Fashion office–and I loved it and now pay tribute to the wonderful influences of your aunt, especially all she did to prepare me for the professional art career I now enjoy in my home studio and in teaching art to seniors at our senior center. I only wish your aunt could have come to some of my past public exhibits ! When nearing graduation at Clarke, I asked your aunt: ” Sister, now what do I do ?” She advised me to join AAUW ( American Assoc. of University Women ). When I moved to the suburbs, I did just that. This organization continued to enrich my life as did your aunt. I made some terrific frienships there, but none as guiding as that of my relationship with your aunt.

    Sincerely, Mary Alice Weldon-Schwarz

  9. Mary Frances Schultz Johnson says:

    I am a classmate of Mary Ann Ludwig (class of 1959). I too had an art major and GREAT admiration for both Sister James Ann and her work! When I graduated I had some gifts of money. I forget just how much it was. But, I offered it to Sister for a painting that I really wanted–in the worst way! Although the amount was somewhat less than the true value of the painting, she allowed the purchase to be made. I treasured it! It hung in our home for many years. Since I volunteered on the art and enviornment committee at St. Joseph’s, our Wauwatosa, Wisconsin parish, it was also used in a Lenten setting at one point in time. The painting was a head of Christ with a crown of thorns. It had won a prize in a competition which I believe had been at the Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa. In spite of her vocation, Sister rarely did art work of a religious nature. Nautical or abstract works were much more frequent for her at that time. Perhaps that rare and fervent piece was the draw for me. The work was very strong with deep blues and black strokes. She greatly admired the work of Roualt. As you probably know, he was a stained glass apprentice in his early career. When he made his prints, one would see black outlines like the leading in a stained glass window. This aspect of his work seemed to find its way into the painting which we had. I say HAD, because a few years ago my husband and I decided that the work rightfully belonged back at Clarke. So, we made that donation, and you should be able to find it somewhere there in Dubuque. I will be eager to follow the work that you are doing to honor Sister James Ann. Thank you for doing it!
    Sincerely.. Mary Frances Schultz Johnson

    P.S. Since there were SO MANY “Marys” in that day and age, most of my Clarke comtemporaries called me “Schultzie”–or sometimes “Mary Fran”

  10. Dear Shultzie (if I may?),

    Thank you! The information you provide is very interesting! I am wondering, have you seen Ecce Homo (segment of which serves as header). Was your painting similar to that? Ecce Homo was exhibited and won an award – it is now part of the permanent collection at Sioux Falls Art Center. Could yours have been a detail study of the other? I think I have a picture of everything that Clarke and Mt. Carmel has on file for my aunt. By any chance would you have any old family photos that would show the painting in the background?

    I think seeing the paintings in their settings is also very interesting! Glad to hear of her influences. One of her students Verna, has also been very helpful. It is interesting you mention her interest in nautical themes. I have only come across one, a very low resolution of a magazine scan of Belmont Harbor. I will have to re examine some of the other images and see if that theme presents. I too, was somewhat surprised by her “secular” work – but in my opinion, much of these pieces contain a great deal of spirituality within them. I’ve started to go back and comment on some of them as time permits – Please stay in touch! I’d love to get your opinions on some of the paintings featured in this website!
    Kind regards,
    ~Michele

  11. Hello Michelle, this is Peter Spooner, Curator at the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth. We initially corresponded in November 2010, about the work Iron Crosses, Bruges, which was collected in Iowa in the late 1950s by Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson. Dick was the Presbyterian Campus Pastor at Iowa State Teacher’s College (now University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls), and they were assembling a collection of religious art by contemporary artists. In “The Collector’s Eye,” an essay Dick Nelson wrote for the catalog of his collection, which was shown at the Tweed Museum of Art in 2001, he mentions collecting works by other artists – Jim Crane, Benton Spruance along with Sister Mary James Ann. “The longer we collected,” he said “the broader our definition of ‘religious’ became.”

    My connection with Richard Nelson was initially through the large collection of American Indian art and artifacts he and Dorothy collected – between 1996-2006. I helped him document and catalogue it over several years. In 2008, he gifted the collection to the Tweed Museum of Art, where it helps us educate and enlighten our audiences to the stories and visual beauty of Ojibwe and Eastern Woodlands artisanship and design.

    You were contacted by Dick and Dorothy’s daughter, Chris van Lierop. Chris and her brother, John Nelson, gave Iron Crosses, Bruges, along with others artworks from their parent’s collection, to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. That is where it now resides.

    I am interested in reconnecting with your project, because I am now curating an exhibition of Sister Mary Charles McGough, OSB (1925-2007), working in collaboration with the St. Scholastica Monastery and the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. I believe in many ways the two Sisters were alike in spirit and temperament, especially in the years after Vatican II.

    Respectfully,
    Peter Spooner, Curator

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes I remember and you were able to help me – as you can see I finally got a picture of Iron Crosses, though I had a black and white newsprint of it all along but never knew it. Your project sounds very interesting. I will have to investigate her work. I had a chance to talk with one of my aunt’s faculty members at Clarke, Dr. Ed Demers, and he was able to share some of his memories and impressions of my aunt and he mentioned Vatican II as being a watershed for her. After she left Iowa in the mid to late 60s, my aunt went west to California, where for the next decade she taught art, was a docent at de Young and I presume painted, drew. etc. I know she must have work floating around out there…but it’s a big state and an area I am unfamiliar with, but as free and progressive as she was with her art in the 1950s, I am eager to see her evolution after Vatican II and what influence California and her students may have had on her. I will definitely check out Sr. McGough. It would be helpful to share resources too, I would think.

      Kind regards,

      ~Michele

  12. What a wonderful tribute. It would appear you have some of the selflessness that your aunt would have had as a nun. Very well done.

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