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.
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.
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
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.
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.