Ed Demers’ memories

Edmund Demers was a lay faculty member at Clarke College during the time my aunt was chair of the Clarke College art department.  He was quoted in Time Magazine about his work at Clarke, and Ed’s talents were profiled in a SALT 2007 article (Sisters of Charity publication).

Earlier in 2011, I was able to reach Dr. Demers by phone at his home in Mass. and I sent him some printouts of my early blog pages. He responded with a lovely letter, some of which I have excerpted here:

“On the list of missing works, the “Man from Maine” this came about when I returned to Clarke after the Christmas break wearing a new coat that I liked – it was dark blue with a hood, no buttons, but wooden pegs to be inserted into rope loops – it reminded me of something in the British Navy, or to be seen in the North Woods – very outdoorsy and iconic of Maine. Anyway, Sister James Ann liked it too and asked if I would wear it as she painted it. It then appeared at the DPL as you know.”

“Most importantly to me is the great debt I owe to Sr. James Ann for major events in my professional career: two Way of the Cross commissions, both for BVM chapels, a large mosaic on the facade of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque; but mostly for her calling to my intention a Ph.D program at Ohio Univ., Athens, Ohio particularly suited to my background and needs. These and many other achievements in my years at Clarke are entirely due to Sister’s inspiration, encouragement and help. God bless her.”

Later in  the same phone call, Ed shared that my aunt was a “progressive” and enjoyed change and new ways of doing things. He particularly remembered the outdoor art festivals which she began, that showcased her students’ work and gave them an opportunity to exhibit and sell their artwork in the open air.

As her teaching colleague, Ed was not directly familiar with her personal art or works that she exhibited. I sent him some of my blog posts. Seeing color print outs of some of the work, most notably those I have named Forgiveness, Lucky 13, Blue City and Bridges, he said, “Wow!”  “I never knew what she was working on or where she was doing these paintings.”

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.  I think her Clarke classrooms were devoted to her students and she preferred to shine the spotlight on the paintings, mosaics and efforts of her young, talented charges.

Her personal expressions in art were done with little fanfare,  perhaps in pursuit of her three degrees, sold here and there, or left to be enjoyed by her BVM family.  Did she work during the evening hours, weekends or when school was not in session? I don’t know. Did she have an easel and paints in her room?  Most of her paintings are quite large! I wonder in what atmosphere she worked and in what seasons she was most prolific. Did current world events make their way into her work?  Was art just another way to pray? These are questions that have no  definitive answers – but I am left  to assess a a variety of images, color, texture and contrast that indicate to me that this quiet, modest, gifted woman had quite a lot to say in her own, unique way!

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Urban Street Scene

I’ve had this image for a while, shared with me in photo by Sr. Sara at Clarke. Time permits me to take another, closer look at some of her paintings and I am finding more to say about each as I study them closer.

Modern street scene
I originally called this “cells” but this looks very urban to me—it could be scaffolding going up in a city. The lower rectangle or bottom layer look taller than the one above. I see a door, center right, I see a distant skyline top center left (outlined) and a larger more diffused, taller skyline at top right. On the left,  a lamp post or sign post is visible.  Quite a lot going on in each shape, cell or section, and ebb and flow traveling through each compartment is nonexistent.  Each cell has its own separate activity and color palate. They do blend however in the street/sidewalk reflection.

At the top layer, two cells have X’s spanning them and a third is suggested far left. My aunt employes this crisscrossing pattern frequently in her work. Take a look at the top right square. If you are familiar with my aunt’s earliest BVM habit, what could be interpreted as a boxy black and white habit is softly suggested. It is on the left side of that top square. Maybe that is a stretch on my part.

But there is something going on in each section—everything it its own neat environment— but on the outside, they all contribute to a combined glow – a reflection of the vibrancy of diverse lives in a multi-unit building or structure.

What is most fascinating is that it is very unlikely my aunt ever walked city streets at night. Before Vatican II, any time she left the convent she always had to travel with a companion sister. When my father met her for the first time in the late 1940s, she had a nun buddy with her. I am not sure when she traveled to Europe, what her restrictions were regarding wandering around urban areas at night.

How much of this is her imagination I cannot say. It looks very NYC to me, or Chicago.  There is the suggestion of a little hillside village or suburb on the left, so it may be the juxtaposition of two different cultures. What ever location it depicts, it is vibrant and interesting.  A print of this would be something to treasure and enjoy and reflect upon.

Salvaged Memories

Verna Friedman was one of my aunt’s students at Clarke College in the 1950s. She has been very generous sharing her memories of my aunt. Earlier this spring, she sent me some clippings and a piece of work my aunt did as a class demonstration and then discarded in the trash. Verna decided to pick it out and save it. As she remembers:

“She did demonstrations in class. I think she did most of her painting outside of the Open Studio. I still have one of her demonstrations on shape and line. She was throwing it away and I salvaged it. The drawing is in the “Ecce Homo” style.  She taught the freshmen studio classes and gave us a solid foundation in the Elements of Design (breaking up space) which applies to abstract as well as representational art.” ~VF

This does not represent what my aunt would normally have considered as displayable art. Verna wasn’t sure my aunt would want it made public, for her it was something to discard. But as I consider myself her pupil, I find it useful and fascinating. I can imagine her, back then, wearing her boxy habit that was the style in at the time (can I call it a style?) and picture her explaining the placement of lines, space and color to her students. I can also imagine the sketches, doodles, experiments and exercises that were tossed in the trash and never recovered!

A simple teaching exercise, never meant to be displayed, but discarded in a trash can until salvaged! Meji by SMJA

It feels very “fifties” doesn’t it? Interesting how the outline of Mary’s halo and the kings’ crowns transition from black to white against different backgrounds. I assume the freedom to do that is one of the lessons of the drawing, the use of contrast, the selection of color and the simple fluidity of the lines. It is more than a sketch- but something my aunt didn’t feel necessarily worth holding on to. I am grateful that Verna thought otherwise and was kind enough to share it with me!

Verna was also kind enough to share two newspaper clippings she had saved:

SMJA and Verna Friedman at Clarke, 1956. SMJA is wearing the habit worn in the 1930s through 1950s

And this clipping shows my aunt’s interactions with Dubuque’s art community and exhibitions,

Clipping from Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 1957. Her habit and been modified and was surely more comfortable.

Sister Mary Seraphia?

Gosh I love the Internet!

Yesterday, out of the blue, I received the following email generated from the contact form of this blog from a G. Walker. It read:

Comment: Hi, I happened across this work of art listed on the following web.
http://anorangemoonchicago.blogspot.com/
scroll down to September 1, Sister Mary “Scraphia”
As I found it interesting, I believed the seller misread the signature and I began a brief Internet search for Sister Mary Seraphia and found your website about your Aunt’s amazing work. Maybe it was one of her earlier pieces? I have been to An Orange Moon previously in search of mid century furniture. The owner is quite nice. I would be interested to see if this is one of your Aunt’s works. Good Luck!

Modern, mid-twentieth century still life signed by "Sister Mary Seraphia". I believe this to be the work of my aunt, Sister Mary James Ann Walsh

I immediately visited AnOrangeMoon and found the painting. It looks like my aunt’s work! Certainly, turning up in the Chicago area makes sense, as this was her hometown. However, I never knew my aunt to use her given name of Seraphia. I agree, I think the signature is a misread:

The ‘e” in sister closely resembles what should be the “e” not “c” in Seraphia/Scraphia. The handwriting looks like my aunt’s.

How many nuns, with access to the Chicago area, who painted modern, abstract art in the 1950s and 1960s named “Seraphia” can there possibly be?

This must be her! I never knew her to use her name in any of her artwork, nor did she use it in her personal correspondence with her family. She always used her official BVM name, either spelled out or initialed as SMJA.

Just to be certain, I’ve searched the Web for any other possible explanation or identity for Mary Seraphia. I found a handful of nuns from different orders who went by this name, but none of them came from an art background, taught art, etc. Nor did I find any other work posted under Sister Mary Seraphia.

I must draw the conclusion, that for reasons unknown, my aunt experimented with a pseudonym!

The work is for sale and I have contact the owner, Lynne, of An Orange Moon and she has agreed to sell it to me at a generously fair price. I am indebted to Lynne and to G. Walker who first told me about the painting being for sale. The owner is going to check for me how they acquired the painting. Lynne believes it came from an estate sale, as that is usually the source of her acquisitions. Whose estate it came form may provide very important clues to erasing any doubt this was done by my aunt. I am the proverbial 99.9 percent sure this is my aunt’s work!

The painting is very large, around 3 feet, a format that my aunt favored. The heavy lines shaping the jugs and bottles are in keeping with much of the work I have posted on this site. She painted still lifes, and some are listed in the missing work page.

My guess is that she may have painted this for someone she knew, someone who may have known her as “Seraphia” perhaps a family member. When my mother moved from Chicago to marry my father in Delaware, she lost contact with her Illinois cousins – so I have no contacts to ask or inquire on my behalf.  Perhaps the back of the painting will provide clues.

I do not have any closeups of her SMJA signatures. I have contacted Sr. Sara at Clarke with this news and perhaps I can get some side by side comparison’s of signatures. I am curious to know what those who knew her think!

If Sister Mary Seraphia was her alias or pseudonym, it provides me with a whole new search criteria to explore and an opportunity to locate other missing work. If anyone knows of an entirely different person/artist known as “Sister Mary Seraphia” I would appreciate knowing so that I don’t pursue a detour or acquire any more paintings. If I am wrong about this, I’ll have a Picasso-eque piece to hang on the wall.  But I think this was a safe investment, what do you think?

Update 10/12/11: Lynn texted me and her records indicate the painting came from an estate in Bridgeview, Ill. I’ve never heard Bridgeview mentioned by my mother or aunt – I wonder if it was a family friend or a relative?I’ve asked Lynne to see who might have managed the estate sale and obtain a contact that may provide me with further clues.  The painting is on its way to me and I eagerly await its arrival and placement in my home!

10/23/11 Update:

The painting has arrived. Here I am with it hanging in my dining room. Like my mother, I think I am going to have to redecorate my room around this painting!

Me with my aunt's painting, likely done in the late 50s or early 60s