All posts by Michele Walfred

I am a communications specialist at the University of Delaware. I blog about Thomas Nast and editorial cartoons, art history, journalism, fine arts, photography, agriculture, gardening, and social media.

Iron Crosses, Bruges – update

After a flurry of emails back and forth, I was connected to Chris van Lierop, whose parents were Rev. Richard E. Nelson and Mrs. Dorothy Rawlings Nelson.

I received this lovely note from Chris:

“I looked again at your website. Iron Crosses is in the background of the newspaper photo dated Feb 18, 1960. That article mentions Cedar Falls. I assume that my parents met Sister Mary James Ann at that time.

My father was campus pastor at Norther Iowa U at that time. In that capacity, he organized exhibits of religious art at the student center on campus on Serely Blvd. We lived in that building when I was born in 1956 and for the first three years of my life. I had assumed that my parents met Sister in connection with one of the exhibits they organized. But perhaps it was at the other exhibit in Cedar Falls mentioned in the article.”

My family moved to Duluth, MN, in 1964. Iron Crosses hung in our dining room there for 45 years!

Chris also shared that Iron Crosses, Bruges was donated to the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  She provided me with a photo that was provided by Dr. Rodney Allen Schwartz, director of the Westminster Gallery and Archive, who has given me permission to use it here:

Iron Crosses, Bruges is inspired by a cemetery in Belgium that features hundreds of iron crosses slowly rusting.  Courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

However, Chris did inform me that the painting in the background of this clipping is Iron Crosses, Bruges. I would have never known unless I saw the original!

Iron Crosses, Bruges is behind my aunt on the wall. It is vibrant in reds, golds, oranges and pinks! News clippings provided by Clarke College (University).

According to a 1960 article SisterJamesAnn_1960, my aunt was inspired to create this along with many other images during an art student tour of Europe.

I have never been to Belgium, but I was curious about what my aunt may have been looking at.  I found this picture from a Google search – I couldn’t find who owns it but it was on a website called dipity.com

Iron Crosses, photo found on dipity.com

I also found this YouTube video searching for photographs. Not all of the images shown in this video are of crosses made of iron. Some ornate crosses are found individually on top of headstones, and this collection, set to lovely music, shows the same area photographed above, but dusted with snow. I think it sets a pensive tone.

Chris is also going to try and find some old family photographs where the painting hung in the dining room!  The painting was 48″ by 34″ tall.

I will discuss the detail of the image at a later date here.

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eBay one day, thrift store the next!

More and more I am reminded of the power of the Internet and realizing the purpose of this website!

On January 2o, 2012, I received the following message, which came from the contact feature in this blog. It said:

“This is why I am an art collector. Because it’s a journey of discovery. And today, in a thrift store in Maryland, I discovered your aunt. I bought a large (29×39 framed) painting of trees (I guess), black, against an abstract and evocative background with splashes of pale green. Looks like ink and watercolor on heavy paper. This is the kind of painting that gets your attention. And it’s signed “Sister Mary James Ann BVM 1955″ Original framing. Email me, and I will send photos.”

The writer of the message has asked to remain anonymous, but offered pictures. Of course, I jumped all over it. And true to his word, he sent me some photos of his new acquisition yesterday evening.

This painting was signed and dated 1955

A close up photo shows her familiar signature, and the date…the year I was born!

Signature seems to have been done in ink, going up the right side of the painting

The technique reminds me in a way of Japanese Sumi or India ink used in calligraphy. Here is another photo:

Image with frame

The painting of trees is somewhat reminiscent of her Birch Trees in Winter. She certainly used the same color palate, though Birch Trees is an oil:

Birch Trees in Winter, early 50s?, courtesy of Sisters of Charity

What at first glanced look like a stain of yellow in the thrift store find, is actually an intentional green watercolor wash. The owner says that it looks more green in person than what is rendered by the photo. This may have been her way of showing the emergence of spring…a snowy landscape yielding to fresh, early green grass, moss and forest floor underneath.  The trees in the foreground, being conical evergreens, are the dominant vegetation.  The striations of of ink and watercolor suggest a melting, nourishing rain.

In a subsequent email, the owner shared the following:

“The bold black shapes are painted with something very thick, that looks like it was sort of sticky when wet.  The horizontal background elements and the fuzzy areas are definitely watercolor.  The pale yellowish spots are, I’m fairly sure, watercolor.  They look more green than in the pictures.”

I asked him what his opinions were about the style.

“I  am a collector–not an expert!  But I do feel that this painting captures its time perfectly.  To me, it just screams “1955!” Framed without glass, common at the time.  I will likely reframe with glass.”

I am hopeful that the new owner will grant me a personal audience with the piece one day. Not sure if he also lives in Maryland, or was just passing through.  But it would definitely be worth a day trip! Nothing can replace gazing upon a work of art with one’s own eye. Otherwise we’d just have books and no museums!

This is an exciting development for me. Each piece I have discovered since this journey began has its own unique look.  Because she was both an artist and a teacher, I see my aunt’s progression in these revelations –  exploring and experimenting with styles, materials and techniques. She certainly did not pigeonhole herself, though I do see threads of similarity in her work, it is also evident that she pushed herself in many different directions, for her own artistic adventure and also in order to offer her students a fuller and broader artistic experience that she had personally shared.

People find treasures in all sorts of places. For someone, this painting was not meaningful enough to hold onto, and I can imagine many circumstances of how it might have ended up in a thrift store in central Maryland. Most of us who’ve watched Antiques Roadshow know that many treasures are buried in plain sight. Just over half a century ago, this work and others were likely exhibited in a  local gallery. A modest price tag was affixed and someone decided to take it home.  It probably was born in Iowa and changed hands along the way, both appreciated and ignored as it journeyed to to Maryland.  Someone’s junk is often someone else’s treasure. Art is about communication, about emotion, about message…in this case, the painting survived decades and traveled thousands of miles and called to that special individual in order to meet with its new home and destiny!

As I had hoped, curiosity led to a search engine inquiry and a connection through my website. A new owner of my aunt’s art now knows a little bit more about her…and I in turn am able to add another piece of her artistic life to her biography.  I think it’s been a fair exchange. That others did and continue to appreciate her work was never in question, but it is wonderful to have it confirmed and validated by others.

Thank you sir, for your eye, for your curiosity and most of all, thank you for sharing this with me…with everyone!

A Justin Bieber toothbrush Groupon ad leads to a new art discovery

The amazing twists and turns of social networking, email, Twitter and eBay

After seeing creative Groupon commercials at the 2011 Superbowl, I decided to take a look at the new Internet upstart and eventually signed up to receive notices of interesting local deals.  Since then, my email inbox has received a wide variety of enticing Groupon offers to save on services and products.

Last week, one offer in particular tickled my funny bone. It was for a Justin Bieber singing toothbrush. In my day, it might have been a Bobby Sherman toothbrush. His pearly whites took center stage on many a Tiger Beat magazine cover, but alas, technology was decades away from Bobby, Donny Osmond and other dentally endowded heartthrobs of the 1960s. They had to settle for lunchboxes.

But I digress in my story. I found the Bieber bristles funny enough to post on Twitter. I was not the only one who did so.  A fellow local Twitter friend @lifeontheedges thought it was funny too. Our Bieber bond prompted her to check out my profile and visit this site which shows up as my  featured link.  She read this blog and found it interesting. (smile).

Enough so that we started a mini-conversation and she decided to do an eBay alert check on my behalf. She got a hit for me!

And there I saw a new painting, signed by S.M.James Ann, and titled “An Amazing and beautiful abstract painting on wedges by Seraphia Angela Walsh.” It was listed at an out of reach price for my modest budget, but it was wonderful to see. The seller had obviously researched the signature and found this blog, the only online source that links my aunt’s birth name to her BVM identity.

Signature as shown on eBay by Estate Decor

The seller  later changed the auction title to match the signature. The listing was by Estate-Decor, who maintain an eBay seller store on art and antiques. They are based in Rego Park, NY.

Emails went back and forth, and to make a long and interesting story very short, we agreed on a  fair price. Estate-Decor understood the family connection and its meaning to me. I can’t thank them enough for their fair dealings, and desire to place a painting where it will be loved, treasured and handed down to family. Thank you!

Thanks also to my Twitter friend for taking the time to care, for being curious. How a simple spark of “I wonder…” started a process! By acting on an impulse and on my behalf, another piece of my aunt’s visual history has been put in place and a beautiful painting is on its way to me. My pocketbook is a little lighter, but my research and my family are so much richer for it.

Simple things can and do connect us. The Internet can be an anonymous, cold and calculating platform in which to transact and scam. But my experience with this project has been to meet people who care. From Craigslist to Clarke, BVMs to Bieber, students and strangers, through WordPress, Facebook,Twitter, eBay and email; kind-hearted people have emerged, shared and taken initiative.   I knew about eBay alerts. I believe someone else told me about them, but I never followed through on the idea.  My mind, creatively scatterbrained as can be at times, flits, skips and jumps on many ideas, curiosities, shiny things, and other daily ephemera. It doesn’t always land where it should. This time around, Lifeontheedges had my back. Thank you!  Thank you all!

Here is a screenshot from the eBay posting.  It is on its way to my home. I will post more pictures once it’s on the wall. Ladies and gentlemen, and dear, dear friends, may I present “Wedges”…

Painted in Iowa, found for sale in NY, suggested date of 1958, it's on its way to Delaware!

High school discovery from 1929!

Thanks to Loyola Library Digital Collection (thanks Wikipedia for pointing me there) I was able to confirm that my aunt did indeed graduate from Immaculata High School in Chicago nine years before my mother did. Seraphia Walsh was in the class of 1930, and is mentioned in many articles and school documents. Her interest in art was well established.

Using advanced search, I was able to find this very early treasure, drawn for a school program when she was 15 and a half years old.  Her calligraphy was always outstanding. This program shows her interest in art and calligraphy. Even at 15, she thought to create key letters as musical notes. I was thrilled beyond belief to find a piece from her youth. Her name is credited at the bottom, highlighted as part of my search result!

A high school program drawn by my aunt in her junior year, at  age 15. Scan source: Loyola Library Digital Collection

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!

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.