Category Archives: 1950s

Pioneer Angelus, where are you?

One of the pieces I am most eager to see or have a photo of is Pioneer Angelus, a large mural painted by my aunt as her final assignment for her Master of Arts degree at University of Iowa State (SUI).

For many years, the mural hung in the Eliza stairwell at Clarke. According to her student Verna Friedman, Pioneer Angelus was taken down in 1958. Its whereabouts today are unknown. Neither Clarke University nor Mt. Carmel know what happened to the painting.

It can’t be that easy to hide. Measuring 4.5ft. x 8ft, this large work could not have been accidentally tossed.  That Clarke or the Sisters of Charity do not have custody of this, when they have other less acclaimed work is unusual.

The whereabout of this 4.5 x 8ft mural are unknown.

According to Sisters of Charity information sent to me, the following note from 1941 was said of Pioneer Angelus:
“The beginning of Catholicism in the Mississippi Valley has been enshrined on canvas by Sister Mary James Ann Walsh, B.V.M., in a mural, “Pioneer Angelus” recently completed as a thesis requirement for the Master of Arts degree in graphic and plastic art, at the State University of Iowa, Iowa City.”

“In choosing such a subject for her masterpiece, Sister Mary James Ann has depicted an incident, the ringing of the first Angelus in Dubuque, that is cosely bound to the early history of our congregation and dear to the descendants of the Catholic pioneers of Dubuque. The painting is an ever vivid reminder of these spirit of courage, generosity, devotion, and holiness of those who foster the religious beginnings.”

So what happened to Pioneer Angelus? My guess is that Pioneer Angelus either fell victim to a fire, or other damage while in storage, sold to raise funds or donated to a Catholic institution where its historical relevance would be appreciated and cared for in perpetuity.

In the World Wide Web, the search engine has become a valuable conduit for me and for others vested in a common interest.The Internet has allowed me to stretch my arms and probe a region and area that would be otherwise out of my reach. My hope is that this mural still exists and someone may encounter it and out of curiosity, enter its creator into Bing, Google or other search engine.

This is one painting I wish to experience. I would love to see a color image. It is a key expression of my aunt’s faith and technique.

My next step is to contact Catholic institutions in the Midwest, concentrating on Iowa and surrounding areas and send them a copy of this link. Likely, whoever is custodian of this remarkable work might not be aware there is outside interest.

As I near the final stages of my own master’s degree, I juggle different ways in which I may present the capstone of my research. An academic paper? Perhaps. I’m wordy and no stranger to footnotes and citations! But my MALS program also encourages its student to package the research in an accessible manner. I could apply for grants and set up a gallery showing of her body of work. I could obtain prints and copies and have a Delaware debut of her abstracts. I could create a virtual museum (something that intrigues me and would have to partner a Web developer to make happen) author a book of her work with lovely glossy plates, or perhaps, partner with Clarke and Mt. Carmel BVM mother house in creating a venue to showcase and market the artistic talents of their Sisters, past, present and future, or some other venture.

A virtual, online BVM gallery and gift shop could serve two purposes. There would be a e-commerce site, replete with SMJA scarves (wouldn’t “Bridges” make a great scarf?) cards & notes, and prints. It would get the word out, fulfill a niche market in 50s and 60s art and culture, and at the same or over time, produce some revenue that could be reinvested into printmaking, etc.

But I digress. There are more images out there to be discovered and enjoyed – Pioneer Angelus is not the only missing work, but it is a significant one to locate. Finding out where it is and how it got to where it is will be a story worth telling.

I plan to visit Clarke and Mt. Carmel next summer and want to view and photograph as many of her paintings as I can. If my prayers are answered, Pioneer Angelus will be on my itinerary!

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Robert De Niro and me

Okay, this is a misleading title. But I just watched the HBO documentary on artist Robert De Niro, Sr., a project created by his son, actor Robert De Niro. I was moved by De Niro’s passion to honor his father’s artistic vision and elevate the recognition of his father’s body of work. In her day, my aunt enjoyed local recognition, but as a nun, she did not make her living off of her art. Modesty, not self-promotion, surely kept her from being more widely known. Like Robert De Niro, I am immensely proud of my artist-relative. I would love nothing more than to give her wider exposure and recognition. I beleive there are many of her paintings out there, unheralded. People may not recognize the signature or have any background information on the artist whose work hangs in homes, apartments, galleries and offered up for cheap at yard sales and auctions. 

Although my aunt did not live in New York, I’m certain she knew about the movement and shared similar influences that factored into De Niro’s work with the New York School. She and Robert De Niro came of age in the same era, and perhaps influenced by European aethetics, saw their art as a way to burst free from regulations, confines and conventions. Beyond just being an artist herself, she was an art enthusiast and educator. It was her business to know. She may have traveled in New York (in that era she always had to travel with a companion), but not  in their circles. Nevertheless,  I would be shocked if she didn’t know and admire the work of De Niro’s parents and thier contemporaries. 

His documentary, much like this website, is a labor of love.  Enjoy:

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!

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.

Do you have a painting by a nun?

Gee, you might and not even know it! If you live in Iowa, particularly Dubuque Iowa, and are an art aficionado with a modern painting on your wall, you just might!

For my family’s benefit, I’ve been posting what I am finding on Flickr. This gallery is public. Until I get this blog tweaked the way I want, you can view the whole shebang here and get a sense of her oeuvre, or what I know of it, as of March, 2011.

I am reaching out to the Word Wide Web, trying to track down watercolors, sketches, pen and inks, oils and acrylics that my aunt, Sister Mary James Ann, B.V.M. painted in the 1940s through 1970s. Her earlier work started off modern traditional, and typically religious in subject, her later work was much more modern abstract and secular, or so it would appear.

Some of the titles I am looking for are referenced in the article below written in Feb. 1960:

Pioneer Angelus (large mural) religious
Mont St. Michaels (oil) religious
Candles of Chartres (oil) religious
Night-West Berlin (ink) secular

European Sketches
Article in Feb. 1960 referencing above listed work

Ecce Homo 1953

I recently got a copy of my aunt’s CV, submitted to West Valley College for employment, and the CV references where some of her work is placed in permanent collection.  I immediately sent out inquiries, and the first to return an answer was the Sioux City Art Center, who shared this award wining watercolor my aunt painted and exhibited in 1953.

Ecce Homo, 1953

Below is the kind email I received from Todd Behrens, curator. I am so grateful and indebted for this information:

Ms. Walfred,
Your aunt’s painting remains part of the Sioux City Art Center’s permanent collection. Attached is a reasonably decent jpg of Ecce Homo. We do indeed list Sister Mary James, Ann, B.V.M. as the First Prize Winner of the 9th Annual Iowa Watercolor Show in 1953, which came with a $100 prize. This exhibition opened at the Sioux City Art Center on November 5 and included 40 paintings by 28 different artists. After it was exhibited at the Sioux City Art Center, it appears that the show continued to Sanford Museum in Cherokee, Cedar Falls Art Gallery, the Woman’s Club of Hampton, Dubuque Art Association, Grinnell College, Younkers in Des Moines, Memorial Union in Ames and the Blandon Memorial Gallery in Fort Dodge.
Ecce Homo measures 28.5 x 21 inches and is the only work by your aunt that was included in the 1953 watercolor exhibition and the only work by her in our collection. It is not dated, but we assume it was created in 1953 (all entries had to have been created between 1951 and 1953). Her work was purchased by funds donated by the Sioux City Woman’s Club, which helped organize the exhibition.
During this time, she is continually listed as “Sister Mary James Ann, B.V.M.” This includes promotional material for her one person exhibition at the Sioux City Art Center, which occurred October 14 through November 6, 1954. A small article in a local paper on her show, with no author listed, written during the exhibition, “Paintings of Nun in Exhibition at Art Center here,” includes the following:
Sister Ann has exhibited widely in Iowa shows and her work also has appeared in national exhibitions. Her honors include first prizes in watercolor in the Northeast Iowa Artists’ show at Cedar Falls and the Iowa watercolor show in Sioux City in 1953.
Her work is marked with boldness of color, simplicity of form and richness of idea. The casual observer may find himself puzzled with the extreme stylistic variations in her work which typify the experimental approach used by many leading painters of today. Sister Ann expresses herself by new means discovered by herself alone.
Her most noteworthy examples are found in the watercolor medium. Two strong paintings, similar in subject matter, represent her interest in transparent watercolor. A small painting entitled Fruit, and a larger one entitled Juicy Fruit are fine examples of her remarkable control of wet transparent watercolor worked in a brilliant medium.
Excellent in designed structure is her whimsical Campus Corner. More academic than many in the show is her Composition, a realistic work, strong in design and painted in casein.
Many of her paintings in the show contain either definite religious ideas or possess a spiritual quality akin to her religious beliefs. The large casein, The Christ, is an excellent example of a complete statement made possible by a minimum of detail.
This exhibition was on view simultaneously with the 10th Annual Iowa Watercolor Show, for which your aunt served as one of the jurors.
Thanks very much for the curriculum vitae. It will be a helpful addition to our artist file.
Todd Behrens, Curator