Category Archives: Religious art

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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Why art matters

I love this quote from Rodney Allen Schwartz, director of the Westminster Presbyterian Church Gallery and Archive:

“Art matters because it provides a communication tool between an artist or designer and the diverse audience who encounters the art. This encounter may generate thought, stimulate conversation, or evoke emotion.

When we first wake up and become aware of light and shape around us, we see. This is a passive experience. We look when we focus our attention on specific objects, images, or details. Looking is active and engaging.

A beautiful piece of art is pleasing to the eye and soul. Sometimes sad and ugly stories need telling and they might be disturbing and uncomfortable. These scenarios share a common goal: to capture attention and to elicit a reaction. Sometimes thinking is more important than liking.” ~ Rodney Allen Schwartz

This gallery will soon feature one of my aunt’s paintings, Iron Crosses, Bruges.

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.

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.

Forgiveness 10/12

Actual title, year, medium unknown. Courtesy of Clarke University

I called this Forgiveness because I see a figure kneeling in the middle of the painting, it’s hands outstretched and palms up. It faces a great white light and touches the light peripherally, as does one knee. Most of the figure remains in the natural world, with browns, dark golds and greens on the outside, and a heated red-orange closer to the figure.

The red-orange may represent evil, or the fires of hell. This person is in the hotseat, in the middle of heated passion or turmoil.

This figure has hope. Through prayer, he calls back the blessings and peace of a higher power. The goodness of God, his grace, his forgiveness is approaching and is moving toward the figure.There is some white in the center that could be the hand of God, ready to embrace the figure.

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