Over the past few years, I have listened to researchers in the Archives and visitors to the museum describe works of art as divine or heavenly, but I don’t remember those words used to describe the artist. Until now. Did you know that during the 1950s-1960s there were several artists who studied at the Academy of Art who were also members of a divine order? Admittedly, I have not had much interaction with nuns in my lifetime, but I have a keen fascination (cue: “The hills are alive with the sound of music..”).
Sister Mary James Ann Walsh, BVM (Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was one of several nuns to study at the Academy where she received her MFA in painting in 1955. In 1953, Sister Mary was the First Prize Winner of the 9th Annual Iowa Water Color Show for her piece, “Ecce Homo
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.
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!
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.
A close up photo shows her familiar signature, and the date…the year I was born!
The technique reminds me in a way of Japanese Sumi or India ink used in calligraphy. Here is another photo:
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:
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!
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.
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”…
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!
I was going through my archives the other day – gee I have stuff downloaded at work, and on two different home computers-and I found another image of my aunt. Reading about the history of the BVM order, the changes that came with Vatican II, I am struck how my aunt’s appearance changed along with her artwork. I think she was always creative, and a progressive, free thinker, but as her habit became less severe, and habit changed to wardrobe, her artwork seems to have taken on the same freedoms. Coincidence?
If anyone has any pictures of James Ann, Miss Ann Walsh, or Sister Mary James Ann, I would love to have a copy!
I can’t imagine what it was like to have worn this every day of my life:
I am about to receive my very own original work by my aunt! I am indebted to Valerie Albicker from The Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado at Boulder for researching and endowing me with a painting my aunt left as part of her MFA requirements.
Valerie has taken down the large canvas off its stretcher and has rolled it up and it is on its way as I speak, via UPS. In the meantime, she cut off part of the backing which contained my aunt’s label (and I presume her typing).
The card reads as follows:
“AS A FIRE RAGING IN A FOREST
AS A FLAME SETTING THE AMOUNTS ABLAZE
SO PURSUE THEM WITH YOUR TEMPEST
AND ROUT THEM WITH YOUR STORM.”
Valerie also cut a portion of the backing which contained further description about the painting:
The actual painting will be unveiled here as soon as I get it. I received an earlier photograph of the painting, but it was covered in storage plastic which prevents the paintings characteristics from coming through. I’ve inherited my mother’s Asian heart-shaped corner hutch, and I was trying to figure out how to decorate around it. Our dining room is the only room in our small home that could accommodate what Valerie has described as a very large work. I will find a way to decorate around this – red is a good color for dining, isn’t it?
Because the canvas was removed from the stretcher, Valerie recommended that I hang it as is, on the wall, like a tapestry.
Stay tuned! Once I get it up, I will take a picture and place it below!
I have to start checking my junk mail more regularly. Ever have a trusted name or domain slip into your junk mail for some reason? Well maybe it’s coincidence that the 13th discovery came to me in that manner- but I was indeed LUCKY that I scanned the numerous Viagra and replica Rolex watches and found this:
This geisha is one of two Asian-styled paintings that hung in our dining room for as long as I can remember. It is older than I am. I have a picture of my mother pregnant with me and the picture hangs on the wall. My parents married in 1947 so perhaps these were a wedding gift, I am not sure.
The other is of the Madonna and child, in a similar style and I am waiting on my sister to send me a photo. The geisha belongs to my brother – thanks to my sister in law for taking these photos.
Detail of her signature stamp…cartouche?
Here is the second image:
Someone on Flickr told me this was the Hail Mary, written in an old Chinese calligraphy style.
These two images were the family heirlooms of my aunt’s work. Two paintings, three children – I drew the short straw! But I can see them whenever I want.
What I find most curious is her evolution as an artist. These early examples are excellent examples of technical proficiency. My aunt was a very talented calligrapher and her personal handwriting was always unique and artistic. I’ve never painted on silk, but I suspect it is not an easy medium to work with. I imagine these two works were done while she was obtaining her BA, and I have speculated that my mother may have gotten them as a wedding gift. They were centrally focused as my mother’s romance with Asian decor grew and evolved. As my aunt matured, learned new techniques and earned two additional graduate degrees, her confidence to explore and express beyond traditional artwork grew. As she became exposed and influenced by modern masters, as she encountered young creative students in the 50s and 60s, as her religious order became more modern after Vatican II, as America and the world were experiencing social revolution and war, as she traveled to Europe and exhibited and received feedback and sold her own collections – all of these factors and conditions surely contributed to her change of style and interpretation. Her journey must have been so much fun and very stimulating! I am so glad she took it!
I have seen many artists stick to a visual formula – to a look that sells – to answer to tastes and popular demands -and stay there. That is boring. My aunt was never in it for the money, obviously. She lived a life of extreme modesty. No, she took chances because she wanted to- she pushed herself because she could- because she was curious and artistically inventive. Socially, she lived a conservative life – painting seems to be her outlet. Not that she wanted to go wild or was repressed, but rather she challenged herself to find new ways to express traditional values – love, spirituality, God, as well as artistic form, structure, shape, design, etc.
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.
Below is the kind email I received from Todd Behrens, curator. I am so grateful and indebted for this information:
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
Portrait of a mid-century contemporary artist, AKA Ann Walsh