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
I found a copy of my aunt’s CV, sent in 1969 to West Valley College, therefore dating her move to San Fransisco area around that year. This also adds information about what awards she won, her education, advanced degrees and what paintings are in permanent collections!
This large painting, which I call Blue Triumph, is part of the permanent collection at Clarke University. The date my aunt painted this is unknown, but it would be prior to her leaving to go to San Francisco in the late 60s. This could be late 1950s or early 1960s. My best guess is approximately 1966.
I am not a world traveler! Does the large blue structure, center left, look familiar? This shape, which I associate with the modern Under Armor logo, appears in many of her paintings, but none as large as this one. I could be mistaken, but I see shades of suggestion that this represents the base of the Eiffel Tower.
The perspective is a low to high vantage point. I’ve studied the painting a long time. I see a young girl in the bottom right, her tawny face in profile, mouth agape at she takes in the splendor of the structure. I see her wearing a blue beret that has slid onto the back of her head, almost touching the knapsack she straddles on her shoulders. This girl is a student tourist, perhaps one of my aunt’s students from Clarke.
The sky is mottled with intensites of blue. Hints of green lawn tell me this is a spring or summer visit. An early morning or late afternoon sun bounces of the arch and bathes the sidewalk with sunlight. A red flag on the structure hovers directly above the girl’s forehead.
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!
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:
“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.
Portrait of a mid-century contemporary artist, AKA Ann Walsh