Sunday, June 8, 2014

Peter Spooner Talks About the Art of Sister Mary Charles (Part 1)

This past Tuesday the Tweed Museum of Art held its opening reception for a new exhibition featuring the work of Sister Mary Charles McGough (1925-2007) aptly titled Engagement and Transcendence. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Tweed Museum of Art and St. Scholastica Monastery, guest curated by Peter Spooner. A book about her life, Saved by Beauty, was released in conjunction with the opening.

Charles & Liz McGough
It was an impressive turnout that included members of the community, leaders from both schools (UMD and St. Scholastica) friends and family, including her brother Dr. Charles McGough and his wife Liz all the way from Savannah.

The reception included a program of speakers which in many instances would be shorter, but there were so many people with so much to say. "Sister Mary Charles was a work of art and reminded us that all of us ourselves are works of art," said one. Another noted that her heart was huge. "Her welcoming attitude and ecumenical spirit made her a community.

Much of her life was devoted to children because although she believed a creative spark existed in us all, it burned especially bright in children. "She was a deeply spirited woman whose faith was reflected in her art."

I had a chance to interview guest curator Peter Spooner in advance of the event. This is the beginning of that interview, which will be completed here tomorrow.

St. Francis by Sister Mary Charles
EN: Can you briefly summarize your role in the arts over the past twenty years?

Peter Spooner: We moved to Duluth in 1992, when my wife was offered a job here, closer to her family homeland. I had been working Curator/Assistant Director for University Galleries at Illinois State University. I was hired by UMD's Tweed Museum of Art in a newly created Curator/Registrar position. I began by researching the wonderful collection at Tweed, connecting with other visual artists in town, and developing contemporary art exhibitions. In the eighteen years I was there, I continued to research and help refine the collection, develop shows with regional artists, and curate thematic exhibitions and exhibitions with nationally significant contemporary artists -- and all the work (including grantwriting) that goes with it. I also served on non-profit boards and grant panels, lectured, taught, and wrote for publications and exhibition catalogs. I'd say my role was usually behind the scenes, doing the research, talking to artists, dealers and collectors, looking at and selecting artworks, writing the essays. Since leaving Tweed I've been doing a lot more teaching (CSS, LSC, UMD), and it's been great to work so directly with college-age learners again. I'm also doing appraisal and collections work, specializing in fine art and craft and cultural artifacts. I like that line of work because it puts me in contact with some amazing artifacts, and it's also very research-focused.

EN: Who was Sister Mary Charles and what is it that makes this showing of her work significant?

PS: She was a powerful creative force in the community for decades, but she spent the last 20 years of her career quietly creating Christian icons for patrons all over the country, "writing" them, as they say, according to traditional Byzantine and Russian prototypes. Her art talent was recognized even when she was a student at Cathedral (now Marshall) High School. Her family was poor, challenged -- she helped raise her younger siblings, then entered St. Scholastica Monastery right out of high school. She received a great education, including a Masters and a Masters of Fine Arts Degree, and she taught in Catholic schools and at The College of St Scholastica.

Then, right after Vatican II, she asked the Prioress at the time (Mother Martina Hughes) to allow her to give up college teaching and administration, and establish a working art studio, where she would also teach young people in summertime. She was already being asked to make all kinds of art for churches -- sculpture, banners, ceramics, graphic design, prints, paintings -- so she had a steady stream of paying customers to support her work. The Prioress agreed, and "the Barn" studio and arts program was born. It was named for the carriage house she and community volunteers renovated and in which she lived, made art, and taught. It's still there, on the McCabe property in Duluth's Hunter's Park neighborhood, which was donated to the Monastery long ago.

The summer programs she and other Sisters taught at "the Barn" brought her to the attention of a wider community, as did her woodcuts, which sold readily to customers near and far. Her religious commissions filled Duluth's churches, chapels and temples - she befriended people of all faiths. She epitomized community outreach, even while making art non-stop. Many local people now in their 40s-60s were her students at the Barn.

The significance of the show is fairly self-evident, I hope! It is the first museum exhibition of a significant Duluth artist, one who impacted many lives and is well remembered, accompanied by a book.


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