Monday, June 9, 2014

Peter Spooner Talks About the Art of Sister Mary Charles (Part 2)

continued from yesterday

Sister Mary Charles in her studio.*
When Sister Lois Eckes spoke to the gathered crowd last week at the Tweed she noted the beautiful weather that was embracing us that day. "Spring blossoms... Heaven and earth are saying this is the right time to be holding this event." Indeed there could not have been a more perfect moment to honor this artist and woman of faith. "It feels like a family gathering," Eckes said. "We all have our stories."

Here are some additional stories from guest curator Peter Spooner.

EN: What was the most interesting part of this project for you?

Peter Spooner: Meeting the many people whose lives she touched, and working closely with members of the Benedictine Order at St. Scholastica Monastery. The Monastery as been and is a very special place in our community, and the positive work and vibe of the Sisters there is enormous. Christianity does not happen to be my spiritual path, but I have one, and the experience of working on this project with the Sisters has added to it in a beautiful way.

It I s always satisfying to create an exhibition and book from the ground up, when no one has really tread the territory before. It was a team effort, and one I feel fortunate to have worked on.

EN:  What has been the most challenging?

PS: Negotiating between the needs of the museum (consistency of aesthetic product) with Sister Mary Charles' ecumenical view of art's function - her art is purposefully communicative on its face - uncomplicated, largely bereft of theory or irony - the kind of art that often seems vapid or sappy to audiences steeped in brews of irony, self-reference and analytical discourse. The book probably does a fairer job explaining what she and the breadth of her making were really about -- the exhibition may be a bit artificially narrow. So that has been a wee bit 'o challenge -- but in the end, it suggests that perhaps there should be another Sister Mary Charles exhibition at some point in the future, one casting the net a bit wider, presenting an entirely different set of works.

EN: I assume you saw the full range of her life as an artist. In what ways did she develop as an artist over the years?

PS: Sister Mary Charles was a very capable designer and draftsperson. She drew and drew and drew. I believe she would have found or made success in the "secular" world had she gone that way. In Duluth in 1943, coming from a struggling family, art was probably not going to be her meal ticket. As it was, Sister Mary Charles entered the Monastery and was given an opportunity to study art and education at the exact time the Catholic Church sought to reinvent its public face for the modern world, through a self-assessment known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1962-65). She discussed this in terms of finding her role as an artist in ministry, and she held herself to the task of answering that question - what is my ministry as an artist? How do I serve my community as an artist? In 2000, her essay "The World Will Be Saved By Beauty" was published in Sisters Today. In it she reflects on and answers those questions.

She was well trained, earning an MFA at Notre Dame - she prepared herself broadly, taking courses in all media. This served her well, as she ended up working in a variety of them in creating works for churches. In the early 1970s or so, she focused primarily on woodcuts as a medium, while still making commissioned sculpture for churches and dabbling in watercolor; after 1990, when she received instruction in creating traditional icons, that became her focus. She created about 100 icons between 1990 and 2006.

EN: Did you know her personally and, if so, what was she like?

PS: Sister Mary Charles died in 2007, when I was first learning about her work. I never met her, but I feel her presence, especially via the Sisters at St. Scholastica Monastery, and other people who knew her well, and with whom it has been my great fortune to collaborate. Everyone I met who knew her described her as warm, kind, and always willing to talk to people about what she was making at the time. She was earthy - loved animals, the outdoors, swam, skiied, gardened, and hiked. She was understandably protective of her time as well -- look at how much she art she made!

* * * *

To read more about the exhibit, see Christa Lawler's story in today's DNT.
Photo of Sister Mary Charles courtesy Duluth News Tribune and Derek Neas
Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Reader Weekly.

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