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Peter Spooner is guest curator for the Tweed Museum’s summer exhibition Engagement and Transcendence featuring works by the late Sister Mary Charles. It’s a remarkable story and if you missed Tuesday’s opening, you still have time to see this impressive show.
EN: Who was Sister Mary Charles and what is it that makes this showing of her work significant?
Peter Spooner: 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.
EN: What was the most interesting part of this project for you?
PS: 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 berefit 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.