Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thomas Carey, OSB

These past two days as communications director at St. Benedict's monastery I've gotten a crash course in Sister Thomas Carey, a painter and Sister of this monastery who died in 1999. Her work is amazing, and I was familiar with it already. I've seen the posters in our gift shop, and there's an original oil hanging in my office. Her work is modernist, very colorful, and she painted a large number of Madonnas and Madonna-with-Child paintings. She also sculpted, Madonnas and a number of austere crucifixes. We are going to use one of her paintings for our Christmas card this year at the monastery. So I called S. Baulu Kuan who is an artist and who curated and produced a catalogue of Sister Thomas's work for an exhibition at the monastery's Haehn museum in 2004.

The image I wanted to use, she told me, was the Christmas card last year for St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul, a "daughter" monastery of St. Benedict's. They have a lot of Sister Thomas's paintings, including the one I wanted an image of, hanging in their monastery. And until the 2004 exhibit, many of the Sisters there didn't know what they had. If you go looking for examples of her work on the internet, you aren't going to find any.

S. Thomas's paintings are unsigned. And she gave many of them away, so they're hanging all over the place-- in private homes all over the St. Cloud area, and in other monasteries, and elsewhere. Which isn't to say she wasn't appreciated in her own lifetime. Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, S.D., commissioned S. Thomas to paint a series of Stations of the Cross that are among her best works. She painted them in the 1950s on 7' x 2' panels of walnut, and returned to do some restoration work on them in 1991-92. Blue Cloud Abbey was a very large monastery at that time, and Sister Thomas was a significant artist. And as you'll see later, in 1958 it was already brave to commission her work. She was controversial.

(By the way, Blue Cloud Abbey is a place I HIGHLY recommend you go see if you ever get a chance-- a community of men Benedictines out on the prairie near a town of 28 people. I stopped there overnight with my friend Bob Sauro on a trip two years ago, and he's still having nightmares, I believe, about the town of Marvin and what goes on there. [Bob has a website featuring his writings and great T-shirts based on vintage New Jersey sites you can find here.])

Sister Thomas had great humility. She never pushed her cause. If you read the catalogue of the 2004 retrospective, that comes through more than anything else about her. Some of the brothers living at Saint John's Abbey down the road had only a vague idea of the extent and accomplishment of her work. Brother Placid Stuckenschneider, a liturgical artist at Saint John's, wrote of coming face to face with her large body of work for the first time: "Where had she been hiding all this time?... To be sure, I wasn't ready for such a creative talent hidden behind the monastery wall." And this is truly the sign of a great Benedictine, her ability to work steadily at her art without ambition for fame or recognition. In fact, in an essay republished in the same catalogue, one feels her excitement at the great gift of her life as an artist in the monastery. She writes:

"When I came to the convent, I felt here a long-standing ... love of art.... There was an expressed hunger [in the monastery] for the beautiful, for the precious. There seemed a pervading awe for culture, the arts, for learning and the growth of worship. At that time the College of Saint Benedict was growing, along with the liturgy and the desire for liberal knowledge. We not only had a total submersion into a liturgical atmosphere and preparation with table reading and study clubs on the Divine Office, but also a terrific excitement about philosophy and the liberal arts in the college. ..

"I remember being told that if I were willing to go into art, I would not be rushed. I would be allowed to grow, and some day I would study in Europe. These were days of planting for the future. These were also the 1930s, when our world was falling apart, yet we were mindful of the liberal arts. Our focus was on learning for its own sake. Our focus was on culture. The whole community was hungry for learning.

"It seems even in our pioneer days as a community, when we would expect that survival would use up all our energy and push aside other values, we had not only the desire for culture but actually fostered its arts and its creative people as life-saving and worthy of great respect. Many have commented on what vision it took to build a virtual cathedral here on the flat lands of Stearns County, to provide an elegant chapel beyond all proportion to the rest of the visible evidence around us."

Sister Thomas wrote this essay, "Community and Creativity," in 1978. It was a happy time for her, when she was teaching in the art department at the College of Saint Benedict, brought in by college president Stanley Idzerda after he saw her work in 1968. She taught there from 1969-84, and while there, in addition to teaching and doing her own work, she collected 45,000 images of world masterpieces for the College's Picture Library. A hunger for beauty, indeed.

But her obscurity was not and is not completely a matter of temperament. The story the Sisters are quieter about-- although it is more open now as an example of "the bad old days"-- is of how Sister Thomas's work was banned, and she was suppressed. "Sister Thomas was ahead of her time," is how her friend Sister Kristin Malloy put it. "Not many people could understand and appreciate her art, including the local bishop. In 1954 she hoped that he would approve her crucifix, but disliking anything modern, he banned it. A half-century later, the same crucifix is considered by art historians as one of the most elegant expressions of contemporary religious art." The words "exile" and "officially censored" come up in conversation about her and her work. This is all the more striking to me given that it was also in 1954 that the monks of Saint John's Abbey hired Marcel Breuer, that master modernist architect, to design and build their abbey church, and construction began in 1958. As Sister Thomas was being shut down, the monks of St. John's Abbey were moving forward in ways that would make them internationally known for their liturgical vision and construction of a landmark modernist church.

A look at the chronology of S. Thomas's life shows 12 major exhibits throughout the Midwest in the years 1954-58. After this, she is teaching high school art at parochial schools, and the exhibits dry up-- a few pieces in annual Madonna Festivals, notably in Spokane, WA, far from the bishop of St. Cloud's watchful eye. It is only when Mrs. Idzerda, on the recommendation of Sister Kristin, hangs a painting in her husband's office to see if he likes it, that she is brought back to the art department at the college.

Meanwhile, she painted. She gave her paintings away. She didn't sign them. They're scattered to the winds-- who knows what is out there.

One mystery painting is this year's choice for a Christmas card. Sister Baulu, who keeps track of S. Thomas's work and brought it over for me to see, said she saw it for the first time only a year ago. When S. Kristin died, she left in her belongings a page of slides of Sister Thomas's work. Someone at the monastery passed it along to S. Baulu. In it was this Native American Madonna and child, and a few other works, which she'd never seen. We do not know where the original is. The slides are the only evidence. We may never know, unless the Christmas card reaches the owner (we send out 10,000-15,000!). As a Native American Madonna, it is outside the mainstream-- enough so that she might not have wanted to draw too much attention to it. There is another "Indian Madonna and Child" from 1958 that was commissioned by Blue Cloud Abbey at the same time as the Stations of the Cross, for the Chapel of the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Marty, South Dakota, an Indian mission church. How wonderful that they had that image-- and that she had the vision to make it for them.

It is not an uncommon story, the suppression of the women in the monastery-- for decades many Benedictine women's communities were not allowed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours that is at the heart of their monastic practice-- because it was believed to take too much time away from their active service ministries. Abbot Wimmer interfered with St. Benedict's Sisters on this account and from 1858-60 and 1880-1926 their prayers were curtailed to the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.

It is also not an uncommon story, the suppression of women artists who were ahead of their time.

That Sister Thomas continued to create work, and continued to create work in this monastery (not leaving to pursue her career as an artist or over the disapprobation of the bishop), is a testament to her faith, to her love of Benedictine life, to her love of her community, and to the purity of her calling as an artist. Someone supplied her with paint and canvas and other materials, and time and space to do her work. In fact, she continued to attend summer art classes when the high schools where she taught were not in session, at Notre Dame, at the University of Minnesota, at St. Cloud State University. With the blessing of the prioress and her community.

In the catalogue, she is described in a community tribute this way: Gentle, Shy, Creative, and Imaginative. Also "Energetic: Her great talent and inner artistic conviction impelled her to unbelievable productivity foor Sister Thomas every minute counted; Resourceful: Her motto was that every difficulty could be transposed into a value, and opportunity; Happy: Sister Thomas was happy to be who she was and left her imprint in her paintings, feeling no need to sign her work. She delighted in her work and always turned out something spectacular; and Peaceful: She was a completely 'at home' personality; her being was in harmony with her art."

I know many artists who did not respond as Sister Thomas did to her circumstances. I know many bitter artists. Some have been my teachers-- well-published folks who felt their students got more fame than they did. My 85-year-old poet friend at Saint John's once called me "angry" (I told him I didn't want him to send me his used copies of Poetry magazine-- I didn't want that toxic, elitest rag in my house!), but I think he meant bitter. Lord knows bitter is the opposite of what I want to be. I want to write poetry out of joy, not hoping someone will publish it or recognize me. My intention is more and more to be a person who writes for its own sake, out of joy. The goal is to recognize that people have a hunger for beauty, and to seek to fill that need with what one makes. That is a lesson to be learned from Sister Thomas. I am trying to be worthy of it, as of so much about this place where I live and work.

At the end of Sister Thomas's chronology is this entry: "Painted angels' faces until she died on December 15 [1991] at St. Scholastica Convent." May we all be so lucky.


Susan Asplund said...

Lovely piece Susan. A question, why Thomas as a chosen name? I really liked the photo you included of her work. I do artist trading cards and we have a series on different artists. Her talent was extraordinary made more so by her humility. Thanks for the lesson.

Susan Sink said...

Thanks! Regarding the name: before the 1960s, when women entered the monastery, they chose or were assigned a new name, always a saint's name. There were many more men saints than women! And at least at Saint Benedict's Monastery, there couldn't be two nuns with the same name. When you consider that in the early part of the 20th century there were 1200 nuns at this monastery-- that's a lot of names! The process as I've heard it described was that the prioress (or abbot) would give you a paper with three names on it and you could choose from the three-- or ask for another. Sisters talk of going to the cemetery and walking around looking for a name that wasn't taken. Thomas was probably close to or similar to her given name. And she was lucky! Some of the names are HORRIBLE. Imagine being renamed Walburga.