Nunsense

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.” That painting is now part of the Sioux City Art Center’s permanent collection. In addition to her Cranbrook degree, Sister Mary studied at the State University of Iowa and the University of Colorado. In 1959 she became head of the Clark College department of Art in Dubuque, Iowa.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The photo above shows Sister Mary Grace Esther Mehren, BVM, and Sister Mary Barbara Cerny at work in the metal shop in 1954. We are still looking for information about Sister Mary Barbara, but according to the Chicago Tribune (15 Jun 1958), Sister Mary Grace Esther was appointed to oversee construction of an eleven-story Scholasticate on the campus of Mundelein College. The building houses lecture halls, classrooms, a dining hall, and a chapel.

Another CAA alum (Metalsmithing ’49), Sister Helene O’Connor, O.P. (Dominican Order of Preachers), founded Studio Angelico in 1935, at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. Studio Angelico, the art department at Siena Heights, was named for the 15th century Dominican painter, Fra Angelico. Sister Helene chaired the art department, taught classes, and directed community workshops. An accomplished sculptor, ceramicist, weaver, and muralist – her work has been exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sister Marie Gertrude's, "Mother Hen," Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Sister Marie Gertrude’s, “Mother Hen,” Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Also of the Dominican order, Sister Marie Gertrude Lohman, O.P., received her MFA in Sculpture from the Academy in 1966. Several of Sister Marie Gertrude’s sculptures display in Illinois, including a statue of St. Catherine of Siena at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Chicago and a statue of St. Albert the Great in the student courtyard at St. Rose Priory. Sister Marie Gertrude studied in Schifanoia, Italy, and her work has been exhibited in Chicago and Dubuque. In 1964, her work, “Mother Hen,” was displayed at the Studio 23 space at the Arts Center in Bay City, MI.

This research has only deepened my fascination of the divine sisterhood. I wonder what drew the sisters to Cranbrook? There were several other nun-students at CAA – I look forward to learning more about their contributions to Cranbrook and the art world.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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