The Art Room
Sister Maureen would sit in a old-fashioned wooden office chair in front of her over-sized roll top desk, her feet never touching the ground except to gently propel herself in the direction intended. The desk in itself was a wonder, each of its many compartments stuffed with bits of paper, writing utensils and stamps. Stacked on top in precarious piles were periodicals about stamps, newsletters about stamps and glassine sleeves full of more stamps. The giant piece of furniture dwarfed the slight figure of our teacher, artist, writer and avid stamp collector.
In her collecting, Sister Maureen focused on Vatican Stamps, specifically on Papal Issues. I thought her hobby quaint, but not so curious. She was a nun, after all. And that particular obsession with the pope and the Vatican and those miniature printed squares of almost endless variation and theme seemed the perfect specialty for Sister. I pictured her, long after school hours, perhaps late into the night, at her desk, hunched over her albums, in the big room atop the Victorian mansard roofed building that was our school, a Catholic all girls academy located in the wooded west side of our Midwestern town.
When you grow up in a place, it is the world to you. It seems neither remarkable nor special. It is simply your reality. Once away from my hometown, out of college and on my own, it seemed even more unremarkable. And yet, place is of great importance in our lives. It affects not just where we live, but how we live. It forms our memories, our judgements, our likes and dislikes. No place, especially our home place, can truly be considered unremarkable.
As a child, I lived on a street lined with tall, overarching elms. By the time I was in high school, those stately trees had fallen to Dutch Elm Disease. Our lush high school campus, which took up two square blocks, was like a park. It had numerous varieties of trees, apparently no elms, and many flowering bushes like roses and lilac. In a far corner of the grounds was a grotto with a blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary that was crowned every May Day by, I assumed, the holiest girl in our school.
There were other buildings on campus, their styles reflecting when they had been built over the course of time. There was a modern building for the boarders, a mid-century convent where the nuns lived, a ranch house style rectory for the resident priest, and a modest Victorian white frame house that held the music department until the new hall was built.
And then there was the chapel – ancient, tall, imposing and Gothic. It was on the second floor over the old auditorium that now served as our study hall. The chapel was straight out of Lives of the Saints. It was deliciously dark inside, smelled of burning bee’s wax candles and lingering incense. The altar was smaller than the one in my parish church but ornate in the old style, festooned with statues of the divine. The stained glass windows let in little light but those beams of color glowed like small jewels. In the center of the chapel were pews for us students. The high walls were lined with kneeling stalls for the nuns, each with a bench that folded down on the rare occasion the sisters got to sit during a high mass or Forty Hours Devotion. We did not have to use those benches or maybe weren’t allowed to since we had not yet entered the convent. I recall being in the Chapel only a few times but it felt truly Medieval and otherworldly to enter that dark and holy place.
The view from the Art Room was not of our campus as it faced North and looked out on the rather ordinary street below. From the tall wavy glass windows we could peer out on a residential neighborhood of modest homes and still healthy trees. To the west was an old, slightly run-down house that I found fascinating and made sketches of for class projects. Farther down the street and just barely in view was the Catholic boys’ school and in the opposite direction was a public elementary school and playground. All this we could see from the tall windows of the Art Room. It felt like we were looking down on the world from an enlightened and impartial viewpoint. There it was for all of us, to see, to experience, to learn from, and someday explore – but not quite yet. We were still within the protective arms of our Catholic girl’s school.
Despite her tiny size, Sister Maureen was dwarfed, actually, by nothing that I am aware of. She held her own as a staunch proponent of the liberal arts, especially history and fine arts. The Art Room was one half of the top third floor. The other half was the Science Room that also served the Home-Economics classroom. We art students distained both science and home-economics, concerned as we were with far loftier matters of art and beauty. The Art Room was high ceilinged, dark and somehow sacrosanct, with an almost similar aura as our ancient chapel. In Sister Maureen’s view, I think, it was a sacred space. One of my classmates was of special favor because Sister Maureen was a close family friend. She had painted a portrait of her mother and aunt when they had been a students a generation before. It hung in a darkened corner over a set of file cabinets that held pictures of “visually interesting things”; prints, art postcards, reproductions, old book pages, magazine clippings to use as reference, though I can’t remember ever using them for that. Just looking at this collection of so many years was a rare enough treat.
Next to those cabinets that lined the wall we shared with the lab next door was a floor to ceiling glass-fronted display case holding samples of former students’ work. Most of it looked ancient to me, like something I would see in the galleries at the Illinois State Museum. I recall some pottery, though we had no wheel or kiln. Perhaps it was a piece of Sister Maureen’s. Also in that cabinet of wonders were small Plaster of Paris figures, a wooden hinged manikin, and some drawings and paintings that all seemed like they hadn’t been moved from those shelves since the beginning of time. Still, I was fascinated by the sort of rarefied world being presented to us by this small, forceful person in a white habit and veil who spoke of art and painting and stamps and very little of God or popular culture.
Small in size, she could be intimidating. Her blue eyes would narrow, her small mouth purse if we failed to reply sensibly to her questions about Art and esthetics. She demanded we think and not just repeat something we heard or thought that she would approve of. I remember struggling over essays about What Is Art? Does anyone really know the answer and certainly I did not as naive Catholic girl. I think our answers mattered less than her wish to get us thinking and learning the value of thinking. As budding artists, she exonerated us to not just look, but to actually see. Seeing is a life long struggle but Sister Maureen introduced the practice as a worthy and necessary endeavor. As an artist/photographer I constantly struggle with seeing, rather than just looking or assuming or guessing. And I know full well when I DO see or, more often, when I miss the mark entirely.
I‘m a big “saver”, I have a difficult time throwing anything away so I’m surprised that I have none of my artwork form those years under Sister Maureen’s tutelage. I know with certainty that there were no paintings of palm trees in a blazing sunset. Palm trees, I recall, were her pet peeve – well one of many-but we lived in the heart of the Midwest and I doubt if anyone of us, at that point in our lives, had even seen a palm tree.“Paint what you know,” draw what you see” were her mantras yet I can remember little of note that I did during those years, just dance programs, prom decorations, and such. I do remember one pastel drawing of the Virgin Mary so I guess those rules could be stretched a bit when it involved images of sacred beings.
I believe it was our senior year when Sister Maureen took our class on an excursion to the Art Institute in Chicago. It was my first trip on a train, my first trip to a large city, larger than my hometown or Waterloo, Iowa where my favorite aunt lived. It was my first trip to a major museum to see paintings I had seen only in the pages of art history books. The museum felt holy when I walked in, almost like the beautiful somber churches of my childhood. It felt expansive, too, and each gallery opened to more wonders. Sister Maureen was especially enthusiastic about the Impressionists and that period of Art making. Looking at Van Gogh’s Blue Bedroom, I could hardly believe I was looking at the real thing, actually painted by the real artist. I loved this painting that I had looked at so many times with my mother when we leafed through a leather bound book of Great Masterpieces of Art that we had at home. And here it was, with many others I recognized. What a big wondrous world this was! On subsequent visits to the Art Institute, long after that first trip with my art class, I make a point of dropping by to see Blue Bedroom. It’s like visiting an old friend of long acquaintance.
That day, Sister allowed us some free time to wander the museum and the gift shop, then meet up to catch the train back home. A friend and I were certain we were on time but getting to the station, the other girls were already seated and looking out the windows, worried. Sister Maureen glared at us and we could hear that the engines had started. A kind conductor reached down and helped us up on board. We did not miss the train, but Sister Maureen was red faced and frowning for most of the trip home. Only later did I realize how concerned she must have been. My friend and I feared her wrath when we got back. By then her anger seemed to have faded but not without some stern words about being responsible and sticking together and behaving like adults. I remember thinking that the train left early but saw no need to put up any sort of argument against my teacher who was also a nun, an argument that I most surely lose and be branded as disrespectful. I also knew she was right. It wouldn’t have hurt to be early and cautious. These days I’m at an airport at least two hours before any flight any where.
When graduation time approached. I was eager to get on to the next phase in my still-young life. I had loved my school and most of my teachers except for Sister Veronica 2nd year Latin and French who once falsely accused me of cheating and another time called me in front of the class to wrangle around a particularly vexing French word I couldn’t seem to pronounce for the life of me. And Sister Thomas Aquinas, Senior homeroom, who called me to task for questioning Holy Mother Church over the mysterious Index of Forbidden Books.
I was going to go to the local junior college so I knew I would be seeing many of the girls that had become such dear, close friends. I knew I would most certainly miss my taciturn but adored Sister Maureen, but I was ready to get on with things. I remember girls crying openly about leaving the school. For many of them, their lives were about to change dramatically, moving away from home to college, or to marriage and children. I looked out to the world I had viewed from the protective confines of the art room, a hand emerging from Sister Maureen’s snow white habit pointing to all that was out there, waiting for us. And I felt ready for it all.
Within a few years, I would learn the enormity of what I would need to face, more dramatic that I could have possibly imagined. On graduation day I had felt well-armed and confident. Within two years my mother died, and I went off to college and it was the 60s and all hell was breaking loose on college campuses across the country including my university. At the time I never realized how unanchored I was but I bumped along through those years, invigorated, crushed, thrilled and sometimes totally lost.
I visited Sister Maureen only once after graduation and by that time she had retired or, to her mind, “been retired.” She told me about the new art teacher who had replaced her and had students making paper flowers. I felt Sister’s disappointment and anger too. She was prideful enough to feel that her legacy so-to-speak had been erased and that she had been replaced by a craft teacher, not an art teacher. She said the other retired sisters at the convent talked only about former students and their growing families and children. She now had her own small room off the main sitting room where she could work on her Vatican collection, but I sensed her boredom. Had she become bored with the Church as well, with the restrictions placed on her by going into the convent, by the kind of life that was required of her? Teaching kept her mind active and engaged and now she was living with other old women who she had little in common with. I am no doubt projecting here, but that was the feeling I got during our visit. Perhaps it was because I was going through my own serious disenchantment with the Church. Or maybe it was just plain boredom. I became bored with the routine that my “faith” required of me without any real engagement with life, with the world that was opening up to me, a dangerous joyous place I was attempting to navigate. There was a disastrous war going on, blacks and women and gays were all demanding their rights, the earth was being assaulted by man’s neglect, I was learning about sex and art and literature and disent and activism. That world was scary and hurtful at times but definitely not boring.
My father remarried much sooner than I had liked but I recall it was quite a bit later when he and my stepmother invited Sister Maureen to dinner at their home. I had already been on my own, living in San Francisco for some time but I had talked so much of Sister Maureen. They know how fond I was of her and how important she had been to me. They told me that she had seemed forgetful and confused and I was saddened hearing that. She had always been so witty and interesting. Perhaps they had expected a more saintly sister. Perhaps she was indeed fading as we all surely will.
A while back that friend who had been so close to Sister Maureen all her life, actually, sent me copy of two of her etchings, both simple and lovely – and secular in subject. A small print of men playing cards is especially appealing. With her keen eye she had recorded quite simply and quite well what she was seeing – no embellishment, no palm trees. And just recently that friend emailed me. Would like to see a copy to her of a letter from Sister Maureen, mentioning me in her remarks? I know I was not as important to her as she was to me, but I felt so honored, so pleased. Now when I look at her print I can see Sister Maureen, holding court in the Art Room with all of us seated at our long work tables. We are young, we are idealistic, eager for life, eager for art, and we are learning how to see.