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Nun teaches that ‘we are all born artists’


Frank Lloyd Wright once told Franciscan Sr. Thomasita Fessler that he hoped she would not have to work “in an environment that is not conducive to the undertaking.” She never forgot his counsel.

Her six decades as a prolific artist have seen her turn musty attics, dark basements and a vacated dormitory into galleries that gleam with her art and that of her students. Though her atelier has moved back and forth across Milwaukee three times in half a century, she has always called it Studio San Damiano. Named after the church in Assisi where St. Francis first received his call from God to “rebuild my church, which has fallen into ruin,” the studio embodies Fessler’s -- and Francis’ -- love of God, nature and beauty.

On the second floor of the four-story studio, the visitor finds scores of Fessler’s works. An early portrait of a young woman, done when the nun was a student, hangs not far from a large oil on canvas, titled after composer Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” Close by is a vivid oil and mixed media abstract of “God Separating the Water and the Land” from her Days of Creation series.

Depictions of the Nativity abound -- in carvings, sculptures and ceramics. Some of her religious works show the influence of Egyptian, Minoan and Etruscan art. The nun credits art historian Kathleen Blackshear with sparking these pieces. “She told us to do anything we were inspired by or in awe of.” Fessler met Blackshear and other influential teachers when she studied summers at the Chicago Art Institute, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees in 1946 and 1947.

In recent years the nun has designed nine stained-glass windows for the chapel of St. Ann’s Intergenerational Center in Milwaukee. Last year she created eight Christmas stamps, featuring the life of Mary, for the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. She is currently designing a millennium coin for the Turkish government.

Fessler shows off a photograph of one of her favorite works -- a sculpture of Christ meeting his mother at the cross. The figures, done in rough stone, appear strong, primitive and abstract. Mother and son are united in a single slab of stone. Mary’s head is hooded, hollow and faceless while her son has a smooth, egg-shaped head that inclines toward his mother.

“I tried to show the emotion of this big sorrow,” the nun said. “In simplification, you can get so much feeling. Mary had always stood and shared the cross. Here we see her empty, and he’s full. Her grief is in her hollowness.”

Fessler drew much grief herself from her bold depiction. When a photo feature of the work ran in Life magazine in 1953, it prompted protests from students, parents -- even art patrons. One woman phoned her to say that the work had given her husband bad thoughts. “I thought to myself, well, maybe you ought to get some help for your husband,” the nun said.

Among her best-known works are the nine-foot-high Christ she carved out of Philippine mahogany for St. Cyprian’s Church in River Grove, Ill.; her stained glass windows in St. Xavier Hospital in Dubuque, Iowa; and her golden oil collage of the interior of St. Josaphat Basilica in Milwaukee, owned by Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum.

The basilica -- whose structure was the original Chicago Post Office -- was brought by rail to Milwaukee early this century and redesigned by Fessler’s grandfather, Erhard Brielmaier, a self-taught architect and carpenter.

Fessler also had two uncles who were architects and an artist aunt who lived a Bohemian life in Rome and died in 1915 when the nun was three. Fessler treasures her aunt’s palette.

While contemporary art -- especially Cubism -- has strongly influenced her style, she refuses to label herself. “Why can’t I be my own style?” she said.

To describe her style, “you have to describe the world,” said her assistant and former student, Brad VandeVenter.

“I paint nothing I haven’t seen or visited,” the short, plump, habited nun told NCR, pointing to shelves containing some 250,000 slides she has taken during trips to 60 nations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Each slide is dated and labeled. Hundreds are featured in her armchair lecture “Around the World in Eight Days.”

Many, when developed as photos, are a source for her paintings. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my travels,” she said.

She had no formal art lessons in her youth. When she entered the Franciscans at 17, the order sent her to Milwaukee State Teacher’s College (today’s University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) to study art.

That led to a 55-year-career of teaching art to high school and college students, adults and children. Fessler spent four decades of her professional life building and heading the art department at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee. She was involuntarily pensioned from the college in 1991.

“When God closed that door, he opened a window and allowed her to continue teaching and creating,” said VandeVenter. He and seven other friends spent three months and filled two semis moving Fessler’s artworks and supplies from Stritch to the old St. Mary’s Academy dormitory. By spring of 1992, Fessler again welcomed children and adults to her studio.

VandeVenter, a prominent Milwaukee artist, met the nun when he enrolled in her classes at Stritch in 1983. He said that she is first and foremost a religious, then an educator and finally an artist. All three features come fully alive in the studio.

“We are all born artists,” the nun said. “We speak with our five senses.” Over the years she noticed that when college students arrived to study art, they knew little or nothing about the language of art, about how art expresses what’s in the heart. She decided to start at the very beginning -- with pre-schoolers and their mothers -- as well as with college students.

“I’m going to teach you to eat with your eyes,” she promises the children in her classes (aged 4 to 14). She tells children that God made each of them very special. “He made us like a camera. You gotta open your eyes to eat with your eyes.” She instructed them to spend the week “snapping” whatever they saw that they liked.

Children draw what they know, not what they know about, she said. “Art is really a child’s language. What I do is try to develop their creative powers.”

Seeing with an artist’s eyes means learning how to use colors. She asks children which color makes them happy, sad or angry and she lets them explore on paper what makes them cry, laugh or shout.

“Color is God’s gift to the artist. When we see a rainbow we don’t ask, ‘What is this?’ Color is like adverbs and adjectives. We don’t use the same ones all the time.” The three primary colors are to art what the eight notes are to music, she said. It’s in their infinite combining, shaping and texture that art happens.

Fessler believes passionately that “children who create will not destroy.” Her children seem never to forget her. One of them, now a prominent lawyer, nominated her for the outstanding alumnus award at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a few years ago, an honor accorded only to Golda Meir and some 30 others of the university’s 95,000 alumni.

Some of her adult students have been with her 35 years, driving weekly from Green Bay and Chicago to glean her inspiration, watch her demonstrate and listen to her critiques.

Early next year Fessler will celebrate her 88th birthday. Though her pace has slowed, and she no longer sculpts the massive works she created in the 1950s and 1960s, she and VandeVenter are trying to locate as many of the nun’s 600 paintings and sculptures as they can find. They plan to exhibit her works in a retrospective and later create a Sr. Thomasita Museum.

VandeVenter hopes that some of the works will be willed or donated and that others can be bought back. He wants to have some of the paintings copied and made available as prints. He believes that many of her works are valuable teaching tools.

Fessler and VandeVenter not only share the same birthday, they also share a vision for the future of the arts in Milwaukee. Together they want to recreate a structure like the original San Damiano to be built along the frontage of Lake Michigan. They intend to call it the St. Francis Center for the Arts, after the area of Milwaukee known as St. Francis. The center would be home to music, dance and the visual arts. VandeVenter plans to approach city and archdiocesan authorities with his plans soon. He has also started a Web site at [www.studiosandamiano.com]

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999 [corrected 11/05/1999]