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Art of Sister Mary Charles

Take everything you think you know about nuns and set it aside.

Sister Mary Charles McGough was an artist, a teacher, and a grass roots activist. She was a cross-country biker, a cross-country skier, and a polar plunger. She was an enthusiastic lover of nature, dogs, and children.

This summer, the Tweed Museum of Art reintroduces the community to Sister Mary Charles through “Engagement and Transcendence.” She practiced art as ministry for four decades, but this is her first major exhibit. “It’s a good way to memorialize her,” says her friend Julie Calligure. But what Julie knows best, is how Sister Mary Charles lived.

The Spirit Within

Sister Mary Charles
Sister Mary Charles, photo credit Duluth News Tribune, Derek Neas, 2002

Mary Charles McGough was born in Cloquet in 1925 to Justin and Ruth McGough. The first of four siblings, she helped parent her younger brothers and sister, caring for them while her mom was at work. Mary was described as a tomboy and an athletic child, but she was best known for her artistic talent.

After graduating from Duluth Cathedral High School in 1943, she entered the Duluth Benedictines where the St. Scholastica Monastery encouraged her to teach and to study art.

Julie Calligure was Sister Mary Charles' student at St. Anthony's School and followed her into the St. Scholastica Monastery after graduating.

Together, they would travel throughout northern Minnesota to teach catechism in communities that didn’t have Catholic schools. One experience Julie calls “utterly in congress with this person” still makes her laugh today. “She’d bring her dog, of course. And one day she was in the sanctuary and she was instructing these little children and the door was open and she could see her dog was going to chase another dog. And right from the sanctuary she whistled to get that dog in. And that was just a normal thing.”

That was Keno. Rescue dogs Nihil, El Greco, Kasha, and Pacem would follow in Keno's fast footsteps, along with a few cats.

Julie left the convent after 25 years but remained very close to Sister Mary Charles, having her over for dinner at her Park Point house nearly every night. After dinner they would often brave the icy Lake Superior water, seeing how long into the fall they could make it before having to hang up their swimming towels for the year. “She had a way of being a person who could enjoy life,” remembers Julie. “She never lost the child aspect that way, that many adults do.”

An evergreen outlook allowed her to eclipse traditional ways of teaching children creativity, which, next to her art, is what she’s most famous for.

Sister Mary Charles started teaching in 1949 and spent the next 18 years working with children until her career evolved into an administrative role, heading the Art Department at the College of St. Scholastica. It wasn’t a good fit. In 1967 she wrote an impassioned plea to the monastery to allow her to develop her own studio for the community. Thanks to a generous donation to the monastery years earlier, the petition was possible.

The Barn

Sister Mary's friends gather at The Barn
From left: Sister Mary's friends John and Meridith Schifsky, Mary Plaster, and Julie Calligure, with Peter Spooner, curator, gather at the Barn

In 1914, the McCabe estate was built in the Hunter's Park neighborhood for William and Jane McCabe and their two sons. By 1940, it was no longer a family home and the McCabe heirs sought an organization that could benefit from the estate. The Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica stepped forward and turned it into the McCabe Guest Home, a nursing home, for the next 23 years.

The next era began when Sister Mary Charles' request to move to the property and open her community studio was granted. In the estate's carriage house, Sister Mary Charles resurrected the property and her life's purpose. By this time, she was getting a flood of requests for her art and now she had the space to create, as well as a venue to "light the creative spark in children," something she strongly believed in.

The stage was set for the Barn program, an art camp which became an iconic part of childhoods in Duluth. 800 children participated in the program from 1968 through 1983, only skipping one summer, and applications outnumbered openings. "Sister Mary Charles influenced a generation through the arts," says Ken Bloom, director of the Tweed.

Programming was the carefully constructed frame that allowed authentic creativity to flourish. "These children, like little sponges, absorbed the connectedness between the beauty all around and within themselves," Sister Mary Charles wrote about the Barn program.

"She had this idea that everybody deserved a chance to make art," says Peter Spooner, curator of the Sister Mary Charles exhibit at the Tweed. "They didn't have to be an artist, necessarily. They just needed a place to express themselves."

Grass Roots and Subiaco

"The Threshold
The Threshold woodcut on paper, 1969

For years, Sister Mary Charles lived at the McCabe estate. Only those closest to her knew that she was feeling conflicted. "As an artist, she needed a lot of time to think and to do. She couldn't have a lot of interruption, but at the same time, people wanted to see what was going on. So she'd get a lot of knocks at the door and get a lot of interruption. She could complain about that to not very many people, but she would not stop people from coming. So there was that tug going on," says Julie.

In talking with Sister Mary Charles' friends and students, it's apparent that two biggest sides of her personality are the collaborator and the artist. Sometimes they work in cohort, other times they work in opposition. By 2000, she was needing a larger studio and less interruption, so she moved to a space she called Subiaco Studio, named after the place where St. Benedict lived as a hermit. It was located in St. Anthony's School, where she'd taught in the 1950s.

Even though she'd stepped away from the Barn, she was never reclusive and her passion for grass roots organization never faltered. Her friends say she reacted to injustice with letters to the editor and rallies for peace. CHUM, Damiano Center, and Loaves and Fishes benefited from her participation and she was a long-time member of Pax Christi, an international peace organization.

On a micro level, her gift for bringing people together benefited others and proved helpful to her towards the end of her career.

Sister Mary Charles was Mary Plaster's mentor in iconography for the last five years of Sister Mary Charles' life, but says beyond the art instruction, their relationship bolstered her confidence at a time it was most needed. "When we moved to Duluth in 2000, I wasn't able to transition into a full-time job. She gave me the strength to recognize that I could be an artist, especially if I had a simple lifestyle."

Mary Plaster's own icon, Sophia, Divine Wisdom, has been reprinted hundreds of times and she says that Sister Mary Charles had an enormous impact on her life, "Mary Charles is a shining example of a talented artist who was supported by her community. She, in turn, was able to share her gifts and inspire countless people. I intend to live with her example."

Saved by Beauty

In the homily he gave at Sister Mary Charles’ funeral September 7, 2007, Father Gabriel Baltes said, “From classroom to studio, to churches and synagogues, to homes and hearts, her artistic creations, and especially her icons, became not only ways of teaching, but vehicles of revelation that inspired faith and caused people to bow in wonder and awe.”

Art that causes people to bow in wonder and awe is a mighty yet apt description for Sister Mary Charles' diverse portfolio. Peter Spooner was introduced to Sister Mary Charles' work seven or eight years ago when Joe and Susie Rosenzweig, her close friends, invited him to take a look at their collection. "What surprised me is she worked in so many different media. She worked in everything from woodcarving to cast sculptures. She worked in ceramics, she worked in fiber, batik, woodcut prints, lithographs, and graphic design.”

Peter speculates that the diversity of her art stems from her "artist in residency" type of role. "She felt like she was in service to the monastery." Sister Mary Charles said she wanted to, "save the world a bit through beauty and to glorify God through the work of my heart and hands."

Woodcuts, 1970 -1990, and icons, her last stage, are her best-known work. Her woodcuts are so finely detailed, that Peter describes them as drawings with a knife. Twenty years of this highly-physical art resulted in masterpieces that can be found all over the country, but it also took a toll on her shoulder. Julie and their friends would come to Sister Mary's studio and help roll the ink and hang the prints to dry, but there came a point when she realized it was time for a less physical medium. "I think she was praying for the next artistic direction," says Peter.

Iconography, a very specific art, became her passion. Unlike woodcut, there is a very particular technique - which brush strokes to use, the layers of the colors that are applied. It's also a meditative art that calls for a prayerful or meditative state while you paint. One of her students, Meridith Schifsky, remembers Sister Mary Charles "shushing" the class when they got too chatty, "She set a contemplative workshop."

Throughout her entire work, from the 1966's "Water, Tree, Rock" thirty-foot granite relief sculpture at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, to 2006's "Our Lady of the Pines," her final piece, Peter sees a commonality, "One of the things I've noticed through her work is there's this sort of repose, almost a meditative moment of ecstasy or joy."

Sister Mary Charles: Engagement and Transcendence

In her essay, "The World will be Saved by Beauty" Sister Mary Charles said she was haunted by the question, "Am I really touching anyone's life?" Peter answers that with this anecdote: When he started working on the exhibit Sister Mary Charles: Engagement and Transcendence, he put out a call for Duluthians touched by Sister Mary's work. "I was flooded with responses, I had scores of replies."

One of the people who knew her best, Julie Calligure, acknowledges that the exhibit won't be able to reconstruct Sister Mary's personality, but the art will serve as an introduction, "I think the art itself will express. The feeling is there. You just open your eyes, and there it is."

The exhibit is a collaboration between the Tweed Museum of Art and St. Scholastica Monastery. It runs through September 21, 2014 and features a gallery talk on Sunday, June 29. More information here.

Our Lady of the Pines Mary Magdelene
Our Lady of the Pines, 2006 - 2007 Mary Magdalene Announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, 1993

Story by Lori C. Melton

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