Nun Teaches That `We Are All Born Artists'

Article excerpt

God `made us like a camera. You gotta open your eyes to eat with your eyes.'

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. …