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  Sister Mary James Ann  (1914 - 1980)

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Lived/Active: Iowa/California/Illinois      Known for: abstract painting, teaching

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Sister Mary Seraphia is primarily known as Sister Mary James Ann

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Sister Mary James Ann
An example of work by Sister Mary Seraphia
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information is from Michele Walfred, niece of the artist.  She writes that she has created a blog "to chronicle my journey to discover art works by the artist known as Sister Mary James Ann, B.V.M., a Sisters of Charity nun, and my only maternal aunt, neé Seraphia Walsh.  Decades after her death, and years after my mother’s, when there is no one around anymore to probe for questions, I have discovered that I missed a huge opportunity to connect with and learn about an incredible family artist. 

My aunt was a BVM Sister of Charity, art instructor and modern artists who exhibited widely in the Midwest region (1950s-1968), mainly Iowa, and perhaps in Northern California in the 1970s. Her artwork is progressive, primarily abstract and she experimented with line, color and form in her work. Her influences were Diego Rivera and George Rouault. Her watercolor, Ecce Homo, won the 9th Annual Iowa Watercolor show in 1953 and is in the permanent collection of Sioux City Art Center.  Modest about her talent, my family did not fully understand or appreciate the scope of her work. We suspect her work exists all over the country in private homes and collections throughout the U.S.

Sister Mary James Ann was the head of the art department at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. Her art, especially her later work, is trippy, wild and fluid. She was hip and cool! Her work invites interpretation. They explode with color and expression. These images were nothing like the two paintings that adorned our dining room walls. Earlier religious subjects appear to yield, in later years, to the natural and abstract.  Is this significant? Cézzane, Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe initially came to mind when I first saw them- but frankly, I don’t know enough about art to comment on who her influences were. All of this discovery is still sinking in and with the few glimpses allowed to me thus far, I can only write about what I feel, and hope through formal thesis and research to present a more erudite, yet personal portrait of an artist as a nun.

She deserves this tribute and based on non-family feedback I have received so far, this effort has value and relevance beyond my family.  Much of her work remains hidden away in private and personal collections. The Internet is my best hope for reaching out to those institutions, families and individuals that have been able to appreciate and see value in her work. She has fans out there! It’s my hope we can exchange information. I’ll trade the back story for a good photograph! I hope to catalog as many of her works as I can – and personally visit as many as possible. In these past few weeks, all these revelations have accumulated within, a call for me to be in their/her presence, to see where her paint collected, where her path of media and brush might indicate frustration or elation -tranquility or peace – pain or joy. My first stop will be in Iowa, where I suspect the vast majority of her pieces still exist. I have several good leads to pursue!

My aunt was a woman hidden under black, with embellishments of starched white for most of her life, a life that vowed charity, humility and poverty. A life devoted to others in service of her faith. I remember her kind nature and great Irish laugh. She was more than a nun. She was a confident, creative human being, encouraged (thankfully) by her B.V.M. order to pursue advanced studies and travel broadly to hone her artistic voice.  I can only thank God she didn’t enter into a cloister at 17, but chose a more progressive society in which to fulfill her mission and share her faith.

No longer can I pick up the phone and call her – but I am beginning to see her diary (one slow page at a time) that landed in strokes on canvas. I am having the long overdue conversation with her now and I am going to have to listen to her carefully. Her gentle presence urges me on. I hear her calm, sweet voice in the back of my head, modestly saying, “well, if you must….”

I must. I am compelled. My aunt was an artist, art historian and teacher of students. She loved teaching at the college level. Armed with two advanced degrees, teaching took her from Iowa to California, with several trips to Europe in between, and on the West Coast, right in the thick of the San Francisco scene where clothing, hair, song and attitude were all artistic expressions, she blended right in with her creative insight and tolerant, open mind. She talked the art jive.  Still a practicing nun, but sans habit, and calling herself “Miss Ann Walsh,” she related well with her students at Guadalupe and West Valley Colleges, and continued to teach the public as a paid docent at the respected de Young Museum in San Francisco, a position she held until her death in 1980.

So it’s appropriate now, as I pursue a graduate degree late in life, that I am her eager and willing student, and she my posthumous professor.  I know her. She’d be excited to take on a new student, desiring only for that student to look within and find the personal voice and a uniquely personal way to express it. She will not be able to tell me what was going in inside her thoughts when she created her pieces. Instead, a successful dialogue will depend on trusting my own instincts, first impressions and inner voice and marry them to my research of her collected work- much of which is currently beyond my reach.  Her work, be they sketches, pen and inks, watercolor, tempra or oil, small or large, once found, need to be evaluated in their entirety. They represent her moods, her growth, her feelings about faith and spirituality. Where and how she saw God at work in the natural world and in people she encountered. So far, it looks as though she had a lot to communicate! Trying to find all of her artistic output is going to be a challenge. They are my equivalent of a stack of brown letters found in an attic, tied together with a faded blue ribbon. My aunt’s letters are scattered all over the U.S., hanging in the living rooms, dining rooms and hallways of unknown homes and galleries.

Seraphia Angela Walsh was born on Nov. 4, 1913 the first child of Anna Loretto Walsh, neé Cannon, and James Edward Walsh Jr., in Pontiac, Illinois. Her mother (my grandmother) was a devout Catholic – the middle name Loretto (with an “o”), is the name of an order of nuns. The family was fairly well-to-do, and later moved to Chicago, Ill. (Evanston, actually) where they lived when the stock market crash occurred in 1929.

Seraphia entered the Sisters of Charity, Blessed Virgin Mary order, in Mt. Carmel, Dubuque, Iowa on Sept. 8, 1930. She was 17. She had a reception at the convent before she graduated high school. She graduated from Immaculata High School in Chicago in 1930. It was run by the SOC (also my mother’s Alma Mater.)

According to convent records, my aunt had a: Reception date of 3/19/30  (before she graduated) ?First vow: 3/19/33?Final vow: 8/13/38

In 1933, records show she began teaching at Clarke College, a private Catholic institution for girls.  She received her B.A. at Clarke, but records do not indicate her major.  At some point in time, she earned a Master of Arts at University of Iowa (SUI).


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