FSPA Shares 'Love of Creation,' Franciscan Tradition of Art
By Charish Badzinski
Surrounded by her screen printings, paintings and icons — an immense body of work from a lifetime of creativity — Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Maryam Gossling smiles broadly.
Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Shirley Wagner pages through a binder of pictures of her art, including woodwork, paintings, statues and logos. With more than 725 commissioned works to her credit, it’s perhaps no surprise her art is well traveled. “I have art in five different countries,” she shares, including Ettenbeuren, Germany.
Inspired by nature, her grandmother’s love of lavender and purple as well as the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Pauline Wittry uses all three to inform her approach to art. “I did have the opportunity to go to some of the places where St. Francis lived and prayed. Unconsciously I think some of that influences you, because it influences your life; it shows up in what you’re painting.”
With every stroke of the paintbrush, every stitch in fabric, every handful of clay, every iconography workshop and every shaving of wood that falls away, the history of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration is told through the art and fine arts created over the years by the sisters themselves. Art has always played an essential role in the lives of the sisters — an outlet to express their love of creation, a celebration of the beauty of the world and a means to live out their Franciscan values. The Franciscan tradition of art is often encapsulated in the legendary story of Mother Antonia Herb, who went out to buy food for the community and purchased a painting instead. As she explained it, the sisters needed food for their souls as well as their bodies.
It only takes a walk down the halls of St. Rose Convent in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to determine without a doubt that the sisters have feasted on art ever since. In fact the FSPA have been incredibly prolific in their creation of art since the community was founded, with works in the FSPA Archives dating back to the early 1900s. Preserving and documenting the full scope of art created by the community is a daunting yet critical undertaking. The importance of the effort became particularly clear as war threatens historically significant art and artifacts in Ukraine. When FSPA Archivist Meg Paulino read a news story about the effort to digitize art in Ukraine so that it can be preserved for future generations, she was inspired to launch a like-minded effort at St. Rose.
Sisters Maryam Gossling, Shirley Wagner and Pauline Wittry
“We have so many pieces of art, and I want to ensure each has a digital footprint,” Meg explains. She hired Madeline Cochran, who holds a master’s degree in art and humanities and took cello lessons from Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Marcella Steffes, to work with her to digitally preserve these precious pieces of FSPA heritage. To that end, they have set up a photo studio to attempt to capture museum-quality digital images of each piece. To date they’ve digitized more than 500 pieces of art created by the community, with more
To fully understand the artist’s purpose requires further study. “We also thought how wonderful it would be to get their stories, talk to them about their art and record it in an oral history format, just capturing their essence,” explains Meg. So, in addition to leading the photography and editing, Madeline has been interviewing sisters to gain a deeper insight into their work.
The proverbial feasting upon Franciscan art continues, and the guest list at the table is growing. The long-term vision of preserving FSPA art extends beyond gathering digital records for the archives. The team is creating a lending library so that sisters and partners in mission can borrow artwork to beautify their spaces with an ever-evolving exhibit of this inspired artistry. More, the long-term vision of the initiative is to share this collection of artworks with the public, in what Meg envisions as an online art collection.
“I want people to be able to see this art, because art is nothing if it’s not seen,” she says. “We should be sharing it with the world.”
Whatever the inspiration or medium, as the tradition of Franciscan art continues, Sister Pauline offers some advice for budding artists. “Keep working at it. Don’t give up.” Now, with some of her pieces hanging on the physical walls and digital spaces of the world, she also stresses the importance of sharing your work. “If you’re starting out, it encourages you to have other people appreciate something you did.”