Sister Shirley masters centuries-old woodworking craft

04/20/2019 11:06 am

Story by Mike Tighe, La Crosse, Wisconsin

MEDFORD, Wis. --- Sister Shirley Wagner could be the poster girl for the old saw that elderly nuns never retire --- they just retread themselves, as she has done for the past quarter century.

Although Wagner never had touched a woodworking tool in her life, the jovial, 5-foot-half-inch dynamo bought herself a $1,200 Hegner scroll saw on a whim around the time she retired 25 years ago from her lifelong roles as a music teacher and symphony conductor, as well as her second career as a pastoral minister at Holy Rosary Parish in Medford.

Sister Shirley at scroll saw
Wagner, a member of the La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, commenced to teach herself the centuries-old woodworking craft of intarsia, a technique that results in colorful wooden designs with a 3-D effect, and became so adept that she has produced more than 700 commissioned works.
Wagner’s creations, displayed in five countries and throughout the United States, range from several large multi-colored versions of the Last Supper --- one in the cafeteria of the motherhouse of her order, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, is 20 feet wide --- to minuscule pieces of furniture and animals she has fashioned for dollhouses, barns and other small projects. She began with traditional icons of religious figures before moving on and up into more complex designs.

The 89-year-old Wagner has created several life-sized and larger variations of Jesus, including depictions of a Last Supper at Blessed Sacrament in La Crosse, where she once taught; a resurrection cross, a covenant cross and a cross depicting Jesus the Worker; Stations of the Cross for Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Gilman, Wis.; the Holy Spirit with flames representing the seven gifts at Holy Ghost Church in Chippewa Falls; artwork at St. Clare of Assisi school in Greenleaf, near Breen Bay; logo replicas for companies such as Harley-Davidson and Weathershield, as well as the Wisconsin State Patrol, among others; scenery and animals; portraits, and other artwork that churches, companies and organizations and individuals have commissioned.

Despite her artistic accomplishments and accumulated accolades, Wagner remains as humble as St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, befitting her 75 years as a member of the La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who model themselves after Francis and Clare.

“So much of what I’ve done (in woodworking) is the result of goof-ups,” she said with her characteristic laugh, which begins deep inside her and bubbles to the surface as her eyes light up and her shoulders heave. A few flubs are to be expected, considering that Wagner’s only experience with wood to that point in her life was wielding a toothpick to dislodge a piece of food scrunched between two molars.

Wagner gravitated to her third career --- woodworking and other artistic endeavors --- after feeling burned out from juggling duties as a pastoral associate, sacramental director and liturgy director at Holy Rosary, one of the largest parishes in the La Crosse Diocese. “I was just wearing out,” said Wagner, whose anxiety coping skillset includes the ability to tell jokes --- dropping straight lines as well as punch lines --- at the slightest thing that humors her.

While searching for a diversion from the stress, she happened upon an intarsia of a wolf in a flyer. “I said, ‘I can do that,’” she recalled. “Within 15 minutes, I was downtown, looking for tools.” Wagner settled on the scroll saw, confessing that, at the princely sum of $1,200, “I must have thought I was going to do OK.” In short order, she had fashioned dozens of wooden angels before asking herself, “Now, what do I do with them?” She solved that conundrum by giving most of them away, selling some and filling orders that continued to come her way.

From then on, she devised projects and buzzed through them faster than a chop saw through balsawood. Her basement workshop now includes the original scroll saw, as well as another, larger, Hegner; two drill presses; a jointer; a planer; a chop saw; a variety of Dremel tools and sundry others --- some powered and some manual.

“I’ve got more tools than many carpenters,” she said, without noting whether that includes The Carpenter. Intarsia is a woodworking technique in which artisans create a puzzle of sorts and then solve it when they fit together various shapes and sizes of wood. The palette for the finished product generally comes from incorporating different species of woods with various colors and textures instead of painting and staining.

Wagner, who uses a 15-step process for each piece of wood for an intarsia, said she starts by tracing a pattern, deciding the color and grain for each and cutting out each of what can be hundreds of pieces to realize her vision. The end product features a 3-D effect achieved by hand-sanding or using a palm sander to round the edges of each piece.

Wagner is mindful that, whatever she builds, she must be able to get out of the basement. She learned that lesson the hard way, after building a dollhouse that was too big to muscle up the steps and through the door. She had to cut it in half and put it back together again.

The 20-foot Last Supper intarsia in St. Rose Convent, the FSPA motherhouse, had to be cut into three pieces and put back together in La Crosse. It is one of five Last Suppers she has fashioned, including one at Mount St. Francis --- the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa --- that includes just five of the apostles but also features children, Mary and Joseph, an immigrant couple, and religious and social justice figures the Dubuque Franciscans requested, including Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., St. Clare and St. Francis, among others. 

“The hard part of doing the Last Supper, when they’re all looking the same way, is doing their faces so they don’t all look the same, and changing the color of their hair,” Wagner said. Even as stunning as the Last Suppers are, and the praise they evoke, so fervent, Wagner doesn’t consider them her best work. That honor goes to the Stations of the Cross she designed and crafted for Ss. Peter and Paul in Gilman. She employed stains for the figures --- some natural, from woods, and others, aniline stains. The crucifixes she fashioned from salvaged barnwood, and the lettering describing each station is gold leaf. “That is my favorite project,” she said, adding that she was able to complete two stations a week --- nearly four months of work.

Sister Shirley and her Last Supper Intarsia

Among her other favorites are an intarsia of the Holy Ghost for the Catholic church of the same name in Chippewa Falls, Wis. A relatively small intarsia in her living room --- a sailor prepped to take to the high seas --- illustrates the combinations of woods she employs. Wagner delights in pointing out that his coat is from an ash tree, his turtle neck collar is zebra wood, his hair is ebony, his pants are popple, and other woods complete his outfit.

“Small ones for people are just as hard to do as the big ones,” she said. “Oh, I’ve done a million horses.” Several of Wagner’s images of Christ served as an emotional release for her, after ISIS kidnapped 21 Coptic Egyptians in December 2014 and beheaded them in Tripoli, Libya, two months later. Those images are at Christ Lutheran Church in Abbotsford, Wis.; Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Whittlesey, Wis., and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Amery, Wis., among others. “I just had to get my anger out,” she said, lips pursed.

Wagner, who also taught at Aquinas Catholic Schools in La Crosse, apologizes often when talking about her artwork, explaining, “I sound like I’m bragging. Well, I’m proud of my work.” On the contrary, she doesn’t strike a visitor as boastful but rather, a faith-filled woman who marvels at the variety of woods, colors and grains God has created.

Asked what makes sumac her favorite wood, she answered simply, “God did it.” Pressed to be more specific, she praised the colors embedded in the wood --- browns, greens and yellows, with no pieces the same --- before repeating her original assessment, “God did it; you’d have to ask him. “It’s like that (gay) presidential candidate (Democrat Pete) Buttigieg says --- ‘If you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel … is with my creator,’” she said with a smile that betrayed the mischief that also shoots from her hazel eyes.

Wagner’s artistic prowess extends beyond intarsia to include wooden bowl making; painting in a host of mediums --- “oils, acrylics, pencils, whatever I think is required” --- including a painting hanging in her living room that features 10 varieties of eagles; wood carving, and using other mediums.

Sister Shirley's eagles painting

Paramount among her projects is, perhaps, her rendition of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which she describes as her “masterpiece.” She employed the tedious, meticulous technique called fretwork for the cathedral. Fretwork requires drilling a hole in a piece of wood that will have delicate patterns, taking the blade out of the scroll saw, inserting it through the hole and tediously sawing the filigree, piece by piece. The door to the cathedral alone took five hours, and she worked an entire year to complete the work, she said. She is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to find a place willing to display the model, which features many parts that are as delicate as Queen Anne’s lace and is more than three feet high and three feet wide. “I would donate it, if it would be in a place where it is respected,” she said.

Sister Shirley with Notre Dame Cathedral Intarsia

Wagner is an unofficial mentor to Carol Brost, whose work has reached the point of rivaling the teacher’s. Brost has a work table in Wagner’s basement, an honor also recently given to Brost’s husband, Dan. His workplace is the smallest of the three, with Wagner’s being the largest, as could be expected. Carol heralds Wagner as “a lifesaver for me. I had no hobbies, and I don’t know what I’d have done without her. I was depressed, and she gave me something to do. She has blessed me. “This is the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” Carol said as she worked on an intarsia owl. Even though Wagner technically isn’t a pastoral minister at Holy Rosary any more, Carol said she still plays a major role in counseling people, advising the pastor, Very Rev. Phil Juza on seasonal decorations, and ministering, especially to families upon a member’s death. “She’s always there for families,” Carol said, prompting Wagner to say, “Let’s just say I’m there but not salaried.”

Sister Shirley with friend Carol

Wagner also is the adviser for five FSPA affiliates, who are laypeople committed to following Franciscan practices and values, in the Medford area. Wagner, who was born and raised south of Marathon, Wis, has called upon her can-do attitude throughout her life, perhaps the most significant of which was at the age of 14. She came home from school one day and told her mother, Cecelia, that she wanted to join the FSPAs, with whom she had become familiar at St. Mary’s School. Cecelia nixed the idea, which prompted Wagner “to go up to my room, and I said I wasn’t going to come down and eat --- how long would that have lasted --- until she said yes.” When her father, Ed, came home, Wagner recalled, “I heard them talking and he said, ‘Oh, let her go.’”

So Wagner got her wish, coming to La Crosse and the convent at the age of 14½. When it came time to choose a major in college, which would lead to her teaching career, Wagner said the art teacher recommended art, while the music teacher insisted on music.
“Musicians were the only ones who brought in the money, teaching private lessons,” she said, laughing at the FSPA order’s practical approach even then. Now, though, with some of her commissioned works selling for as much as $5,000, she can argue that artists can fetch a fair amount of money for the order’s coffers. “I love my community,” Wagner said. “They’re the best in the world. They’ve got their heads on straight.”

Wagner, who trained with Andor Toth, concertmaster of the New York Symphony, thrived during a career that included not only teaching but also conducting symphony orchestras, including the Minneapolis Symphony Players, the All-City Orchestra in La Crosse and symphonies in other venues. She recalled an incident in which a Minneapolis symphony conductor challenged her approach on a piece she was directing, prompting her to give him a verbal scolding --- if not a knuckle rap with her conductor wand.
“I may be a country bumpkin, but I’m the conductor here,” she said she told him. “If you are a conductor, you are a dictator,” she said.

When Wagner’s career path shifted to pastoral ministry in the 1960s, FSPA leaders suggested that she take training in that field, she countered, “Anybody can be a musician, but not everybody can do what sisters can do. If I can direct finicky musicians, I could do anything.” She did it without the training, she said, flashing a mischievous grin. Wagner’s eyes turned impish again when she described her plan for her green burial, in which FSPA members can choose to forgo embalming and be buried within 24 hours after they die. They are buried without a coffin, and other sisters are tasked with carrying the body of the deceased on a board, sliding it into the grave and covering it with dirt. “I’m going to make my own board, and make it smooth and shiny, so I won’t get splinters,” Wagner said with a deep, satisfied laugh.


Captions for photos used throughout this story, also courtesy of Mike Tighe:

The first photo is of Sister Shirley at her trusty, original scroll saw.
Second is Sister Shirley with her intarsia at St. Rose (contributed photo). 
Third is Sister Shirley's eagle painting.
Fourth is Sister Shirley with her rendition of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (such a sad story this week). She used time-consuming technique of fretwork to make it.
Fifth is Sister Shirley with Carol Brost, whom she mentors, as they admire an owl Carol is making.

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