Artwork By Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters Showcased In O’Connor Art Gallery Exhibit

February 7, 2017

By Mary Alice Maloney

While the 800 jubilee of the founding of the Dominican Order of Preachers came to a close at the end of 2016, the celebration of the Sinsinawa Sisters is far from over.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the O’Connor Art Gallery in Lewis Hall hosted an opening event for a new art exhibit titled “Past and Present: Artwork by Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters”. The showcase features paintings, drawings, etchings and more created by both 21 century Sisters and those from the late 1800s.

O’Connor Art Gallery Director, Andrew Reyes-Burkholder ’13, shared that the Dominican art department wanted to contribute to the 800 celebration.

“I really wanted to show off the variety of medium and artistry I found while searching for pieces for this show,” Reyes-Burkholder said. “Painting, drawing, silkscreening, and also the mix of contemporary Sisters and those from the past share the wide history of the creativity of our Sisters.”

Preceding the exhibit opening, a crowd of Sisters, Dominican faculty and staff, and students gathered to participate in a discussion with Sister Priscilla Wood, OP, the director of the office of arts and cultural heritage at the Sinsinawa Mound Center in Wisconsin. It serves as the Motherhouse for Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. Sister Wood shared the inspirations behind the exhibit’s artwork and stories about the lives of the women who created the pieces.

“This exhibit is only the tip of the iceberg,” Sister Wood said, expressing that the scope of the artistic abilities of the Sinsinawa Sisters and their artwork could fill a whole museum. “However, the art on display here is representative of the diverse talents of our Sister artists.”

In the center of the west wall of the gallery, four graphite and charcoal drawn portraits surround a larger painted portrait. Sister Catherine Wall, OP completed the drawings, between 1895 and 1905 at a drawing class she frequently attended, where ordinary townspeople sat as the models for the portraits and subsequently came to life on paper through the work of Sister Catherine’s hands. The larger oil on canvas painting is a portrait of Cardinal Mundelein, painted by Sister Catherine circa 1900. On the south wall of the gallery, a copy of the Sistine Madonna completed by Sister Catherine in 1912 hangs in its original unrestored state from the moment of its discovery, where it was folded up in an attic here at Dominican.

Other art is more contemporary, including a series of four pieces done by Toni Harris, OP in 2010. The series is called My Mother’s Window, and features real photographs of Sister Harris’s mother accompanied by watercolor, paper, and ink windows created to give the illusion that one is peering into the life of a mother. During her talk, Sister Priscilla shared that many of us often see our mothers as though we are outside looking in through different lenses or windows, and Sister Harris strived to capture that feeling in this work of art.

Junior art history student Reyna Rodriquez was pleasantly surprised to find that Sinsinawa Sisters are so creatively talented. “I had no idea that these Sisters made art,” Rodriguez said. “And some of it doesn’t seem religious, which is interesting. I was expecting every piece to be religion-based. There are a lot of beautiful, fun pieces here.”

Many of the pieces featured in the exhibit were sent to the O’Connor Art Gallery from The Mound, where a large collection of Sinsinawa art is not only stored but also created.

“Not every group of religious sisters was encouraged to do something as ‘impractical’ as the arts,” Sister Priscilla said. “But as Sinsinawa Dominicans, we know that art is valuable and a way for us to preach.”

Reyes-Burkholder hopes that the exhibit will help to demonstrate the importance of the Sisters in the Dominican community that he himself experienced when he was an art history and sculpture student.

“I had a few Sisters as professors when I was here, and these women really are an essential part of the fabric of the university,” Reyes-Burkholder. “They make this university what it is, and this exhibit is a gesture of gratitude for everything they do for us here.”