My friends know that I’ll tell anyone interested in painting to go do an Internet search on “Sister Wendy.” So it is with real sadness I discovered that Sister Wendy Beckett died today at the age of 88. She was an unlikely figure to discuss art, beginning, of course, with her chosen profession – one steeped, we assume, in rigid dogma and carnal shame. When I first heard about her years ago, my initial reaction was to brush her aside as simply a media fad. But a close friend, who is both an exceptionally talented painter and a bit jaded on how art is viewed in the media, encouraged me to have a real look: she had interesting things to say.
And indeed she does. If you’ve never seen her videos by all means seek them out; a taste can be had for free on the Internet. Be prepared to feel like you are on a grand adventure of the human soul. Sister Wendy’s voice is not authoritative but rather authentic. In a pre-Internet age, she learned about painting and developed an aesthetic sense purely through self-study. Her first forays consisted of looking at reproductions on postcards – something anyone can do. But rather than simply absorb academic writings, it is clear that Sister Wendy comes to each piece with her own sensibility.
And it is this authenticity that gives her authority. The authority is obvious if you’ve even seen her speak to the camera. Incredibly, she never worked off of notes and never rehearsed. Her shows consist of her approaching a piece of fine art, taking it in for a moment, and then improvising to the camera on the spot. There was no ideology in her commentary, only empathy. She’s absorbed Western thought and Western culture directly from the Art without the need of pundits, sociologists, and culture commentators. And lest anyone think she simply gave over to the traditional academic cannon, her first book was entitled Contemporary Women Artists. Published in – get this – 1988. When Ronald Reagan was President.
The Sister was a sister, too.
My friend was correct about Sister Wendy, as he usually is in things of art. If you are interested in broadening yourself, she is worth a look. That doesn’t mean I always agree with her. I find myself more in agreement with the views of Robert Hughes, for example, than those of Sister Wendy over Andy Warhol’s work.
But that’s hardly the point. Like a favorite auntie, Sister Wendy speaks to us with a calm and experienced voice. I enjoy every visit with her. Rather than simply describing a canvas, she created for us a full experience of it. She never “explained” a painting. Her discussions are not reductionist. Rather, she placed every work in a context, not just in the history of art, but also in the catalogue of human desires and yearnings. Even when I am quite familiar with the works she discusses, like those displayed in the Norton Simon in Pasadena, California, she brings a fresh and personal perspective.
The Sister inspired in the most fundamental sense. Naturally, her commentary encouraged my inner creative spirit. But often she simply moved me to be more curious, more questioning. To be a seeker. For Sister Wendy’s journey with painting had not only given her great insight into the human condition but also the ability to articulate it. What would you imagine, for example, this nun’s comments to be about an infamous photograph, the Piss Christ, which is an image of a small crucifix immersed in urine? I certainly was surprised by her delightfully sly response which also gave me a deeper appreciation about art evaluation and criticism. I encourage you to have your own experience with her answer in the video below.
As is often touted but not as often demonstrated, art has the power to open us. To make us more aware. To make us more empathetic.
Sister Wendy demonstrated all of that. She did it by taking her own path and encouraged us to do the same.
In this age of demographic targeting and socially-encouraged themes, Sister Wendy reminds us that art originates from imperfect humans, each struggling with their own personal expression of a viewpoint. More importantly, she reminds us that art contemplation, rather than art consumption, enriches our world view. The contemplation takes us beyond taught dogma; it takes us beyond preconceived ideas.
It connects us to our common humanity.
Thanks for the lessons, Sister. You took the things of this Earth and allowed us see the divine spirit in each of them.