“Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us”
–“Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” by Mary Oliver
My first art lesson was in a small second floor studio in the woods of Lacombe, Louisiana. I was a teenager about to leave for college completely unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My teacher was a Carmelite nun I’ve heard described as “walking peace.” My great Aunt, Sister Catherine Martin, had a tiny voice that could speak directly to you with the weight of love. So many people have booming voices with empty messages. She was the opposite.
She was a master of pencil— slowly, methodically, effortlessly, without worry or anxiety or fear pressing it onto the paper to form gently rendered faces, eyes that really seemed to be windows to the soul, not just of the person who was her subject, but the soul of a human experience I was beginning to understand.
Everything she taught me from those few sessions in her studio, I eventually taught my own students at the school where I may have been destined to teach– Mount Carmel Academy. In three or four lessons she created the basis for everything I knew about art. I learned how to shade the top of an iris because that’s where it’s most in shadow; how to suggest rather than articulate a lash line; I learned that art was as much about the movement of your hands and heart as it was about what appeared on the surface; that it was good in and of itself; that art could bring you to God. She taught me to create without judgment or fear or anxiety. These things did not exist in the studio in the woods.
Aunt Catherine died peacefully last week, and it feels like a light went out. She was physically so small but her spirit was a considerable, constant, gentle force in my life. Like a large shadow cast by a tiny creature when the sun shines upon it at just the right angle, her impact reached farther than her frail frame would suggest it could. She looked for and found the good in others. No matter who you were or where you had been she would find and celebrate your innate goodness. To be in her presence was to feel seen.
When my son was born in 2012, I gave him the middle name “Martin” in honor of Sr. Catherine and her two sisters, my grandmother and other great Aunt, each of whom have a variation of that same loving spirit; each of whom has informed the kind of person I long to be. I wish his world could have her in it the way mine always did. I hope I can share with him and my stepsons some of Aunt Catherine’s spirit- gentleness and kindness, calm amid chaos, peace in turmoil, seeing good before fault, and an openness to a God bigger than our imaginations, politics, or fears.
When I took my first art lesson in the studio in the woods, I had no idea I would one day become a professional artist. I didn’t know I would one day use art to heal from grief or create a new future. I didn’t know who I would become. I owe so much of what transpired to a tiny little nun who could draw better than anyone I knew.
The lessons in her studio didn’t seem profound at the time. We drew in silence for much of them. I’m learning that the profound often isn’t loud or loquacious. The profound is often adorned in simplicity. Her life left a profound mark on me– one I pray I carry with me all my days.