Meditations in craft, and in clay

  • Keith-C-Burris-3

  • I met Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak a few days back — an 84-year-old Franciscan nun who makes ceramic murals at her studio on the campus of Lourdes University, where she taught for three decades. For 90 minutes I stepped into another world. A peaceful, gentle world. Sister Jane Mary’s world.

    Sister has made scores of murals that adorn the campus, which is itself a work of art. She has done this work for another 30 years, overlapping some with her teaching. All the result, she said, of happenstance. She was really a painter and art historian, “but we had all this wall space to fill.” So she began to make ceramic murals. “I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning,” she says, so she learned as she went.

    Now her work adorns not only the Lourdes campus, which was created by another artist, Mother Adelaide, who founded the college, but hospital chapels, schools, and churches from Michigan to Texas. She has never sought a job but always been sought out by a person or representatives of an institution who saw a previous work. And she has completed more than 100 projects, some of them monumental. My favorite on the Lourdes campus is a giant one of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In it, a boy is assisting Jesus. Sister loved this version of the story best, from the Gospel of John. I admire, as well, her medieval style renderings of the Blessed Mother and St. Francis, also on campus.

    Sister has three commissions in the works now and more in the pipeline. She and the volunteers who help her in her studio, most prominently Sister Margaret, work six hours every day, breaking at noon and at three. Until a few years ago, Sister Jane Mary got up in the cherry pickers and on scaffolding for installations — hard hat over habit. She still wears a habit, which fits in with the calming groundedness of this woman.

    Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak
    Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak

    But even forces of nature diminish. Now Sister Jane Mary must rely on her favorite craftsman of installation — Hans Klinck. He is pragmatic and intuitive like her, a perfectionist like her, and “he can solve practical problems,” she says. When you are installing art that will cover a three-story wall top to bottom, installation is a key part of the art.

    All of the pieces of Sister Jane Mary’s murals are numbered and laid out ahead of time as well as on the job when installed. She sketches and draws a model picture first, after talking with the commissioning party and considering the function and placement of the proposed piece, be it a church archway or even a cemetery. She is open to all and to all ideas. She even did a sports mosaic — “I know nothing about athletics. No interest at all.”— for St. John’s Jesuit Academy here in Toledo. She learned about sports.

    But she is the artist and gets the last word. She insisted that a memorial to the unborn be prayerful and devotional and not simply editorial, for example.

    Sister was working on a new mural on St. Katharine Drexel for a church in Minnesota, of the same name, on the day I visited her. She was very happy I brought my wife, Amy, who is an artist and art teacher, with me so she could talk to someone about clay and kilns — someone who actually understood what she was talking about.

    I once heard a monk speak of the monastic life this way: “You can’t explain it really. You just have to experience it.” This is the way with Sister Jane Mary’s art. I have included pictures here, but you have to go to Lourdes, or St. Michael in Findlay, or the Church of the Little Flower in Toledo to see them, if you want to feel the impact of Sister Jane Mary’s art. I know many people in Toledo have.

    These murals are miracles to me — so expressive and serene. They are really icons in ceramic form — meditations in clay. Their creation can be documented, but it cannot be explained.

    Sister says she simply follows her instincts and that seems to work out, plus there is always another job waiting, so she thinks, “I am meant to be doing this work.”

    And she will continue as long as she is physically able. She jokes that they will find her feet up and head down in her kiln one day.

    She tells me that El Greco is her favorite artist. And our own her favorite art museum. She has no favorite of her own creations — maybe the one she is working on now, if any. In the finished ones she always sees something that could be better. “Good for my humility,” she says.

    I have a theory about holiness and holy people. While I think goodness, like politeness — they are closely related — can be learned, I think holiness just is.

    I have known very religious people, some quite sincere in their devotion, who deeply wanted to be holy. But they weren’t. Because it is not a discipline, but a gift — one that exists without cultivation or even self-awareness. Maybe especially without self-awareness. My youngest son is good with animals, it’s just in him.

    I never met the Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I ever met anyone who did, but I like to imagine that, among other gifts, he possessed the gift of holiness. I figure anyone who could unite spirit and rocks; the Mass and Peking Man; creation and creator had to have been holy. Like Father Teilhard, Sister works with physical materials and finds God in them.

    My daughter and I once heard the Dalai Lama speak. The things he said were commonplace. If you read them on paper, you would almost think them pap. But he radiated a holiness, even from 1,000 feet away, that turned his simple words into profound ones. It’s something like when a great singer delivers a song with all his gifts of nuance and phrasing and maybe lack of complication — the simple becomes the profound and the seemingly simplistic, mystic. It is said that the sermons John the Evangelist preached at the end of his life all consisted of three words — over and over and over — “Love one another.”

    I am not sure all saints are holy or that all holy people are saints. I think Dr. Paul Farmer, physician to the Third World, is a saint , and I think Mother Teresa was. And Baldemar Velasquez is.

    But Sainthood is an act of will, conviction. Holiness an aura. An ultimate grace.

    Holy people are quiet people — so quiet they could disappear if necessary. And they usually laugh a lot. The Dalai Lama laughed a lot. I noticed Sister laughed a lot.

    I knew another monk once who was holy. It just flowed from him. As it does from Sister Jane Mary. He loved to ring the bell that called visitors to prayer and dinner. It was a loud, jarring bell. “I’m crazy about that thing, he would say, and laugh mightily. He embodied a pet phrase my friend Father Terry used to repeat: “Stay in the presence of God.”

    Someone once told Sister Jane Mary that she would be a millionaire artist were she not a nun. “On the contrary,” she said, “if I were not a nun I would not be an artist at all.” I think that’s right. I think she could only have produced her amazing works as the person she is, and that her deepest art is within. I think she is seldom outside the presence of God.

    Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

    Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.