Artists vent their religious traumas in work

October 30, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

One by one, the artists took turns describing what they said were traumas the Roman Catholic Church had visited upon their childhoods.

"I went through grade school frightened every day," said Ron Lang, standing next to his ceramic sculpture of a nun in ecstasy, stuffing her face with bonbons. "In high school, they only let the girls take art class," he said.

"The Catholics are big on teaching," said Nancy Wilson, attempting to explain a boomerang lodged in a mantilla.

"But once you learn to think for yourself, you're gone."

Said Margarida Kendall, who painted an adolescent Eve with a serpent around her neck: "You may or may not rebel, but you can't dismiss it."

After they had confessed the demons driving their work -- some of them exorcised, some still on the loose -- the artists received the blessing of Sister Trinitas Bochinia, the only nun in the room.

"The problem of beauty, pain, growth and making decisions about a belief system that has marked you forever is confronted here -- that's what makes the artist live in your work," said Sister Trinitas, who teaches psychology at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. "It's a beautiful thing that I'm seeing here."

The member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame seemed to be talking as much about the struggle behind the work as the work itself.

The exhibit is "Catholic Girls," on display at Maryland Art Place in downtown Baltimore through Nov. 19.

The show, sometimes sacred, sometimes profane and often silly, includes a female crucified, Catholic schoolgirls turned into wild birds flying through the roof of a church and a 6-foot-tall effigy of a nun in black habit and wimple, lording a blackboard pointer over a group of glum first-graders.

Yesterday, about half of the 36 artists whose work is on display walked through the gallery at 218 W. Saratoga St., talking about each piece, sometimes with difficulty, before sitting for a group discussion.

A small group of people who have taken religious vows were supposed to participate, but only Sister Trinitas showed up.

Sister Trinitas, a 47-year member of her religious order, said that, whether at an art show many Catholics might consider blasphemous, attending Mass or simply walking down the street, she symbolizes nothing but herself.

Asked whether the stereotypical portrayal of nuns as cruel dictators offended her, she said: "I'm not so angry about it anymore, but I [had] been angry about it for many years. I've been dealt with as an icon, not permitted to be who I am. I don't think you ever get over being angry about it."

Which is exactly what the artists who endured years on the other side of the parochial school desk were complaining about.

"It took a certain amount of courage just to be involved in this show," said Mary Ann Crowe. Ms. Crowe dedicated her piece -- contrasting the "sexist dogma of St. Thomas Aquinas" with the "poetic expansiveness" of a Bahai spiritual leader -- to "the courageous Diaspora of ex-Catholic girls."

"Catholicism," she said, "isn't something that makes an artist feel like you're at the forefront of the avant-garde."

Some of the intended horror did not turn out as horrific as the artists would have liked.

The church that the avian school girls burst out of in their flight to freedom was supposed to be really scary, said Carla Beaudet and Mary Owens of their piece, "Kilts Misfire."

But to many, the church looked harmless, like a cartoon gingerbread house, despite the clergy running for their lives out of the front door.

"We hoped it might remind people of 'Godzilla Eats the Catholic Church,' " Ms. Owens said.

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