Five years ago, as the director of both the volunteer and monastic immersion programs for the Benedictine Monastery of St. Gertrude, Sister Teresa Jackson had a revelation of sorts. She was thinking about the legacy of visual arts, especially through the monastery’s Spirit Center. One of several components of the 110-year-old Cottonwood, Idaho monastery, the Spirit Center regularly hosts arts-based retreats, features artwork on the walls, and includes an artmaking space for the 30 sisters who call St. Gertrude’s home.
“I thought, ‘We’ve got a real history of art with the Spirit Center,’” said Jackson, who developed an artist residency program in 2014 and has been refining it ever since.
The plan was for guests artists to live on-site, making art in a studio once occupied by one of the sisters, and sharing their work and experience with the monastic and surrounding community. Although the initial year featured numerous artists simultandddddddddeously, said Jackson, they quickly realized that focusing on a single artist residency would work better.
There is no fee to apply or participate, explained Jackson, who screens all potential candidates to ensure they are established in their studio practice and would fit well at the monastery, where they would live for up to a month.
“They do not have to be exceptional artists,” said Jackson, who likes to write and has made some small films.
Artists may attend mass—or not—and all faiths are welcome. “It’s an opportunity to integrate their faith,” said Jackson, who has lived at St. Gertrude’s for 21 years.
“We get a lot of later-in-life folks,” added Sister Theresa Henson, the media coordinator at the Monastery, where she has lived since 2010.
To date, St. Gertrude’s has hosted more than a dozen creatives, mostly visual artists—sculptors, bookmakers, painters, printmakers—but also writers and one musical composer, Xanthe Kraft, a 24-year-old Spokane resident who performed the mass she composed during her residency earlier this spring.
Artist Janet Wilbanks recently completed a month-long residency at St. Gertrude’s, where she hoped to advance her painting technique to better paint portraits of her grandchildren, as well as work on her creative practice.
“When I was figuring out what [art supplies] to pack, I had to figure out what I wanted to accomplish,” said Wilbanks, who found out about the program through an Internet search for artist-in-residence programs near her Cheney, Wash., home. She set herself the task of replicating Old Masters approach to painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1899 Girl Holding Lemons.
A practicing Lutheran, Wilbanks attended mass, joined community walks with the sisters, read a lot—the Monastery has a modest lending library, including books on Benedictine spirituality—and spent time in the studio.
Located on the uppermost floor of the monastery, the studio has numerous tables, bookcases, and art supplies, mostly for painting, but also for sculpting, drawing and glasswork. Large windows provide a view from the rear of the monastery over the garden, orchards, and a steep ridge upon which deer like to gather and graze.
Although a back injury prevented Wilbanks from climbing that ridge or completing her painting, she was appreciative of the experience, especially her culminating presentation to the community
“It was wonderful because they end with a blessing,” she said.
The artist residency is one of several ways St. Gertrude’s fulfills their multi-faceted mission, which is to “seek God together through monastic profession and respond in healing hospitality, grateful simplicity, and creative peacemaking.”
The monastery also hosts several art exhibitions, including an annual display during their August Raspberry Festival, which features an arts & crafts fair, car show, kids’ carnival, live music, fun run, food—raspberries, of course, but also a pancake breakfast and barbecue—as well as tours of the chapel, which is listed on the National Historic Register.
Twice a year St. Gertrude conducts an “Art Challenge,” which can also include performance, but typically is represented by visual artists, and is open to anyone—including individuals from out of state—who finds out about the challenge and signs up by email. Held during spring and fall, an organizer comes up with a theme—past challenges include the “Road to Emmaus” and “Song of Mary”—and invites people to respond with a piece of artwork. The organizer sends prompts via email once a week for six weeks, to help build a dialogue around the theme. The resulting work is displayed along the hallway into the common dining area.
Former artist-in-resident Judith Marvin organized the most recent challenge addressing “hospitality.”
The biggest benefit of the Art Challenge, said Jackson, is in people sharing.
Whether they are participating in a retreat, residency, or Art Challenge, the artists aren’t the only ones to benefit, said Henson; the sisters and surrounding community benefit too.
“What [the artists] bring to the community, honestly, is a lot of love.” — ISI