Clay Culture: Franciscan Sisters

Saint Francis Patron of Ecology (detail), Franciscan Center, Lourdes University, Sylvania, Ohio, stoneware, fired to cone 8,1983.

The Franciscan Sisters in Sylvania, Ohio, have been creating large-scale ceramic murals for over three and half decades and have had a commitment to clay for more than a century.

There is something truly incredible about the relationship between the Sisters of Saint Francis, Lourdes University, and clay. From the moment students step foot on this dual campus in Sylvania, Ohio, they are immersed in clay. Each first-year student receives a tile made by the Sisters, welcoming them to campus. The students are asked to hold onto these tiles during their time at the university and upon graduation they are to gift their tile to someone who positively impacted their experience. As students wander the halls of the Spanish-inspired buildings, they are again reminded of the school’s rich history and commitment to the beauty of clay, in the tiled floors, holy water fonts, mosaic work, and ceramic murals.

Saint Francis Patron of Ecology, Franciscan Center, Lourdes University, Sylvania, Ohio, stoneware, fired to cone 8,1983.

This commitment to clay began 100 years ago, when Mother Mary Adelaide, founder of the Sylvania, Ohio, Sisters of Saint Francis, began her travels across Europe, gathering art, tiles, fonts, and architectural elements that would inspire the Sisters and the students. She became the curator of all these treasures too, discovering the perfect location for their installation on campus. She believed that when surrounded by beauty, we learn to appreciate our surroundings, and grow to understand the beauty within ourselves. The Sisters were also great supporters of the creation of art on campus, and in the early 1980s they asked Sisters Agneta Ganzel, Helen Therese Chmura, and Jane Mary Sorosiak (all Franciscan community artists and art faculty at Lourdes University) to create a mural to grace the walls of the new Franciscan Center. This installation would become the first of many murals the Sisters would create in their downtime, always in the spirit of the congregation and the enriching of the community.

Can you imagine the Sisters dressed in robes and habits working diligently on this mural? The external walls of the Franciscan Center boast three large murals stretching 140 feet around the building. As this was their first project, they had no formal process, and numbering the back of the tiles was a detail they unfortunately overlooked. Many community members recall the sisters laying out their mural on the tennis courts behind their studio in the summer of 1983, putting the mural back together like a puzzle with no clues. Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak is one of the original artists who undertook the Franciscan Center project, and she laughs as she explains that the prayers of onlookers must have been answered because the mural came back together just before the deadline. Sister Jane Mary has since retired from the university, where she was an assistant professor, and she now devotes her entire day to working with fellow Sisters and volunteers on the art of ceramic mural production.

Sister Agnita Ganzel, Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak, and Sister Helen Chumura reading the blueprints for the Franciscan Center, 1983.

Making a Mural

Monday through Friday, work begins at 9:45am, breaking for lunch and finishing each day at 4pm with coffee and chocolates. The projects are never solicited, yet miraculously seem to come one after the other from across the country. This group works thoughtfully and cohesively from start to finish, always looking to improve their process. Each project begins with research, sketches, and a finalized watercolor design from Sister Jane Mary. The design is then segmented, projected and traced on banner paper, then traced again onto tracing paper. Once the slabs of the cone-6, chocolate-brown clay are rolled out, the tracing paper can be set on top, then the design can be traced and cut. Next, they lay the tracing paper down on the table, then one by one flip the tiles over, number each one, and place them back onto the tracing paper. This stage in the process begins to become a bit reminiscent of putting together a puzzle, taking it apart to decorate, bisque fire and glaze fire, yet always putting it back together in between each process. The mural pieces remain together throughout the process. Sister Jane Mary and her assistants inspect each finished piece; if they are not satisfied, they simply produce another, as the tracing paper with the original dimensions sits underneath each finished tile. Upon completion, the tiles are wrapped, numbered, and transported to the installation site where Hans Klinck, their trusted installer, sets and grouts the tile mural.

 

Gabriel Richard mural in progress at the Cobo Center, Detroit, Michigan, 2016.

Currently the Sisters are working on capturing the true spirit of Gabriel Richard, a French priest, missionary, educator, statesman, and patriot working in Detroit, Michigan, in 1789. The list of his accomplishments is long and distinguished, yet Sister Jane Mary has found a way to weave the incredible story of Richard and Detroit into a beautifully executed composition of bright colors, textures and symbols. This mural will be installed at Detroit’s Cobo Center later this year.

Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak is 86 years old, she holds an MA from Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, Ohio) and served for nearly 30 years as Assistant Professor for the Department of Art at Lourdes University. Her ceramic and mural works are on display across the nation. Learn more at http://sistersosf.org.

the author Lindsay Scypta holds an MFA from The Ohio State University. She is a studio artist and an instructor of ceramics at Lourdes University (Sylvania, Ohio) and Owens Community College (Perrysburg, Ohio). Learn more at www.lindsayscypta.com.

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