Founder of a respected, broad minded art program

THOMASITA FESSlER RETROSPECTIVE AKA, SISTER THOMASITA, 1912 - 1993

by Gary John Gresl

San Damiano - Rebuild My Church, 1983, Courtesy of Pat and Ernie Winkleman
A rear view look at the exhibit held at Cardinal Stritch Northwestern Mutual Art Gallery, Fall, 2006

Sister Thomasita had some things going for her, and some against.

On the positive side, she was a nun.
On the negative side, she was a nun.

Almost certainly, especially after increasing liberalization in the visual arts after 1960, there would be some persons quietly prejudiced against any artist in a religious order, labeling such as an ecclesiastically driven Christian and a conservative restrained visual art practitioner. The prejudice might result in questions and doubts about such an artist’s work as it relates to foreword looking art.

Preexisting images of traditional Catholic arts and crafts would undoubtedly keep some progressives from looking thoughtfully at Sr. Thomasita’s work. This woman’s oeuvre, nun or not, must be studied within the context of her time and culture.

Many people do not know that Thomasita hailed from a family of architects, and had received bachelor and master of fine art degrees from the Chicago Art Institute, after which she founded the Art Department at Stritch. The Sister traveled the world many times, visiting historic sites, museums and art centers, often with students in tow. She was a multi talented woman, optimistic and inspiring as a teacher and a model of energy and endurance.

Thomasita Fessler’s personal broad liberal arts education, her self motivation, and her influential position at a Catholic college enabled her to build, practically from scratch, a viable, respected, broad minded art program. She breathed an enduring energy and life into her decades-long art ministry and into the personality of her Studio, San Damiano…and she was thoroughly, through and through, a modernist.

True that it may be, Cardinal Stritch has not been a hotbed of dazzling earthquake inducing radical forms of expression, nor work that would shock and amaze just to shock and amaze. But thanks to Sr. Thomasita, the art program was no slouch either. Like her personal work, the program was progressive and highly professional, and remains so today.

The recent exhibit in the Northwestern Mutual Gallery of Cardinal Stritch University showed her vibrant use of color, varied use of line, mass, texture and skilled design. From the earliest piece on display, dated 1933, an appealing, relaxed portrait of her young sister, Annette Fessler, to modernistic work stretching from the 40’s thru the 90’s, Thomasita was emblematic of an artist in tune with both art history and contemporary expression.

Most of her work would not be recognized as that made by a nun if it did not bear the prefix “Sr.” before Thomasita. There are energetic abstract landscapes, views of buildings and human figures that do not smell at all of the nunnery…but which speak to a mind and soul dedicated to beauty and an exploration of styles and materials.

Of course there are numerous works with religious themes. These are skillfully done, usually in a 20th century modernist manner. The carvings, bas relief’s and other sculptural work, while restrained in the evolutionary chain of 3 dimensional art history, are progressive, skillful enough to please the eye and bold enough to quiet the critic. One quote lifted from the several notebooks and scrapbooks that are part of this display states, “Art must liberate. Not confine.”

Some of the displayed works speak to her 20th century training and exposure to art history and evolving forms after 1900. We can find traces of Cubism, Impressionism, Rouault, Cezanne, the Fauves, Dove, Burchfield, Marin, O’Keefe…and more. But what Sr. Thomasita did was uniquely her own. The Northwestern Gallery exhibit included oils, collages, ceramics, and wood carvings and she also produced murals, metalwork, jewelry and furniture.

While it can’t be said that she broke much new ground by establishing unheard of methods and forms of art, it can be said that she found her own unique progressive voice which fits very comfortably into a 20th century modernist age. She certainly introduced a liberal tradition to her students and into a well entrenched religious environment. More than the Catholic community should be proud of this Milwaukee woman.

Her work was never intended to be jarring. She always sought to create beautiful objects and instill in others the same search for the beautiful. That credo was central to her belief system. A quote from the exhibit brochure states her core value, “See beauty all around you.” Thomasita Fessler recognized that beauty and projected it into her life and mission.

San Damiano - Rebuild My Church, 1983, Courtesy of Pat and Ernie Winkleman African Village Patterns, 1977, Courtesy of Pat and Ernie Winkleman
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