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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Contemplating wholeness in clay

From Friday's Catholic Universe Bulletin:
Nun's sculpture explores our oneness

By Wendy A. Hoke

In the corner of Notre Dame Sister Megan Dull’s ceramics studio at TerraVista Studio is the bust of a bald woman in a mauve glaze with various henna-like patterns imprinted in her figure. “Sister Image: The Revelations of All We Never Know” is marked NFS (not for sale).

She calls the piece her inspiration and explains that it was a turning point in her art.

While enrolled in a master’s of fine arts program in the mid-1990s, Sister Dull hit a roadblock. Everything she knew about conveying ideas as a teacher stemmed from the head.

But she was studying art, and the origination of art is somewhere deeper.

“For the first half of the program I didn’t know how to work,” Sister Dull says. “My stomach would be in knots. When it came to working with figures, I wanted to come up with the important idea. But you can’t start there.”

Her sister, a photographer, attempted suicide. The sculpture is about her sister, about scars and suffering rising to the surface. It was an emotional process, but also eye-opening.

“I realized that my work doesn’t have to come from my head, but here,” she says pointing to her gut.

Today, her work is largely sculptural and reflects her response to the world. “Art of any kind can invoke a visceral response that can cause people to shift or transform their thinking,” she says.

“A profound communion with the cosmos is my connection with the sacred,” she says. Art, spirituality, environmentalism, feminism are all themes in her work.

She keeps a sketchbook that she admits is often difficult to fill with her schedule of teaching at Notre Dame College of Ohio and Ursuline College, community life and the studio. Twice yearly retreats give her the time to explore ideas and fill her sketchbook.

While on retreat, she grabs her tent and lives outside, giving her the freedom to commune with God and nature in a way that her everyday life usually limits.

However, she is also open to inspiration.

While visiting The Cleveland Museum of Art several years ago, she came across the stargazer figurine, which dates from 3,000 BC and is the oldest depiction of a human figure in the museum’s collection. Excited by what she saw, she made a quick sketch. Back at her studio, she made a mold so she could repeat the figure in her sculptures.

Her response to the stargazer figure, like her response to art and ideas, is intuitive. “For me, that stargazer is a potent image of human reality. She comes from a time in which human survival demanded a greater sensitivity to the earth’s movements and patterns.”

The result is her “Sacred Threshold Series” using the stargazer detail. While the work symbolizes oneness with the cosmos, Sister Dull is always fascinated by how others respond.

“I do the work, step back and say, ‘Here’s what I think of this piece’ and then wait for others to share their response because it’s always something different,” she says.

Images of stars, water, earth, greenery and women are found throughout her work.

But it’s more than what is visible, it’s also her spirituality that comes through, almost as if she allows the energy to feed into her hands and literally shape her work, such as her figure of St. Francis of Assisi.

“I’m preoccupied with portals and that goes back to my MFA experience, which was the door to my work. At first that door was locked to me. I had to dig deeper to unlock the door.”

Once she made her breakthrough with figures, she wanted to do work with a sense of scale and significance. The results are the stacks outside the doors to TerraVista that combine images of Persephone, deep-diving fish, dream imagery and passages—all those symbols of human beings striving for wholeness.

Her choice of materials is deliberate. “Clay is stone broken down in stream beds into fine particles and is part of the whole geological process that takes eons to make. It may break after it’s fired, but it will never return to a soft state and will outlast us all.”

Megan Dull’s artwork is on view at TerraVista Studio, 1400 E. 30th Street, #401. TerraVista is open by appointment. Call (216) 523-1387.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

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