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Tweed opens exhibit of Sister Mary Charles’ life work

Sister Mary Charles McGough works on her icon “Mother of Compassion” at the St. Anthony Center in 2000. The smaller versions are copies of the print that were mounted on wood and sold. (Forum file photo)1 / 3
“Leif’s Legacy,’ a woodcut by Sister Mary Charles presented to King Olav of Norway during his 1968 visit to Duluth. (Forum file photo)2 / 3
“And Who Are You?” by Sister Mary Charles. (Forum file photo)3 / 3

The Tweed Museum of Art opens a new exhibition featuring the work of Sister Mary Charles McGough (1925-2007) on Tuesday, June 3. She was a Benedictine sister, artist, teacher and a fervent advocate for social justice.

“Engagement and Transcendence” is the first treatment of this prolific and regionally beloved artist whose career spanned 60 years. St. Scholastica Monastery holds much of her work and has published a book, “Saved by Beauty,” which will be released in conjunction with the exhibit.

Born Mary Helen McGough (“Mc-Goo”) in Cloquet, she was the eldest daughter in a Duluth family strong on Catholic Irish heritage, but poor and struggling. Her creative talents were acknowledged at Cathedral (now Marshall) High School, and she entered St. Scholastica Monastery directly from high school.

With the encouragement of her monastery, Sister Mary Charles studied art and education at the exact time the Catholic Church sought to reinvent its public face for the modern world, through a self-assessment known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1962-65). The Benedictine Order had always nurtured its artists and artisans, and Vatican II further affirmed the important role of the arts in Catholic ministry.

Sister Mary Charles received a Master of Education degree from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Notre Dame University in 1964. One of her important teachers and mentors was the printmaker Irving Amen (1918-2011), whose influence can clearly be seen in her prints. The focus of her early artwork was woodcut prints, often depicting young people as they explored play, nature and art. Her prints were popular and widely collected by Duluthians.

Sister Mary Charles worked in a wide variety of media, including fabric banners, graphic design, ceramics, wood carvings, mosaic and stained glass. In 1990 she studied traditional icon painting, and created over eighty-five religious icons in the last two decades of her life.

Her works grace churches in seven states, and many can be seen in churches throughout the Northland.

The artist taught in the Catholic schools of the Duluth Diocese and from 1956 to 1964 was head of the Art Department at The College of St. Scholastica. Convinced that making art, not college administration, was her true calling, she petitioned superiors to let her establish an art studio in an old carriage house on the McCabe property in the Hunter’s Park neighborhood. They agreed, and “The Barn” was renovated by community volunteers and donated materials. With other Benedictine Sisters she taught a popular summer arts program for children ages 7-13, exposing them to all art media along with experiences in theatre, science, writing, music and dance.

Sister Mary Charles believed that experiences with art opened people up to positive experiences of all kinds. “The Barn” program became a model of progressive, multidisciplinary arts education.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Tweed Museum of Art and St. Scholastica Monastery, and has been guest curated by Peter Spooner.

If you go

Opening reception Tuesday, June 3, 6-8 p.m. Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth campus, 1201 Ordean Ct. (218) 726-8222.

Guest speaker: Sister Lois Eckes, Prioress of St. Scholastica Monastery.

Gallery talks Sunday, June 29, 2 p.m. and Saturday, July 19, 2 p.m., Tweed Museum of Art

Closing prayer service and reception Sunday, Sept. 21, 2 p.m., Saint Scholastica Monastery Chapel. For information contact Vicky Siders, St. Scholastica Monastery, (218) 723-6540 or vsiders@duluthosb.org.

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