Thursday, January 30, 2003
Anne Neville Blakemore decided to become a nun the first time she set eyes on the Carmelite monastery of Our Lady and St. Therese. It was 1958, and the 29-year-old San Francisco-based artist was driving down the coast when, just as she passed Carmel on her way to Point Lobos, the stone towers of the monastery came into view and pierced her heart.
"I came over the hill on Highway One, saw the white towers, and knew I belonged here," she says, as if it were quite normal to decide the course of one''s life on the basis of one lightning bolt.
Anne put aside her worldy affairs and entered the order of Carmelites in 1960. Since that day 43 years ago, Blakemore-now Sister Anne Marie of the Incarnation-has lived as a cloistered nun, separated from the world, her days filled with prayer, work and solitude. And painting.
Like the other 12 nuns at the Carmel monastery, Sister Anne Marie rises at 5:30 each morning for a rigidly-prescribed 17-hour day of religious and domestic duties. There''s three hours of morning prayer, then three hours of work in the kitchen, garden or elsewhere, followed by four hours of afternoon prayer and spiritual readings before supper. After supper there''s an hour of recreation, followed by more prayer, before the sisters'' 10:30pm bedtime.
Within this schedule, Sister Anne Marie finds time to go down to the cloister''s basement, to a room set aside especially for her artwork, roll up the sleeves of her dark-brown habit, and immerse herself in a world of colored ink and collage.
Sister Anne Marie doesn''t do pious representations of Jesus or Mary. She doesn''t draw churches or paint lambs lying down with lions; her art, currently on display at Searle Art Supplies in New Monterey, isn''t at all the sort of art one might imagine nuns would do if nuns did art.
Before she entered the Carmelite order, Anne Blakemore trained in fine arts at the University of Richmond, spent two years painting in Paris and London, and another year in Provincetown and Greenwich Village under the tutelage of modern art master Hans Hofman. When she got religion, she didn''t lose her technique: Sister Anne Marie''s works on paper are vividly-colored, abstract swirls of bright blues, reds, yellows, purples and greens, bursting with an almost childlike exuberance. They are not troubled, but neither are they serene. They exhibit a sure hand, but are not studied or ironic. There''s a wisdom in them, along with a touching kind of innocence.
"I''ve never found any conflict between being an artist and a contemplative," Sister Anne Marie insists. "The work that I do develops out of my life of prayer."
Sister Anne Marie is speaking through a grate in one of the monastery''s two "Speak-Rooms," where the sisters receive visitors but remain separated from them, as from the world, physically and metaphorically. She walks with a slight stoop, her body hidden within the folds of her floor-length habit, one wisp of gray hair peeking out from the white wimple that frames her face.
"This work is an expression of beauty, and true beauty is of God," she says. "Unfortunately, beauty has become separated from religion, and is sometimes associated with evil. For me personally, beauty is the gateway into God. Maybe that''s one of the messages my work tries to convey."
Sister Anne Marie passes her hands over a half-dozen computer printouts of paintings that are in the show at Searle''s. They hang next to her artist''s statement, six pages of carefully considered thoughts on art, God, and relationships.
"A drawing is a revelation," she explains in one statement. "It is a small cosmos. Every line reveals a spatial relationship. Life is connected in this way. Nothing survives alone. The drawing is telling me this, and it comes from the heart. It is telling me the truth about myself, and about life...Through the open door of this image I must pass, and I must travel there until I have discovered the meaning of my journey."
Sister Anne Marie put aside her artwork the first seven years she was in the monastery, taking it up again only when urged to do so by her spiritual advisor. Since then, she''s never stopped. In 1985, she abandoned her paintbrush and began to work by pouring acrylic paints directly onto wet paper--putting the paints into a kind of pastry bag, and squeezing them out the bottom, letting the colors run as they will. That''s still how she works today, although she''s switched from acrylics to ink, because ink, she says, is "more fluid."
This artistic technique, where she does not consciously direct the flow of the ink onto the paper, has a spiritual basis: she says it''s about putting one''s ego aside, and letting God guide the creative process. "One should allow God to do it as much as possible," she says. "I don''t have a preconceived idea of what I''ll arrive at. I don''t try to control anything. Control is very destructive. Unfortunately we live in a world of control, and we have to combat that."
For a woman who has chosen to live in isolation and solitude, Sister Anne Marie speaks endlessly about humanity''s need for community. She talks about ecology, about healing the earth and protecting its animals and plants.
The world is torn apart by hatreds and misery, she says, and must learn how to put itself back together. Similarly, her paintings aren''t all of a piece, but are "poured collages," which she constructs by tearing her poured paintings apart and then pasting them back in a different order, piece by piece. Each finished work is comprised of parts of many other paintings.
"I''m not tearing carefully, I go at it willy-nilly," she says. "My work is made from tearing things apart and creating something new. That''s what we have to do in our lives, too. It''s a peaceful process, something we have to do within ourselves."
Sister Anne Marie put aside her habit briefly when, in 1994, she "got a call" to go to Guatemala. She appealed to Rome, and in 1996 received permission to go. "It had to do with the desire to discover the meaning of community," she says. "It also attracted me because the people have suffered so much. I''d never been to the Third World. It opened my eyes."
She spent a year in Guatemala, teaching art to impoverished children, and then another two years in a cabin in New Mexico, meditating and painting. Finally, after more than three years away, she was ready to reenter the cloistered life. She returned to Carmel with many new paintings and a stray dog she''d brought back from Guatemala.
If not for the dog, she wouldn''t be having this art show. As a cloistered nun, she leaves the monastery only when she has to see a doctor, or when she has to take her dog to the vet. On one such trip, she stopped in at Searle''s to buy art supplies, and met manager Nina Parris. The two women had already spoken by phone, when Sister Anne Marie called to place an order, but this time they hit it off. "We talked for hours," Parris says.
In the months that followed, the women became fast friends. Parris and her husband began attending public Mass at the monastery, and Parris would arrange to meet Sister Anne Marie afterwards. Finally, she asked the nun for permission to hang her paintings in the store. To her surprise, the nun agreed.
"I was very pleased," Sister Anne Marie says. "I feel I have something to say. I feel my writing and my art needs to be seen. But I don''t put myself forward in any way. When God is ready for it to be seen, it will be."
This isn''t her first show: Some of her works were displayed at St. Mary''s Cathedral in San Francisco 13 years ago, but that was before she began working with the poured collage technique. She didn''t go to that show, and she won''t be going to this show, either. Her sisters have asked her not to. "This community does not wish me to go out for the show," she says simply. "I love the community. If I didn''t, I would not stay."
Sister Anne Marie won''t stop praying, she won''t stop hoping for world peace, and she won''t stop painting. "For the first time, I feel I''m reaching what I want to come to in my art. I''m sure I''ll continue as long as I live. For as long as you live, you''re spiritually growing."
Sister Anne Marie''s poured collages are on display at Searle Art Supplies in Monterey.