It’s not often that a 21-year-old artist has the chance to interview a 101-year-old religious Sister whose artwork can be seen around the world.
But that was the case at Caldwell University when studio art major Benjamin Fernandez paid a visit to Sister Gerardine Mueller ‘54, O.P., a Sister of St. Dominic of Caldwell, a master artist and founder of the University’s Art Department.
Top photo: Benjamin Fernandez with Sister Gerardine Mueller, O.P. in the chapel at St. Catherine’s where sacred art Sister created is located including the tabernacle and stained glass windows of Dominican saints.
Fernandez was interviewing Sister for his junior year honors project, “Discovering the Spiritual in Contemporary Visual Art”. He met her at St. Catherine’s Health Care Facility and Convent on the University’s grounds where Sister lives. The former professor shared her years of experience and how her artwork connects to her faith. For Fernandez, it was a rare moment not only because of Sister’s age and talents but because his mother, Susan M. Fernandez ’84, nee Yaccarino, is an Art Department alumna who was one of Sister Gerardine’s students.
Sister took Fernandez to the convent chapel and explained her work in creating the majestic stained glass windows of great Dominican saints and the eucharistic tabernacle. “Sister Gerardine commented that church architects should consider ‘the spirit of the people praying … not just [to accommodate] the people but to have them lifted up mentally in a church’ and that every church has an opportunity for that,” said Fernandez.
He was impressed with the wide spectrum of Sister’s artistic talents—sculpture, calligraphy (“lettering,” as she refers to it), illumination, printmaking, and wood carving.
Fernandez’s project will be on display at the University’s annual Research and Creative Arts Day on April 26; it examines three artists’ works and spirituality in their work, including that of Sister Gerardine. He has created three of his own pieces “inspired by spirituality and its emergence in my own artistic sensibility.” The aim is to help viewers to explore spiritual contemplation and reflection, to go “beyond the initial viewing experience—to broaden their awareness and understanding of ourselves, others and our world,” explained Fernandez who is concentrating specifically in mixed media and has a minor in art history.
The journey to broaden his faith life took off in Fernandez’s freshman year when he joined the University’s Campus Ministry Office program for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA, now known as OCIA). That Easter season he received the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation, which sparked the desire to further explore spirituality and religion, to incorporate it into his daily life and into his art. He found that “spiritual engagement through art does not require exclusively religious content” and that in interacting and becoming friends with students of different faiths and cultures on Caldwell’s richly diverse campus, they could “reach a common spiritual level.”
The piece of Sister Gerardine’s artwork that he chose to examine is the clerestory, a beautiful beacon at the center of campus that can be seen in the upper part of the Alumni Theatre and features New Jersey’s Watchung mountains. The clerestory, said Fernandez, is “a vivid composition of form, color and light, viewable from many different angles and also from a distance, especially when illuminated at night…it represents the heart of Caldwell University. No matter our background, this work can resonate with each of us in our own way, enabling the diversity and unity of the campus community to bring us all together.”
Sister Gerardine appreciated Fernandez’s visit and the hard work he is putting into the project. “I was impressed by Benjamin’s serious approach to his art project as well as his aptitude in discussing it,” said Sister.
After meeting with Sister Gerardine, Fernandez realized that Sister’s fingerprint can be seen everywhere on Caldwell’s campus through her artwork and in the hearts of her former students, some of whom have gone on to become professional artists. He wants students, faculty, and staff to know about Sister, after whom the Mueller Art Gallery is named. “We at Caldwell can seek reminders of her commitment to touching others spiritually by viewing her work, which continues to adorn the buildings, inside and outside, throughout campus.” The campus community, he said, owes Sister a debt of gratitude for this beauty. “She and her art cannot be separated from her love for Caldwell, and Caldwell from her.”
More on Research and Creative Arts Day
Caldwell’s Research and Creative Arts Day to be held on Wednesday, April 26 is free and open to the public. Stephen M. Meawad, Caldwell University assistant professor of theology, will kick-off the day at noon in the Alumni Theatre. Meawad, author of “Beyond Virtue Ethics: A Contemporary Ethic of Ancient Spiritual Struggle,” will present on the process of researching and writing a book, and how research in the humanities compares with research in the sciences. For information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Undergraduate student work will be on display beginning at 1 p.m. followed by graduate student work starting at 4 p.m. in the Student Center.