Mention Sister Paula Turnbull to anyone in local art circles and you're likely to get the response I got from Art Spirit owner Steve Gibbs: "She's wonderful, isn't she?" Gibbs has known Sister Paula for about five years and says he's amazed at how much work she produces: "She's like the Energizer Bunny."
For the December Small Works show (through Dec. 31), Sister Paula provided two abstract and two figurative alabaster pieces. Both "Dragon" and "Selene," a moon goddess bust, are reminiscent of historical relics, which fit Sister Paula's passion for art history. For more than 30 years, Sister Paula has led teaching trips all over the world, including Europe, Mexico and the Mediterranean.
She tells a story about a recent trip to Greece. While she marveled at ancient churches and painted a magnificent Greek vista, she says, many of the tourists went shopping. "They don't know any better," she shrugs, incredulous. When they saw her painting, many lamented, "I wish I could do that." Her response? "Do it. Time flies."
Sister Paula spends most of her time -- when she's not reading, taking walks or visiting friends -- in the studio on the Sisters of the Holy Names' scenic Fort Wright Drive campus. She's been there since around 1994, when the convent vacated what has since become Mukogawa Institute. Here's a testimony to her effect on people: when the former owner of Central Pre-Mix discovered there wasn't a suitable place for her to work at the new location, he had one built for her.
When I visit Sister Paula, she's spray-painting a shoebox-sized abstract metal piece, one of half a dozen current projects, mostly commissions. She explains how she will scale up the model, one inch to a foot. I try to envision this petite but sturdy woman welding steel 8 to 10 feet high. Working with metal, especially welding, requires physical strength, stamina, a steady hand ... and a blowtorch. Did I mention she's 83? Although she uses a fabricator to assist on some of the largest welding projects, she does the lion's share in the studio. She cuts, casts, welds and assembles pieces that may include brass, steel, aluminum, bronze or (her trademark) copper.
"I've never seen anything like it," comments Ken Spiering, sculptor of Riverfront Park's giant Radio Flyer wagon. Spiering admires Sister Paula's unique technique of folding and draping the copper tubing for such pieces as "Anna and Alta," a larger-than-life-size sculpture at the eastern edge of Browne's Addition. The two artists met back in the '70s, when Sister Paula was teaching at Fort Wright College. Spiering, who now teaches life drawing at North Idaho College, says he's equally impressed with how the convent supports Sister Paula. "I think they see the ministry in her work," he says.
The convent is graced with a variety of Sister Paula's work inside and out, including in the Blessed Marie-Rose Garden of Life and the Stations of the Cross that Sister Paula carved from brick before they were embedded in the chapel walls. Inside the studio, two 12-foot copper ovals modeled after Hubble telescope photos await further refinement before they'll be assembled inside the convent's chapel.
Sister Paula gestures to a terra cotta model, another work in progress, with hands paint-splattered and timeworn but otherwise graceful and quick. It's a memorial for Mike Cmos, the victim of an accident at the city's water reclamation facility in May 2004. "A lovely family," she says quietly.
Not all her projects are so big. On a table in the ceramics room lays a processional cross inlaid with gold mosaic. I mention that my high school students are doing mosaics and her eyes light up. I'm treated to a quick lesson on how gilt-covered tesserae, or tiles, are made and how they were used to decorate church walls. During Byzantine times, pirates often burned churches to get the gold, she explains. "They didn't get it," she chuckles.
It's this kind of minutiae that adds to Sister Paula's allure. She's probably visited the churches in question. Starting in 1957, Sister Paula taught art history and sculpture at Fort Wright College, chairing the undergrad art program from the '70s until it closed in 1982. Before that, she taught elementary school. And of course she's been working in art for "oh, a hundred years or so," she laughs.
Probably my first sculpture was scooping up the clay and making something," she says of her youth in Seattle's Alki Beach area. After high school, she became a nun, entered Holy Names College, did mostly paintings, then found her m & eacute;tier in sculpture. Since the late '50s, she has studied with such luminaries as Peter Voulkos, George Tsutakawa (whose aluminum sculptures stand outside the Opera House) and Sir Anthony Caro, an assistant to Henry Moore.
Sister Paula still studies and teaches (besides her impromptu art history lessons for visitors). Her spring and fall sculpting classes at the convent fill up fast. After months of waiting, however, Rhea Giffin finally got in. A fellow exhibitor at the Art Spirit and director of the Northwest Papier-Mache Artists Guild, Giffin described Sister Paula as having "pure joy of spirit." Sister Paula's teaching style, she said, is very laid-back. "She's more interested in people finding their own way."
Spiering agrees that Sister Paula has a gentle way of leading by example. "That she gets it from a higher power, she'll be the first to admit," he says. Although spirituality is part and parcel of how she lives, Sister Paula doesn't draw attention to it overtly, which may be why people feel such comfort with her. "She's an example of living right, and that's more powerful than thumping on a Bible," says Spiering.
Gibbs makes a similar comment: "She doesn't spend a lot of time pushing who she is or what she does. She just does it."
It's as if Sister Paula's art and her spirituality are as intertwined as the metal sculptures she so thoughtfully creates. The artwork -- and Sister Paula by example -- is its own powerful testimony.
Asked whether in five years she'll still be here, teaching and making art, she answers brightly, "I hope so." We hope so too.
To get on the waiting list for Sister Paula Turnbull's spring and fall sculpting classes at Holy Names Convent, call 328-7470.