BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — The Bismarck Arts and Galleries Association is hosting a truly unique exhibit this January, where 75 years of history come together for an art showing from the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation Monastery.
Although many of us usually only associate religious buildings with religious practice, the truth is that the quiet and serene atmospheres of some of these places make them prime locations for innovation and inspiration (divine or otherwise) to develop. Monastics, in particular, are credited with not only establishing the first universities, but plenty of other useful inventions in human history as well, including the modern musical staff, forks, clocks, champagne, and even the fundamental laws of genetics (Gregor Mendel, often considered the father of modern genetics, first completed his studies in a monastery garden). Multiple written languages, including Slavic, Armenian, and Permic, also came about as a result of monks attempting to translate the Bible into languages without pre-existing writing systems. Art has also been a tremendous part of the history of these buildings, and some of the most famous pieces of Renaissance artwork in history (including Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper) are held in monasteries.
But just because we see the European monasteries as major cultural milestones doesn’t mean we don’t have our own here in the US — and one of them, the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, has its own long history of impacting the community.
“The Sisters came in the 1800s from Minnesota”, explains monastic sister and featured artist Nancy Gunderson, “and the first thing they did was set up a hospital because there was no health care between Minneapolis and Seattle. Then, they realized there was a need for education in the area, and so they set up a grade school. Eventually, they moved on to a high school, and then a University, which we now know as the University of Mary.”
2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the group’s existence as an independent monastic community in the area, and to celebrate, they’re opening their artistic archives and displaying a massive collection of art created by the group at the Bismarck Art & Galleries Association’s main gallery during the month of January.
January 3rd was technically the opening date of the exhibit, but the artist reception — the focus of this week’s BRB segment — did not occur until Friday, January 6. Here, guests to the reception were treated to a presentation by Sister Nancy Gunderson of the Monastery, where she gave a brief history of the group, placing a major focus on the importance of art in their community over the years, and shared stories from past and present sisters about the importance of art to the sisterhood.
“Art is important to monastic communities,” continues Gunderson. “They’ve always had an appreciation of beauty, and so we support arts at the monastery. Our community supports the doing of art- we have a craft and sewing room, and we’re encouraged to pursue artistic pieces, whether it’s painting, sculpting, or sewing.”
The presentation ended with the introduction of one more piece of art to the Monastery’s collection: a massive quilt stylized after the religious hero and martyr Joan of Arc. This pattern was woven by Gunderson herself, with effort put into each little detail — particularly the eyes, which each took layers upon layers of proper stitching to correctly design. As she explains, this was a labor of love that serves as her way of showing respect to the historical icon.
“When something moves me,” Gunderson explained, “I have a need to express it. I was endeared to her when I was in France, and that piece was created because I loved her.”
At the exhibit itself, the sisters opened the monastery’s artistic archives and unveiled a collection of their finest work from the group’s history. This work goes beyond items like paintings and quilts, and includes wood carvings, painted dolls, and figurines, Some of our favorite pieces include wrapped cast caroler figurines, metal sculptures, and a full wooden dollhouse complete with detailed rooms. Members of the monastery, including the artists behind many of these pieces, were present at the opening night to both answer questions and provide live music.
Unlike many of the gallery’s usual features, a majority of the monastery’s displays were not for sale — however, a few select options could be purchased by lucky (and wealthy) benefactors. This is because the event is less about sales and more about displaying the artistic stylings of those who find inner peace in these holy halls.
“They give us the space and the quiet to create unique pieces of work that come from the heart,” explains Gunderson. “People who walk into our monastery always remark on how peaceful it is, and I think we can express those deeper things within us best in an atmosphere of silence.”
The works on display at the BAGA showcase not only a history of the group’s art, but the diversity in styles seen among the many different artists at the monastery. Artists of all types have come together over the years at the Annunciation Monastery, and the gallery is more than happy to see it.
“We are honored to be able to show the works of these artists – many of which have never been on display at a public art gallery,” says gallery director Lynae Hanson in a previous press release. “These works are a recorded evidence of North Dakota’s cultural heritage. By viewing them, we can all gain a better understanding of this region.”
“I think people have a curiosity about monasteries,” says Gunderson, “and so I think people will enjoy the pieces they see. I hope they’ll inspire people, and watching people meet each other in this environment is wonderful to see as well.”
In addition to the Annunciation Monastery’s showcase, the gallery is also currently featuring the artwork of member artist Sally Storslee. Storslee’s works are primarily acrylic, and created both in studio and plein air (outdoors).
Both exhibits will be on display at the BAGA’s main gallery at 422 East Front Avenue until January 27. For more information on the exhibit, visit the Bismarck Art and Gallery Association’s website.