April 7, 2006

Nourishing the soul: Potter’s vessels help transform the world through beauty

By Mary Ann Wyand

As she sits at her potter’s wheel, forming wet clay into bowls or mugs or plates or vases or blessing cups, St. Joseph Sister Karen Van De Walle likes to reflect on the first few verses of Chapter 18 in the Book of Jeremiah.

“Rise up and be off to the potter’s house; there I will give you my message. I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased” (Jer 18:2-4).

Sister Karen has printed this Scripture verse—with the potter’s pronouns changed to the feminine form to reflect her ministry—on a postcard that she gives to people who visit The Potter’s House at 6503 Carrollton Ave. in Broad Ripple Village on the north side of Indianapolis.

With the wheel spinning quickly and the clay warm in her hands, she also likes to think about the next few verses of that Old Testament passage.

“Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? says the Lord. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel” (Jer 18:5-7).

A native of South Bend, Ind., Sister Karen attended St. Matthew School there and felt called to join the aspirancy program offered by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton after getting to know the sisters who taught at her grade school.

She attended the former St. Joseph Junior College in Tipton, Ind., then was assigned to teach at St. Joan of Arc School in Kokomo, Ind.

“I felt God calling me to religious life,” she said. “I believed at that time that was the way I could become a better person.”

Sister Karen discovered her vocation as an artist after realizing that she was incorporating art into all her lesson plans. She fell in love with ceramics while studying for a bachelor’s degree in art education at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

She taught art at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College west of Terre Haute for five years, but felt God calling her to integrate art with spirituality. She studied spiritual formation and completed additional art classes at the University of Notre Dame, north of South Bend. Continue reading...

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(Click on each for a larger version; all photos by Mary Ann Wyand)

“The arts, above all, free the human spirit in terms of nourishing the soul,” she explained in a brochure about her ministry as an artist and spiritual director at The Potter’s House.

“It is through beauty that we are enriched,” she wrote. “The more beauty that comes into our lives, the healthier we are.”

Sister Karen especially likes a quotation that she has framed on the wall of her studio: “The soul that beholds beauty itself becomes beauty.”

She enjoys contemplating a shell, a flower or a clay form right after she takes it off the wheel, which she describes as “glimpses of grace” and “ordinary experiences of the extraordinary.”

And she is especially grateful for Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” published on April 23, 1999, which affirms the Catholic Church’s esteem for artists and the spiritual value of art.

“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith,” the pope wrote, “so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.”

In the letter, Pope John Paul explained that those who perceive art as a vocation or “divine spark … feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.”

Citing the Book of Genesis, the pope said, “ … all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

Sister Karen enjoys creating clay forms and watching their beauty unfold as she fires them in a kiln, then glazes them and fires them again.

But now she has a problem with her 22-year-old kiln, which can no longer safely generate a high enough temperature to fire glazed pottery.

As a result, Sister Karen must carry her porcelain and stoneware creations to the Indianapolis Art Center in Broad Ripple for firing. Not long ago, she dropped a box of pottery and broke all the pieces.

A new kiln costs $20,000, but she needs one to continue her ministry as a potter.

With the help of her religious community, which sponsors her ministry, as well as financial support from friends and patrons, she has been able to raise $12,000 through donations and the sale of T-shirts created for The Kiln Project. Contributions are tax-deductible.

The T-shirt sells for $20 and features an open kiln with pottery inside. The message reads “Support your local potter. I did. … Magical, mystical fire.”

St. Joseph Sister Marty McEntree, president of the congregation at Tipton, said it has always been Sister Karen’s dream to integrate art and spirituality, which she has done at The Potter’s House.

“She creates beautiful vessels,” Sister Marty said. “The name [of her ministry] uses Scripture to talk about how God forms each of us as the potter forms the clay, so [Sister] Karen’s work there in creating beauty for people to appreciate goes hand-in-hand with the work that she does in spiritual direction. She’s done a good job of integrating that in her life and making that available to others.”

Sister Karen’s creations also are sold at the St. Joseph Center in Tipton.

“There’s a great appreciation for [Sister] Karen’s work as they see it on display at the conference center,” Sister Marty said. “The sale of her pieces benefits the ministries of the congregation, including The Potter’s House.”

Recently, Sister Karen presented a day of reflection at the congregation’s motherhouse in Tipton for confirmation students from St. John Parish in Tipton. She used the passages about the potter from the Book of Jeremiah for the theme.

“I think that’s an incredible image for life,” Sister Karen said. “How many of us live life and everything turns out right the first time? Every day, we run into situations where we need to stop and think about if we need to do [things] differently. And the Scriptures are very clear about starting over and creating a new vessel. The passage means so much to me in terms of starting over and listening to what the clay is saying to me.”

Society is so fast-paced, she said, and just keeps getting more hectic.

“That’s why, it seems to me, that the whole contribution of the arts is more crucial now than ever before,” she said. “It’s a very different experience to pick up a handmade mug and drink your coffee or tea. You can feel the marks of the potter. … There’s a personal connection, an esthetic connection, a connection with beauty.”

Art reminds us to stop and pay attention to what’s important in life, Sister Karen said. “In his letter to artists, Pope John Paul talked about transforming our world through beauty, about how the world needs beauty.”

Working with clay has taught her a lot about faith and patience.

“You have to be attentive to the process of the clay because if it dries too fast it’s going to crack,” she said. “You have to trim [off] the excess clay, and if it gets too dry you can’t do that. If you’re going to add any decoration, you need to do it while the clay can still be carved, but it can’t be so soft that you destroy the shape because the clay isn’t ready.

“One of the things that clay has taught me is that there’s a time for everything,” Sister Karen said. “That goes back to [the Book of] Ecclesiastes [Eccl 3:1-8]. There’s a time to reap and there’s a time to sow. You have to respond to the clay, and for me that’s no different than responding to God. It’s like when God is speaking to you. Then you need to listen, you need to pay attention, you need to be aware of God’s voice.”

(For more information about The Kiln Project or St. Joseph Sister Karen Van De Walle’s ministry, call The Potter’s House at 317-251-0688.) †


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