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People examine three pieces of art Wednesday by the late Sister Mary Charles McGough at the Tweed Museum of Art on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. The Tweed and the St. Scholastica Monastery joined forces to present a show of McGough’s work. The show runs through Sept. 21. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Finally, a showcase for the artwork of Sister Mary Charles

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Outside the ticket office at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is a wall-sized art installation, with tree-shaped designs in multicolored stone, created in the 1960s by Sister Mary Charles McGough.

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The Platytera, an icon of Mary with a medallion of Christ over her womb and arms shaped for embrace, hangs at Twelve Holy Apostles Church — one of three icons in the Greek Orthodox church written by McGough.

And when curator Peter Spooner put a call out for privately collected works by the late Benedictine nun from St. Scholastica Monastery, he got a huge response.

“Hundreds,” he said. “I have a long, long list. Her work was so popular, and it was all over. She wanted people to own her work.”

But as far as anyone can tell, the prolific artist never had an official exhibition of her work — until now.

The Tweed Museum of Art has paired with the monastery to host “Sister Mary Charles: Engagement and Transcendence,” which features about two dozen pieces — wood cuts and icons — by the Cloquet native, who died in 2007 at age 82. The exhibition, guest curated by Spooner, opened last week and runs through Sept. 21 at the museum at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Tuesday’s opening reception was also marked the release of the book “Saved by Beauty,” which includes essays and images representing McGough’s artistic range: In addition to woodcuts and icons, she worked with graphic design, fabric banners, sculpture, ceramics and more.

“God has been very good to me, blessing me with this gift,” she told the News Tribune in 2002. “I try to use it as best I can.”

Spooner was the curator at the Tweed Museum of Art when he got a look at pieces by McGough collected by Joseph and Suzie Rosenzweig, longtime friends of the nun. Back in the day, Joseph Rosenzweig helped build The Barn, a carriage house near the McCabe Renewal Center where McGough taught a summer art program for almost 20 years.

“It was the revelation that she was a community icon — one of those cultural icons in the community that people gravitated toward,” Spooner said. “She had a sense of generosity about her. She was very welcoming. She loved people and she loved to make art. …

“(But) she never had an exhibition. Nobody had put it together as a story. It was a story waiting to be told.”

Known locally and nationally

McGough was best-known for her work with icons, an early Christian art form that eschews creativity in favor of closely following a prototype. There is photographic sense to the style; artists try to closely replicate the original.  

She produced three pieces for Twelve Holy Apostles Church in downtown Duluth. One, Christ the All Ruler, is set into the church’s ceiling. Another of St. George hangs on a front side wall. The Platytera holds its traditional position at the front of the church.  

McGough’s work shows Russian, Egyptian and Cretan influences — which differentiates her art from work by other icon writers whose art hangs in the church, according to the Rev. Timothy Sas, pastor at Twelve Holy Apostles.

“They bless the space with her ministry,” he said.

Sas said he sometimes hosts visitors who want to see her work.

“There are two things I would want people to take in,” he said. “One, understand an icon is written. We’re supposed to read them. It is information that is written for us. Two, the special love, or veneration of icons, draws us deeper into worship of God.”

McGough was known nationally as an icon writer. Artist Mary Plaster, who studied under McGough, said she once saw her cards at a store geared toward theologians in San Francisco.

There is a concentration of her work in her home region — specifically at the monastery. A News Tribune story about McGough from 2002 also lists Kenwood Lutheran Church, Temple Israel and several Catholic churches as featuring her art.

Locally, she also was known as an art teacher who was “fun but strict,” Plaster said.

“Not strict in the way people joke about nuns,” she said. “She wanted to maintain a contemplative atmosphere when painting, not a lot of chatter. We’d have interesting discussions when we weren’t working.

“She was very encouraging. She’d look you in the eye and say ‘You’re special, you know that?’ I know she said that to everyone, but when she said it to you, you felt like the center of the universe.”

Remembering a 'treasure'

There is a rumor, among McGough’s extra-large circle, that a photograph exists of the nun in full habit on skis. It’s true, according to longtime friend Julie Calligure, who claims to own it. It was among the pieces McGough gave to her, a stash that includes an artistic rendering of Calligure’s toy poodle.

“She said, ‘You hang on to this,’ ” Calligure recalled.

Calligure remembered McGough, always accompanied by a dog, climbing the dunes on Park Point to go for a swim. There were long bike rides that ended with campouts and started with morning Mass. One time, Calligure said, they met a friend in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and then biked back to Duluth, enjoying the ever-changing breezes off Lake Superior and sometimes stopping for pie or a cup of soup.

“We weren’t doing racing or anything like that,” Calligure said. “We just enjoyed the moment.”

She was able to talk to anyone. She loved animals. She was involved with social justice. She had a sense of humor, Calligure said.

“It wasn’t a big-laugh humor; it was a neat humor that was ready at a moment,” she said.

McGough never got to see a large-scale celebration of her work, like the one that reportedly drew about 500 people to the Tweed Museum of Art on Tuesday.

“I think she’d be pleased that people were looking at her work and thinking about it,” said Spooner. “I don’t think she’d really like the limelight on her necessarily. I think she’d be happy people were considering her work.”

Calligure said it was a collection of people with a common bond.

“It was a happy, energized meeting of people,” she said. “And we all had our stories. There are just so many stories connected with this treasure that we all enjoyed and were privileged to be a part of — to be a part of her life.” 

If you go

What: “Sister Mary Charles: Engagement and Transcendence”

When: Through Sept. 21

Where: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth

Other events

  • Gallery Talk, 2 p.m. June 29 and 2 p.m. July 19
  • Closing prayer service and reception, 2 p.m. Sept. 21, St. Scholastica Monastery Chapel
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