A Tale of Two Nuns

Detail “Sisters” by Natalie Holland, oil on canvas

As an artist who paints people and uses ‘life’ models, I meet many remarkable individuals who visit me in my studio. One perk of my work is that I don’t even have to go far to see the world; instead, the world comes to me.

So, how do I get my models? Some of them come to me via my website because they want their portrait painted, but mostly I source my models from my close environment; friends and friends of the friends. However, now and then I just happen to see interesting people when I am out and about. I approach them with a one-sentence artist statement and my business card and ask them whether they would like to be a model for my one of my paintings.

That is how I met Winnie, a Franciscan nun who became my muse and my friend. I didn’t exactly meet her on the street, but at an art exhibition at Mall Galleries. Being the hub of Federation of British Artists and one of the most prestigious UK galleries, it is splendidly situated in a stately building right in the heart of London. I was attending the opening of the annual exhibition of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, where I was proud to show my work.

Anyone familiar with the art world knows that the people don’t come to exhibition openings to see the art. They usually come to support the exhibitors, to chat over a glass of bubbly, meet new artists and collectors — and to network.

My muses when I first met them at the exhibition at Mall Galleries, London.

That’s why my attention was instantly attracted to two women who were studying one of the paintings with great attention. In a big space of noisy fully -packed room, they created a pocket of quiet bliss. They weren’t exactly your average gallery goers either— they were nuns. However, it wasn’t which that piqued my curiosity — it was the way they stood together, leaning towards the painting. All I could see at that point were their backs, yet their body language told me volumes about the connection between them — and also about their relationship to art. I could tell that attending an art exhibition was no random occasion to them. So, I approached them with my request about modeling — and they said ‘yes’!

‘They’ turned out to be Winnie, a tiny ginger lady from Glasgow, and Ethel, an equally tiny lady from Sri- Lanka. Their height and their attire were where the similarity stopped. Winnie turned out to be a bundle of energy, with the gift of the gab, not to mention a strong Scottish accent and a wicked sense of humor. Ethel came across as a gentle soul, a bit shy and soft-spoken. She didn’t say a lot, but when she smiled, she could light up a room all by herself. Her smile was one of those kinds which unfolds gradually, like a flower before its petals open in a full glory.

They would come to my studio every second week to do a sitting for a couple of hours. Although I only paint one model at the time, they would always arrive together. Despite the long journey and their age, they showed up on time and never canceled a session.

Winnie and Ethel modeling at my studio.

When it was Winnie’s turn to pose, she would sit on a podium and be passionately curious about what I was doing. While she was chatting, Ethel would be right behind me, watching — or studying my working table with all the paints, medium and brushes. It turned out she had painting as her hobby; she loved to paint flowers. I was very surprised however to learn that she never tried to use oils, so I would demonstrate the benefits of the medium. She looked look very excited, but when I would ask her next time whether she had tried it yet, she would just shake her head and smile. One day it finally dawned on me that the reason she had never tried was because oils can be expensive, specially those bright colors she wanted to try.

Nuns have a very limited amount to spend on their personal needs, and although extra things like books would be provided for, expensive paints would not. Even with the gouache and watercolors she could afford, the paints that one would need to capture all the diversity of color in flowers can still cost a mint. She would never say she couldn’t afford the oils, but I could see how she would would marvel at my beautiful turquoise, intense magenta and shiny bright yellows.

With Ethel posing, Winnie would sit in a comfy chair with tea and biscuits and I would ask her all I wanted to about her life as a nun. The year I’d met her, she had been a nun for 60 years. It was to be celebrated with a special Mass of course, and then they would have a festive dinner where they would get ‘the wine and everything’’ — she giggled. In my mind, having faith was an understandable thing, but dedicating 60 years to a life of strict routine, scarce resources and obedience was an entirely different matter. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend why one would choose a life like that at such a young age. Winnie was 25 when she took the veil.

Winnie could tell me that, although she came from a large Catholic family that could count one missionary uncle among them, her background wasn’t strictly religious. ‘I went to Church like everyone else, but I would also go to dances with boyfriends and all’ — she laughed.

However, as much as she enjoyed her life, after considering the prospect of getting married and having children, she came to the conclusion that starting her own family and keeping her husband and children happy wasn’t her true calling. She wanted to follow a different path. She saw herself fortunate to have a loving family and being able to enjoy what she had, so she felt it was her calling to dedicate herself to helping those who were less privileged in life.

Thus she became a Franciscan nun, following the footsteps of St. Frances of Assisi, who gave up the life of comfort for the life of poverty – and has never regretted her decision. Her days are a balance between prayer, work and ministry. Each sister has daily work, ministry, domestic duties, study, recreation and personal time, as well as monthly days of prayer and solitude, and participation in various community events.

Doesn’t sound like an exciting life of adventures, right? Turned out there is a possibility for that even for nuns. They can be ordained by the Motherhouse to travel to different parts of the world. That is how one day Winnie arrived in Rome, the city that took her breath away by its splendor.

The Vatican, Rome

‘You know, coming from Glasgow I couldn’t even imagine that a city can be that beautiful. I didn’t even know where to start looking nor what I was looking at— it was..much of the muchness’ — she said, clasping her hands.

Having found herself surrounded by art and architecture she didn’t know much about, she decided to educate herself. She needed to know what she was looking at, so she proceeded to look up piece by piece from the wast art collection at the Vatican until she knew as much about art as any art historian.

Our studio conversations weren’t only about art though. At the age of 70 something, Winnie learned how to use computers, gaining access to a World Wide Web. She held herself updated on what was going on in the world of politics, current affairs and even social media. I could touch any topic and she would always have her own take on it — and sometimes her take would be nothing you would expect come from a nun. Winnie was never unkind, though not always as politically correct as one would think.

Once I wanted to know her thoughts regarding a particular comment from the Pope, which stated something along the lines that if someone slapped his mother in the face, he would slap the offender right back. The comment was clearly in conflict with the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, so I wondered whether Winnie found the supreme pontiff being somewhat controversial — to put it mildly.

Her reply came quick as lightning: ‘ Well, you would expect something like that coming from His Holiness, wouldn’t you? After all, he is a Jesuit,’ — followed by heartily laugh. Of course, I had to follow up and ask why it was less surprising coming from a Jesuit than, say, from a Franciscan? Again, rapid answer: ‘Oh! They are mostly missionaries, you know’.

Pope Francis

There is a lot to be said about the insights I gained from being with Winnie, but there are a few things that were truly remarkable. When she came to my studio for the first time, I was not quite sure whether I should be extra considerate of her as my guest. After all, she was a nun and, by default, extremely religious. It wasn’t so much about different behaviour as such, it was more about avoiding the topics of conversation that would potentially be offensive to her.

My efforts didn’t escape from Winnie’s attention as she addressed my concerns by saying, “Dear girl (bless her for calling me that)I do appreciate that you show respect to my religion, but it is utterly unnecessary. You shouldn’t show special respect to anyone just because they are very religious — religious people have to earn their respect in the same way like everyone else. If I wasn’t a nun, you would treat me the same way you would treat any old lady — so don’t worry about it. Believe me, if you would take away religion from some people, there wouldn’t be much human being left!”- and there it was again, her contagious laughter.

Although I had no prior experience in talking to nuns, I nevertheless expected that I would encounter more religious conversations than I actually did. I couldn’t help noticing that either of them would bring up the topic of God or their personal faith without my asking first. Once they lowered their voices to discuss something at the back of my studio, and I was sure it was a conversation about some religious practice that I couldn’t possibly participate in. However, they were discussing whether the repair of the sewing machine should be postponed, since it would cost about £80 and the money would be better spent on other needs.

To me, the fact that they didn’t feel the need to mention their faith revealed how sincere and deep their faith was. It must be true when they say that the wealthiest people never talk about their money, the strongest don’t brag about their strength, and those who truly believe don’t feel the need to convince the others.

There was one occasion on which Winnie mentioned Jesus Christ’s name.

During our last painting session, they asked if it was OK for them to bring the camera so they could take pictures with me and the painting. Naturally, we had loads of fun at this photo shoot,and at some point Winnie asked if she could touch the painting where it was dry. She touched her own painted hands and marvelled at how real they looked. Then she looked at me with a laugh in her eyes, “ Dearest Natalie! With the talent like yours you could paint anything, couldn’t you? Then, tell me, please, why on Earth did you choose to paint us? You need to paint something that people would want to look at — what is that you saw in two old nuns that you think is worth looking at? I tell you, you will not be able to sell this painting anytime soon!”

Never a dull moment with my nuns

It wasn’t hard to tell her that I became attracted by how rare their way of life is in our time. How I saw the close human connection between them, that ability to care about another each other, the compassion that is fast disappearing from out modern lives. How I thought we are in need of compassion because otherwise it becomes quickly replaced by something that is empty of meaning and value; something that consumes us entirely.

As the opposite to that, thenlife they chose has a meaning that is valuable not only to themselves, but also to others. To me, it had less to do with the religion, but a lot to with being human — and I think that it is important. When it comes to things that are important to me, all I can do as an artist is to compress all that importance into one image. If I am successful, the value of what I seenwill be conveyed in such a way that the viewers will see it too.

Winnie listened attentively while I was passionately explaining all that. Suddenly I saw that she had a little tear in the corner of her eye. I was completely taken aback and asked her if she was OK. It was when she firmly took my both hands, and said: ‘To our Lord Jesus Christ, all lives are equally valuable — but you, my girl, have a gift to see it.’

“Sisters” by Natalie Holland, oil on canvas, 110x100cm

Just like that, in one sentence, she pin-pointed the most important reason why I choose to stick to my artistic guns all my life. The value of my work is seeing the value in people that populate my paintings — good, bad and indifferent – warts and all.

Well, if my seeing a value in Winnie’s life produced a tear, then her seeing value in mine produced a watershed of running make up. Then we all laughed and I felt like she had given me a most precious gift: it takes only one person that can see your value for your life to have a meaning. And yes, it is important that you will find that value for yourself. There will be times when you are the only one who sees it. At the end of the day, without anyone ever seeing your masterpiece — and just like in art, your mess can also be declared a masterpiece — is it really worth anything?

Since my nuns wouldn’t accept any monetary compensation for their time, I have prepared my own, although humble gifts for them instead. To Winnie, an envelope with something to pay for the repair of that sewing machine. For Ethel, a set of oil colours — including those bright ones.

The painting has been since exhibited at the same gallery where I first saw them, at the annual exhibition of Royal Society of Oil Painters at Mall Galleries, London.

From the studio to the gallery opening — my tiny ladies always show up.

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