An art installation in Santa Ana centers around the habit of sisters’ activism
Lexa Walsh describes herself as a recovering Catholic. The Oakland-based artist and culture worker attended Catholic school through 11th grade, and her latest show at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana works through her experience while creating a platform for the legacy of progressive religious women in California.
“As I have gotten older, my view points have gotten much more activist-oriented,” said Walsh. “As I became an activist, I learned about activist nuns and priests in Central America, and then in grad school I learned about Sister Corita Kent … I just started to realize, once I was over my anger, that there are some things that I learned from Catholic School that were actually really good, thoughtful and important lessons.”
Sisters InfoShop is an exhibition and socially engaged residency project with a special focus on the work and lives of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
“When I first thought of doing the project, I thought it was going to be much more expansive,” said Walsh. “But the sisters were really ready to collaborate, so it has really homed in a lot more on them and their work.”
The installation includes a timeline from the sisters’ activism and their place within pivotal moments in the Catholic Church’s recent history. For the project, Walsh worked with sisters like Sister Ellen O’Leary.
“Ellen is amazing. She is an artist and a mime and she is a little new agey,” said Walsh. “Just not at all like my 1970s nun.”
St. Joseph of Orange is quite an institution, and Walsh said there were a few people she had to go through to make sure the sisters were even allowed to participate in what she had in mind.
“I wrote a letter explaining what I was thinking of, which was somewhat vague,” said Walsh. “I came down a month later to have a meeting with them, and they had come completely prepared with all these ideas.”
Along with the installation in the gallery, the exhibit includes a mobile kiosk in the public square in front of the art center, activated with programming by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
“Early on, I was thinking about a kiosk that rolled out into the square, where I was hoping the nuns could do things they weren’t normally allowed to do, like pushing the boundaries of the church a little,” said Walsh. “I was imagining they would give confession or at least give advice and turn the square into a social justice center.”
The show opened on Feb. 4, during Downtown Santa Ana’s monthly Art Walk, where the public was invited to engage with the Sisters inside and around the kiosk, which resembles a little chapel with a flat roof and coffered ceiling, with activities like a Human Library.
“You can borrow or ‘check out a sister’ to talk to her about a topic of her choice,” said Walsh, “or ask her anything.”
Other activities like a Social Justice Fair, Sister Ellen O’Leary’s miming and multiple other socially engaged activations are planned for the first Saturday of each month through the show’s run until May 14.
Walsh incorporated the blue, green and gold tartan plaid from her Catholic school childhood into vintage desks and prayer kneelers that have become conversational sculptures.
“I knew I wanted to use the plaid from my Catholic school upbringing,” said Walsh. “I actually had a couple different plaids, but this one sort of stuck with me, and I was able to find it in wallpaper and fabric.”
Walsh said working with the sisters was a special experience in which she tested their creativity.
“I am really trying to push them; when they bring up an idea I am like, ‘How can we make that more interesting, more difficult, more complicated?’ ” Walsh said. “I have definitely challenged them on a couple ideas.”
Walsh also admits, the sisters have challenged her too.
“They have also pushed me,” Walsh laughs. “Like I wanted to do a soup kitchen, and they were like, ‘Why? That doesn’t fit.’”
Walsh said while she is still working through her own religious experiences, she is inspired more by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange rather than the nuns she is familiar with from her past.
“In general, I am focusing on who they are today,” said Walsh, “and they are amazing women who kick ass in the world.”
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