One-Minute Audio Clip, Sister Mary Gemma
The traveling multimedia gallery exhibition titled, “Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns,” will consist of framed 16x24-inch photographic prints accompanied by audio clips edited from a series of oral history interviews. A catalogue will be created, and CDs will be produced of audio features about the cloistered nuns’ memories, motivations, and experiences. There will also be a performance aspect to this project: A reading based on the oral history interviews will take place at the opening.
Abbie Reese – a writer, photographer and oral historian
For the past five years as a self-supporting artist, I have worked closely with a community of cloistered monastic nuns in one of the strictest religious orders.
After joining the cloister, the nuns are rarely seen. A metal grille separates them literally and symbolically from the world. The nuns observe monastic silence and communicate on a very limited basis with outsiders.
During my visits, a rare concession with continued access, I have made photographs and conducted oral history interviews within the enclosure – a fourteen-acre campus the nuns do not leave, with few exceptions, even in death. Members of this community embrace an extreme version of poverty and anonymity; they give up their names and their shoes as concrete, external signs of their vows. (They often wear shoes in the wood shop and outdoors.) Burial takes place in a small cemetery on the property, with a stone marking only the woman’s religious name and death date, not her birth name or birth date.
Cloistered nuns devote their entire lives to prayer. A select few answer phone calls to a “prayer hotline” and they all pray, five times a day during the Liturgy of the Hours, for personal and catastrophic events around the globe. By removing themselves from the world, by undertaking lives of self-sacrifice and prayer behind the scenes, they believe they have a greater impact on mankind than if they maintained direct contact with strangers and loved ones. They describe themselves as the mothers of souls.
This project will portray the otherworldly realm of the enclosure – a cultural time capsule that one nun’s great-niece describes as “the Jesus cage." (The nuns laugh when they recount this description, which they say is apt.)
It is my intent through this exhibition (and a nonfiction narrative manuscript) to highlight the counter-cultural values and the dedication of individuals who live what they believe at an incredible personal cost, for love of God and humanity, out of faith in what cannot be seen, and in the hope that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. “Erased from the Landscape” deconstructs a group’s struggle, against extinction and modernity, to establish community within the framework of ancient rules.
“To be an artist is to be a teacher, a builder of bridges, a healer. As a photographer and storyteller, Abbie’s work has the ability to peer into people's lives. She is not a voyeur, as is often the case with photographers desiring to be 'in vogue', but one who cares about people and desires to bring others to a broader understanding of the human condition. The model the nuns present to us, while not something that everyone would want to follow themselves, can inspire anyone interested in contributing to the world in their own way. Their honesty, and their conviction should appeal to anyone. Abbie is doing a remarkable job helping to tell their stories.”
– Steve Rowland, Peabody Award-winning documentary producer of “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life” (narrated by Susan Sarandon) and “The Miles Davis Radio Project” (narrated by Danny Glover)