Sunday, March 30, 2014

Painting Nuns: The Covered…and Uncovered Woman

During my weekly sessions, painting the retired sisters of Notre Dame, the concept of the veiled and covered woman conjured up all kinds of memories and associations for me.
Sr. Marian Coughlin: Grace by Judy Takács

Who can forget the perky and kind Sister Bertrille from “The Flying Nun”?

Sally Field plays the classic “fun nun” in television’s "The Flying Nun”!

I grew up watching the sexy but veiled Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeannie.” She referred to her love interest, Major Tony Nelson as “Master.” Even though she had him wrapped around her finger, the whole "Master" thing didn’t sit right with me one bit.

Barbara Eden plays the mischievous Jeannie in the
1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie.”

And, of course, every single clichéd female celebrity of the last century who “vanted to be alone” hid behind a scarf and sunglasses.   

The Mennonites and the Amish women wear bonnets reminiscent of the 19th century, when Pioneer women obeyed their husbands, couldn't vote or own property, but could wield a shotgun and a hoe with the best of them.

The Tichel head covering or the Sheitel wig is worn by an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish wife for modesty so that only her husband may see her hair.

The Tichel like the one pictured covers the head of an
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish wife.

Servants, slaves and working class wives in history, art, fiction and movies
have all worn a kerchief.


Academy Award-winning Hattie McDaniel plays the
unforgettable “Mammy” to perfection.

With dignity, humor, loyalty and common sense she simultaneously
scolds and serves Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.

And, here in the west, we think of the Burka and Niqab as shrouds of subjugation that hide a woman as the private property of her husband and family. Though in the countries where women actually are enslaved, the consequences of not wearing one are dangerous and the full body covering serves as protection too.

Muslim women walk down the street gloved and covered in their Niqabs.

And, finally, the mother of all veiled women, the Virgin Mary, rarely appears in art without her characteristic blue and white headdress and adoringly down-cast or euphorically upcast eyes. A symbol of female perfection, she is maternal, peaceful, loving…and covered.

The Virgin with Angels by Alfred William Bougereau

In my life there has been only one situation where I was confronted with wearing a symbolic head-covering unrelated to warmth.

In planning my wedding, the question of what my veil would look like naturally came up.

As Chief Creative Officer of my wedding, I squashed the veil concept eagerly and without hesitation. Like being called man and WIFE, Mrs. SCOTT Pendergast and promising to love honor and OBEY, I was philosophically opposed.

To me, the bridal veil tradition brought with it images of an obedient daughter of a Medieval family, shrouded and presented to a wealthy suitor along with livestock, land and dowry to secure power and position for her family. The father’s lifting of the veil at the key moment when it was too late for the waiting groom to back out, was too much for this liberated woman, heavily steeped in the feminist movement.

I opted for a lovely hair ornament instead and went into my marriage with both eyes wide open.

Me and my honey on our wedding day.

When I embarked upon my nun painting expedition painting the retired sisters of Notre Dame, I guess I expected their retirement home to look like the convent in “The Sound of Music”;  all abuzz with kindly old singing nuns whose fascinating wizened faces peeked out from the black-and-white modest dignity of a nun’s habit. Portrait essays in black, white and flesh would be juxtaposed with red and pink backgrounds in my sensitively rendered likenesses.

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
The nuns from the convent sing about Julie Andrews’ lack of commitment to the sisterhood in “The Sound of Music.”

What I found, however, was that of 170 residents at the retirement home, 11 wore the headgear, and even fewer wore the full habit.

Back in the 1970s, word had been sent from the Vatican that the sisters were no longer required to wear the habit and headdress…and after talking with my new nun friends, I found that many of them said a collective “Hallelujah!” at that news!

Apparently the early headgear was incredibly uncomfortable, gradually tore your hair out and distorted your hearing too. Back in the early days, these women had to make their own headgear by cutting out plastic parts from bleach bottles and covering them with fabric. They wore these stiff wimples during the day and  switched to a slightly more forgiving head covering at night for sleeping.

The traditional headdress of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Pictured above is Sister Madeline Columbro,
who currently resides at the Retirement Center.

Because the stiff headgear prevented peripheral vision, the sisters who wore it could not drive a car. To go out and serve in the community, they had to rely on drivers, thus adding a layer of complexity to accomplishing their missions.

When these women joined the order at the age of 17 or so, they signed on to cover their heads, day and night…for the rest of their lives. The early convents also enforced the vow of modesty by removing any mirrors. This made it difficult for the sisters to check that their headgear sat straight, with hair nicely tucked away, during the many years they dutifully wore it.

The sisters who eventually shed their habits when it was no longer required, had wonderful reasons besides comfort and convenience. Many disliked the outward display of piety the habit symbolized, feeling that it separated them from the very community of people they wanted to help.

Some of the sisters chose to continue wearing the headgear, and their reasons for doing so were just as compelling as the reasons not to. 

The wearers of the headdress liked how it identified them as someone who can officially help you…like a police officer or fire fighter. One sister told me that without the habit, she’s just a nosy old lady giving kind words and blessings where maybe it wasn’t welcomed. But the habit gave her the authority and courage to help, knowing that her efforts would be taken seriously, respected and would truly bring comfort because of the higher power she was representing.

Sister Sharone, Quiet Joy
Judy Takács

The decision whether or not to wear the headgear was motivated by the same goal; to help those in need the best way they knew how. 

And thankfully, in recent years these noble women were given the option to chose how best to accomplish that mission…with or without the headdress. 

And even this feminist heathen painter who chose to shun the bridal veil, can’t find a darn thing wrong with that!


Soon you can see the entire collection of my paintings of retired nuns.
You're all invited to the exhibition…

NUN: Judy Takács Paints
Retired Sisters of Notre Dame

Opening Reception: Thursday night April 10th from 5:00 to 7:00
Clara Fritzsche Library Gallery
Notre Dame College
4545 College Road
South Euclid, Ohio
Show dates April 10th through May 23
Gallery hours are generous and the same as library hours.
call for details…216-373-5267

Sr. Patricia Gannon: The Brave by Judy Takács

At the Opening Reception, my mom, Dalma Takács will be in attendance 
selling and signing some of the novels she has authored.
My paintings are featured on her book covers.
Also for sale and signing will be some of my art books, including
Chicks with Balls: Judy Takács Paints Unsung Female Heroes.


Read my other blogpost about a Heathen Painting Nuns.
See you at the opening!