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This Yen to Paint

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 2009.

“I don’t know where this came from,” Sr. Paula Howard, Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.) told her friend Sr. Mary Nowell, O.S.B., during our Door-to-Door interview in Atchison, Kansas. “But I’ve always had this yen to paint.”

After decades of teaching and administrative work at Bethlehem University and Donnelly College, Sr. Paula retired from education in 1999. When asked how she’d like to spend her retirement, Sr. Paula said in passing that she’d always had the urge to paint and began taking art classes at her community’s Sofia Center. “I’d been listening to Bob Ross on television, and seeing him do these happy little trees, I kept thinking, ‘That looks really easy.'”

In the following months Sr. Paula experimented with different types of art forms but painting, indeed, stuck. What drew her closest to this method was the creation of icons, or storytelling through pictures of sacred characters and images.

Sr. Paula’s early work in iconography focused on the image of Our Lady of Tenderness, a depiction of the Virgin Mary embracing the Child. Our Lady of Tenderness is Sr. Paula’s most recreated work and is one she holds closest to her heart. “It was the first one I made all by myself without a teacher, so it’s special.”

As she gained more skill in iconography, Sr. Paula began attracting nationwide attention. One client, a Carmelite nun from Alaska, commissioned Sr. Paula to create the official icon of the Alaskan Carmelite order, Our Lady of the Midnight Sun. Today, the Benedictine sisters at Mount St. Scholastica have given Sr. Paula her own workshop, where she has created over 170 icons for friends, families, and other religious groups.

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