BLESSED JOHN PAUL II, a poet, actor, and playwright, had a great appreciation for human artistry. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, he wrote: “The more conscious they are of their ‘gift,’ [artists] are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation, and their mission” (#1).
For Catholic visual artist and Franciscan associate Jo Myers-Walker, the late pope’s explanation of the difficult life of an artist has helped her understand the sorrows and joys of the only way of life she has ever known.
“When I was in the fifth grade,” Jo says, “my mother let me paint my bedroom, but little did we know that such a thing, fairly boring for most young girls, would forever change my life.” Paint opened for her the door to a world most of us only dream of, a life grounded in pursuing visual art.
“I began by painting trees that went around the room on two of the walls. I put flowers and vines along the floorboards. I felt I needed to have beauty around me. My parents realized right away that there was something inside me that needed to be expressed. I guess that was when I began to think of myself as an artist.”
Many years later, art and Franciscan spirituality are central for Jo. “For me, painting those walls was the beginning of finding beauty and a sense of peace,” Jo explains from her studio in Gilbert, Iowa, a town with fewer than 2,000 residents.
Using a great variety of media, she conducts classes there. From watercolor painting to woodworking, from “slumping” (molding plastic or clay) to bookmaking, from creating delicious meals to painting with food—yes, with food—Jo’s creative passions ignited as soon as she picked up that paintbrush many years ago.
“I loved to climb trees,” Jo remembers, “and I climbed them to get above the chaos. Because I needed to reflect, I could look at the world closely from up there. Artists are observers. They see the detail in everything. You can’t help it.”
Happy to Be Alive
After completing high school, Jo attended Iowa State University in Ames, taking classes in textiles and clothing. When her parents worried that she wouldn’t be able to support herself, she switched to art education after her first year.
Once Jo graduated, she began teaching in Iowa colleges, holding art shows in private homes, and exhibiting her work at art shows across the Midwest.
Despite the low income generated by these means, whatever Jo created always expressed the same theme: a carefree joy at the sheer happiness of being alive.
Only through the lens of an artistic eye could Jo reflect back to viewers the happiness she saw on nearby faces. The ones that decorated her paintings and the sides of her van many times reflected people she knew: the loving smiles on the faces of dancers as they embraced were her own parents; the plastic, slumped groups of laughing women were friends; her children were captured in paint—leaping, playful, and happy.
Her commissioned work soon began appearing in schools and offices throughout central Iowa. A commission from her parish, St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center at Iowa State University, led Jo’s faith and art to become richer and more integral to her life.
When the parish’s religious-art committee commissioned her to create a 30- by 16-foot clay sculpture for a renovated space, Jo felt overwhelmed.
“They asked me to do a story wall, to create stories from the Bible,” Jo recalls. “I had no idea what I was going to do, but since I was a parishioner, I wanted to do something great. I began to work the clay, pushing it between my fingers, molding a face or a hand when suddenly, I could feel the people come alive between my fingers. I felt I knew them. Later on, as I climbed the 30-foot ladder to place each person on the wall, I began to feel as if Christ himself was holding me up.”
The story wall’s iconic images of biblical women and men immediately speak to viewers. When Jesus is sharing at the Last Supper, one head is turned away. There are two prodigal sons—one fleeing and the other being hugged. Jesus guides children while sprinkling them with the waters of life; Jesus washes the feet of his apostles. Each three-dimensional figure was speaking, teaching Jo steadily as she molded the faces, legs, torsos, and hands.
“The experience showed me that God is in all beauty. I just had to leave it all, my fears and expectations, in God’s hands.”
Tranforming a Bank
“Beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty” (Letter to Artists, #3).
Using all the money she had, Jo purchased an old bank in Gilbert, Iowa. Recalling a trip she had taken to France, she named it “The Left Bank Studio.”
“This had been a place of growth,” she says, looking out the front window. “Just think of all the lives that were helped by walking through that door.” She quickly set about making the 110-year-old brick bank a place of joy again.
She splashed color everywhere: painting brightly colored murals on the walls, train tracks and roadways on the floors. She stripped and refinished the heavy oak wall behind which tellers once handed out and received money. Jo polished the brass bars on the tellers’ windows and used their locked drawers to hold knives, forks, spoons, and dishes.
Living simply had been her life, and Jo quickly became known for relentlessly recycling all kinds of things that people considered useless. “I just told them: ‘Bring it to me, I’ll find a use for it somewhere!’” Jo laughs.
One person brought a ramp that made the studio’s back door handicap accessible; another hauled in old, wooden doors from a demolished house. Jo began collecting baby grand pianos, painting them in bright colors, using them to sit on, to eat on, and as part of painting classes. Seated on high stools, her students bend over their creations.
Jo used one bank vault to store groceries and a second as her makeshift office. After someone dropped off a bundle of wood, she got out her electric saw and made an easel/bed: an easel by day and, once she flipped it out, a bed. From old cupboards she made herself clothes closets, and she bought a TV—used, of course. Sawhorses and boards became workspaces for her increasing number of students. In a spirit of hospitality, she began cooking for just about everyone.
Because her trip to France renewed in her a desire to create with watercolor, Jo started teaching classes about using negative space to tell stories. At first, her students were confused.
“I had my students focus on looking into the mystery,” she explains. “You can paint a chair, yes, but when you place the color and water together on the paper, other things happen as well. I wanted them to look behind the chair and into the spaces that might be hiding something special. What shapes do you see developing there?”
It was a clear leap of faith for most students. “I had no idea what I was doing or what I was looking at,” says Anne Recker, “but I needed to begin cultivating that eye to see. I knew it would help me sooner or later with the other goals I had. It helped to open me up.”
Jo was thrilled when her students caught on. “Using negative space is a technique that helps the artist get more artistic expression,” she explains, “and that expression is a spiritual one. It tends to sneak up on them. There’s a story in there, and they just need permission to look for it.”
Art and Illness
“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (Letter to Artists, #6).
When Jo’s mother suffered a debilitating stroke that left her almost speechless, Jo brought art supplies to her bedside and encouraged her to paint as a way of expressing her thoughts and fears. Her mother was soon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
“I could see Mom was depressed; her hearing was less, but her eyesight was OK. She wasn’t able to hold her knitting needles. She didn’t speak, but I could understand her, and so I came often because I needed to observe and learn her new language.”
Recalling her mother’s artistic side, Jo thought painting might help. She brought several small containers of watercolor paints, brushes, and good-quality paper. Jo made an easel for her, using a piece of cardboard and clothespins to hold the paper. Jo helped guide her mother’s first efforts.
“I began to do a wet-on-wet technique, placing water on the paper, then applying paint and allowing it to mix together. I said to her: ‘See, Mom. There’s a lake.’ All of a sudden, she says to me, ‘Gimme that brush!’”
The hospice team watched Jo paint with her mother every day. They noticed that their patient showed a measure of peace, at times a little joy, and a great deal of self-expression. When they asked Jo if she would be willing to help others paint, how could she refuse?
“I thought it was a great idea,” she laughs. “Those minutes are so precious; bringing art to them encourages families to create something together that they would cherish forever. You can see beauty in the room.”
It wasn’t long before the hospice team began referring families to Jo’s studio, and in time her studio/bank became a center for hospitality. She began giving patients a quick lesson in watercolor before turning it all over to them, encouraging them to look for and use negative space in their own work.
“Jo acts as a conduit for me between the physical structures of our bodies and their weaknesses, between what’s internal and yet to be cultivated,” says one of her students.
Soon the families of terminally ill people also started coming to her studio, frequently describing it as their oasis. Once people looked around at the colorful characters and brightly painted scenes decorating the walls, they returned because they experienced Jo as a good listener and a nurturing person while navigating through very serious medical issues.
Making a Franciscan Connection
At this point, Jo decided to become a Franciscan associate and contacted the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa, starting a three-year period of formation. Over 20 years earlier, she had heard a talk by a member of this community.
“I needed something to help ground me in all of this,” she confesses, “and all they said when I first went there was, ‘The Spirit moves, Jo. Just let the Spirit move.’ I had no idea what I was doing, but I studied the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare and took classes. Their period of inquiry is two years, and they were all very gentle and understanding. There was no pushing, but everyone was so joyful. It was good for me to hear that life is one continuing journey, which you never really complete. That meant a lot to me at that point in my life.”
As more people began to visit Jo’s studio/bank, she felt the Spirit moving through her and with her in this new art outreach, using negative spaces to tell stories that heal.
“So many times,” Jo says, “all people want to know is that they will be remembered and that they mattered to their families. I paint with them, and the three or four paintings they complete tell me and their families stories important to them. One painting presented a couple soon to be united and dashing off together, going somewhere else. Another painting showed a woman seeing her deceased husband, waiting for her to cross over.
“And when their families receive these paintings,” Jo explains, “they often proudly display them at the person’s funeral. It’s a keepsake as well as a moment spent together with their loved ones. And that to me is a God thing of beauty.”
The God/Beauty Connection
Smiling, Jo adds: “It took me years to understand what a ‘God thing’ art really is. Things that are beautiful are of God. One farmer told me about the wheat he grew and the land where he raised it. He could still smell it years after he had retired. That wheat field was a work of his art. It is the artist who notices the details and remembers them for years. This forms the inner significance of our lives.”
When Jo completed her Franciscan training, she decided that her artistic work with the dying and her studio in general were her life’s mission. Maintaining her simple lifestyle and living in an earth-friendly way, she recently opened a small restaurant in the front of her studio. At the Write Brain Café, a gathering place for writers and others, she provides tomato bisque soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for people undergoing chemotherapy. Over time, Jo has discovered that such comfort food provides less stomach upset.
For the people passing through her front door, bringing with them a wide variety of needs, Jo provides nourishment for everyone, from the ad salesman to the newly diagnosed cancer patient.
Jo smiles and says, “People come through my door many times not knowing what they want. Most say they can’t paint, that they’re not an artist. All I do is listen and send them along with a little cup of paint. It’s the paint, the water, the paper, or the clay that allows a
person’s spirituality to come forth.
“And it is art that can help us deepen the relationship between ourselves and the world, especially at the end of our lives. Art is the medium where we do the work of God with our smiles and with our hands. And you can bet that, in every artistic action called forth, God is there.”