Labor Of Prayer: Art Of Sonya Berg Menges
The top of the clock tower in the center of town was my favorite spot for inspiration and prayer during the semester I spent in Orvieto, Italy. From the highest point in the quaint medieval city I watched the sunset gleam off the cathedral façade as it towered over the rolling hills of the Tuscan landscape. I felt the residual warmth of the orange volcanic rock with which the city was built, and watched as flocks of sparrows collectively danced and swooped down narrow alleys. It was within the beauty of Orvieto that I first experienced a real, tangible interaction of my work and faith.
That fall I lived in a working convent, helped the nuns wash dishes after home cooked meals, and daily recited the Lord’s Prayer in Italian. Our classroom was a mimic of a Renaissance artist’s workshop where we helped artist and Gordon professor Bruce Herman with a large series of paintings. Bruce approached his work with fervent contemplation, and invited each of us to join his practice of singing and praying while working.
I was one of a few students charged with gilding two large wood panels with silver leaf. This preparation was a meticulous labor of love: the surface of the panel had to be perfectly smooth because the silver leaf would reveal the slightest blemish. Then using handmade glue and careful slow precision, we covered the panels with hundreds of extremely delicate (and costly) pages of silver.
Through hours of careful toil I understood the significance of using materials with inherent and perceived value. I learned of the importance of the working practice as well as the result. Silver leaf can signify wealth, status, and royalty and using it can be a contemplative process. While preparing those panels I participated in a sacrificial and redemptive experience: we were laying a foundation that would eventually be covered with layers of worked and reworked material to produce a beautiful image.
At St. Gabriel’s this coming week I will display three series of unique prints. The first is a trio of small linocut prints with silver leaf, inspired by my time in Italy as well as imagery from Medieval Books of Hours. The intricate hand-made Books of Hours of paintings, scripture and prayers brought the liturgy into the home, and provided the reader encouragement to pray throughout the day. Inspired by this concept, my work is more abstractly about an emotional participation with the Gospel narrative.
The first print, Terce (Crisp Hour) is about the morning hour, when we reflect upon our Creator and the renewal and redemption of creation through Christ’s sacrifice. The second print, Sext (Bought Hour) is about remembering the hour of Christ’s sacrifice, when he experienced for us the darkness of separation from God. The third, None (Watch Hour) is about Christ’s resurrection and the joy that is our new life in him.
The series of prints titled Vespers are multi-color etchings with gold ink and gouache paint. They are representative of the richness we can experience during worship and prayer. Remnants of similar prints appear in some of the forty small collages I made as a daily reflection during lent a few years ago. An image of one of these collages will appear in the Good Friday liturgy.
Lastly are a series of painted prints based on a window from the cathedral in Orvieto. They are a reminder of the realness we experience in worship. We congregate in a space, whether it is a cathedral or gym, and together become a visual example of the Church.
Four years after my semester abroad I found myself again in Italy and inevitably back in Orvieto. This time, instead of climbing the tight winding stairs to the roof of the clock tower, I stumbled upon a gallery exhibit on its second floor. Here was a display of a dozen of Bruce Herman’s paintings. After just a short time I was able to identify my two panels, each with little glimmers of silver leaf shining through layers of colorful oil paint.
Here was our hard work, culminating years later in a powerful and moving exhibit. I was proud to be a part of the process, even though the entirety of my efforts with the silver leaf was not visible. Now I welcome process and layers into my work, as each layer makes the final product all the more rich. And just as the clock tower revealed itself to be more than just a set of stairs to climb, I desire for my work to inspire a deeper reflection into the intricacies of our relationship with Christ.
Sonya Berg Menges is a member of All Saints and works from her studio in North-Central Austin. She received a BA in Studio Art from Messiah College in Pennsylvania and her MFA from UT in 2010. Sonya will be showing a new body of work at Hill House about the nostalgia and perceived domesticity in tree house imagery, beginning April 29th. For more of her work, please visit www.sonyaberg.com.