Sister Cathie with her stunning abstract expressionist work, “Momentum,” which is oil on masonite. (Photo by Louise Wright)

by Louise E. Wright

“Box.” The word crops up often in conversation with Cathie Meighan, SSJ. So it comes as no surprise that to understand Meighan — as both an artist and an individual — one needs to think “outside the box.”

Forget the stereotype of the painter, brush in hand, struggling to transfer images, whether seen in the mind’s eye or the world around her, to canvas. “Almost none of my paintings are with brushes,” the Chestnut Hill resident declares.

“Evolving,” Meighan’s M.F.A. thesis now on display at Chestnut Hill College’s Dwight V. Dowley Gallery, reveals her creativity not only in the works she produced but in how she produced them. The artist applied oils to canvas using a variety of tools: a T-square, a jump rope handle, even her own gloved hands.

One painting done in browns and blacks confirms the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. Having to transport large canvases to the Vermont Studio Center/Johnson State College, where she did her graduate work, Meighan hit upon wrapping them around swimming pool noodles. She trimmed off the ends, and the resulting clutter on the studio floor spoke to her. Moving and “dancing” in front of a canvas, she used the noodle pieces to apply paint. Thus, “The Dance” was born.

Sister Cathie’s technique derives at least in part from research she did on the 1950s for an art history course. Labeled “domesticated,” women at that time were denied the status of painters. They reacted by taking household materials, like scouring pads and mops, and painting with them. Meighan decided, “I’m going to give that a shot” and went off to raid the dollar store for supplies.

Furthermore, unlike the stereotypical artist, Meighan doesn’t struggle to reproduce what she sees. The paintings already exist, and she is simply the medium through which they realize themselves. Although works like “Reflection” and “Detached” contain images of human forms, Meighan denies responsibility for them. “A lot of times figures just emerge out of my work,” she explains.

Describing her process, the artist uses the metaphor of “a choreographed dance” but one in which she is following rather than leading. “The painting tells me,” Meighan emphasizes. “I have no idea where I’m going, and I don’t know where it is and where it’s going to end.”

With no goal in sight, how does Meighan know where to begin? She looks at the work of other artists and reads about them. “I read biographies of artists like crazy,” she admits. “I can be with them while I read and pick their brains for inspiration … I just pick up anything and start — and there it is.”

And when to stop? “When I step back and I look and I say, ‘Yes, that’s it,'” she replies … “Detached” is a painting in which a human figure “just emerged.” Going back to it, Meighan attacked the canvas with pallet knife and spackle knife, severing head from body; hence, the title.

Such an approach — fearless, trusting, passive — did not always characterize Meighan’s work. In the beginning, “I was very tight, very much about perspective.” An instructor at the Vermont Studio Center sensed that Meighan was afraid to make a mistake. “He told me to paint nothing, to put paint on canvas and see where it would take me.”

Meighan grew up around 26th and Dickinson Streets in South Philly and had an interest in art from the time she was four. At St. Maria Goretti High School, she “loved art more than anything,” but the school did not permit her to take classes. In 1976, three years after graduation, she entered the convent. There her talent was recognized, and she was encouraged to pursue her passion.

Meighan took classes at what is now the University of the Arts and graduated from Chestnut Hill College in 1987 with a degree in painting. She also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Barnes Foundation, Tyler School of Art — in short, “everywhere. I’m a perpetual student,” she declares. “I love to learn.”

And to teach. Early on she taught elementary school, but in 1986 she began teaching art at West Catholic High School. Five years later she moved to Mount Saint Joseph Academy, where she has been ever since. She earned a teaching certification at Moore College of Art and decided to pursue an M.F.A., not just for personal satisfaction but also to teach in college.

The title of Meighan’s thesis, “Evolving,” is significant in two ways. First, it refers to a process of inner growth. “The body of work is the beginning,” she points out. “I wanted something that says, ‘I am not done.'”

Secondly, the exhibit takes its name from a self-portrait done in shades of blue evocative of shadows and darkness. Painted in 2011, it stands out, not only as the first work on display but also as the only representational piece in a collection of abstracts. Seated with knees clasped to chin and head bowed, the subject is confined to a space not much bigger than herself. Accompanying the painting is a poem Meighan composed that opens: “I am not what others say I am. / I am more! / The box that contains me is only a box.”

The artist associates this feeling of entrapment with pain. “If you’re trapped and can’t move, you’re overwhelmed with pain,” and pain can cause a boxed-in feeling. Several works represent Meighan’s response to the death of her aunt. One of them, “Pain Overwhelms Me,” contains pieces of corrugated cardboard. Meighan literally started with a box, ultimately ripping it up. “The box suggests that pain boxes one in, says the artist.

Free and open to the public, “Evolving” remains on display through Nov. 16. The Dwight V. Dowley Art Gallery is located on the 5th floor of St. Joseph Hall. More information at 215-248-7042 or mthompsonssj@yahoo.com.