by Grant Moser
Sister Margie Thompson, 63, has had two constants in her life, the first being her art. When she was a young child, she used bobby pins to scratch designs into her bedroom wallpaper in her blue-collar Darby home. Any little bit of money she’d get, whether from babysitting or holidays, was used to buy art supplies.
At Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill, her art class teacher showed her how to teach young women to express the art inside of them. The teacher, a nun, also served as a role model for Thompson’s second constant in her life, her faith. “She showed me that it wasn’t impossible to be a nun and an artist,” said Thompson.
At age 17, right out of high school, Thompson joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph. “What really attracted me to the religious life was the aesthetic of the church. We had a beautiful old Gothic church with gorgeous stained glass windows with carved wood, and all the mystery and drama,” she said.
“I’ve examined this attraction to the contemplative and the spiritual and how the aesthetic is related to that. It is where people saw beautiful things that you wouldn’t have seen, like gold and brocades and how the altar was done up, especially on major feast days or on Holy Week.”
She began her life in the order learning how to pray, how to live in community and what it meant to be a Sister of Saint Joseph at what is today the Norwood-Fontbonne Academy on Germantown Avenue. There was also an emphasis on the contemplative life, on the use of silence, on prayer and on the vows of the order.
At the same time, the sisters were taking college courses on reading, writing, and social studies at Chestnut Hill College in preparation for their service of teaching. But Thompson desperately wanted a chance to study art as her major, which had never been granted before. She left a message with the head of the art department.
“Her name was Sister Mary Julia, and she was older than God and very Victorian. I showed her some of my work, and she said, ‘You will study with me on Saturday afternoons after your morning classes.’ So I spread the word, and we had five or six sisters there on Saturday afternoons. It was the first time this had happened. And that was how my art education got started.” Thompson would eventually earn her Bachelors Degree in Art from Chestnut Hill College in 1973.
Thompson’s first teaching assignment was at St. Bernard’s in Northeast Philadelphia teaching religion, social studies and art to 5th graders. She taught there for four years, and then at a succession of schools as she was needed. The next was Visitation Parish School in Kensington, then St. Hubert’s High School (near Holmesburg), Cardinal Dougherty High School (near Olney), and finally at Archbishop Ryan High School (in the Northeast) where she taught for nine years. Though she taught a variety of subjects at each school, including religion and social studies, she always made room for art.
“I liked turning them on to how exciting expression can be. That everyone can learn how to draw. We were writing haiku and poems and illustrating. It was helping them discover that everyone has creativity. There are so many right answers, so many ways to get at the same idea. I remember thinking my best teachers in my schools made me feel good about myself, and I wanted to help kids feel good about themselves.”
Sister Margie pursued her own love of art by studying whenever she could find time. While she was teaching full-time during the year, she studied for five summers at Kutztown University to earn her masters in art education in 1982. She also was taking continuing education classes at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and studying every Thursday night with Howard Watson, a noted Philadelphia watercolorist. Eventually, Thompson had a body of work and began showing her pieces at Chestnut Hill College and at area restaurants.
But she wanted a chance to take part in a really good art program and get studio time. So she took it upon herself in 1986 to approach Moore College of Art & Design with a proposal that she would work in Admissions in exchange for a degree. When they found out she had so much teaching experience, plus a master’s in art education, they asked her to be a teacher instead. “They didn’t pay me anything; I didn’t pay them anything, for two years. But I got a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree. And when that was done, they hired me. So for nine years I lived at the Cathedral Convent, taught at Moore College of Art & Design, showed my work with Hahn Gallery in Chestnut Hill, and even had my own little studio for a while.”
In the meantime, the president of Chestnut Hill College, Sister Carol Jean Vale, who had entered the order and made vows at the same time as Thompson, was asking her to come teach at the college. In 1995, after reflection and prayer, she came back to the college to teach art. Today she is Associate Professor of Art and the Coordinator of the Arts Programs. And she experiences the same thrills about teaching that she did when she first started.
The art curriculum requires two courses in design and mixed media, and Thompson makes sure both relate to the idea of culture. “Everyone knows Michelangelo and Leonardo, and thinks if they can’t draw like them, it’s not art. We say, ‘Let’s look at pre-Columbian, Inuit, Japanese, African, contemporary culture, even sports culture. Let’s look at the basics elements and principles of design.’ The students love it because it inflames their imaginations.”
Even with all of her experience, Thompson still kept learning. In 1999, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from The Vermont Studio Center and Johnson State College, and in 2004 she got a Master of Arts degree in Holistic Spirituality and Spiritual Direction from Chestnut Hill College.
Thompson is currently contributing to the outdoor exhibition organized by The Morris Arboretum and Woodmere Art Museum, “Take a Seat,” that reinterprets Adirondack chairs and runs through Labor Day. She was inspired by the proximity of Chestnut Hill College to the arboretum and painted two chairs to represent the shared ecosystem and landscape. Two of her watercolor class students helped her with the work, which took up most weekends and many evening nights for two months.
For more information about the “Take a Seat” exhibition, please visit http://www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/adirondackChair.shtml.
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