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An Interview

David Willcock, executive producer for Spire Films, has worked with Sister Wendy Beckett on several of her series. He spoke with her in late 2000, shortly after they had completed their visit to the United States to film Sister Wendy's American Collection. Here are excerpts from that interview.

David Willcock: Now, why did you want to do a series about six great American museums?

Sister Wendy: America has the good fortune to have some of the greatest museums in the world, but because it's such a vast country, even Americans themselves don't realize the extent of their good fortune, and I thought it would be wonderful for me personally to see these museums knowing that I would be able to share what I saw with so many others.

Willcock: How do they compare to other museums?

Sister Wendy: Well, all museums are different. I've been lucky in that previous programs have taken me around most the great museums of Europe and of Britain, and they're all fascinating. I think the great difference is that mostly in Europe, there are one or two major museums in the country. The rest are peripherals. But in America it's studded with major museums. You can go from one immense treasure trove to another.

Willcock: Is there something indigenous to American museums?

Sister Wendy: No, and that was the glory of them. They are extremely wide-ranging. They are on a level with European museums in every respect except perhaps, now I come to think of it, there may be a slightly greater emphasis on the pre-Columbian. Certainly there's a greater emphasis in some museums -- I'm thinking particularly of Boston -- on American decorative arts, which Europe has not yet come fully to appreciate. But by and large they're just splendid examples of great encyclopedic museums.

Willcock: So what made you choose the six museums that you did?

Sister Wendy: Well, by and large, they chose themselves. You couldn't seriously do six great American museums and not have in the Met, the MFA of Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Since I wanted to cover the country, have a true geographical spread, the greatest museum on the West Coast was clearly Los Angeles County.... The choices were in the South and in the Midwest. In the South I felt the Kimbell at Fort Worth was such an extraordinary museum, although it's not in the strictest sense encyclopedic in that it hasn't got some departments. What drew me to the Kimbell was the extraordinary quality of the work. Also, I was fascinated by the fact that there and there alone do you have a museum that, in itself and its architecture, is as beautiful as anything within it. The real area of discussion in theory was the Midwest, because they have an exceptional number of museums. It's the most richly museumed part of the country. There's Kansas City in Missouri, and then there's Cincinnati. There's Detroit and Pittsburgh and Minneapolis and St. Louis. But I say it was only a theoretical problem because I always longed to go to Cleveland to see that great museum, and it did not disappoint me.

Willcock: How do you go about choosing from all those places, and what was the rationale?... Tell me how you did it.

Sister Wendy: Well, essentially I was supposed to be choosing works that I liked. It soon turned out, though, that this was a simplistic version of how we would set about. The call is that these are things I like fair enough, but one also has to remember that if I'm to do encyclopedic museums and give a fair idea of what's in them, I have to move outside medieval art, Oriental art, ceramics, and the Old Masters. If I had stuck just to what I myself love best, every program would have been exactly the same, because each of these museums has superb holdings in my four favorite areas. But nobly, self-sacrificingly, thinking only of the good of others, I forced myself to investigate areas of art into which perhaps I had up to now taken little interest. As always happens with self-sacrifice, I was blissfully rewarded. For example, at Boston I discovered for the first time the extraordinary power of colonial furniture. At Cleveland I understood again for the first time why armor so fascinates. At Los Angeles I had my first -- and of course it will be my last -- encounter with high fashion when I spoke about Issey Miyake and Christian Lacroix, those two great dress designers, and spoke about them in all truth and respect as great artists. I hope that my own learning experience, the widening of my aesthetic horizon, which was such a personal blessing for me, will be infectious, and that those who, like me, tend to think of museums as basically paintings with a sculpture here and there will explore further.

Willcock: A lot of the art, Eastern Art in particular, comes from religious traditions -- Buddhist, Hindu, whatever. How did you feel about trying to get behind the spiritual and other spiritualities as a Christian nun?

Sister Wendy: Well, all great religions are great because they're based upon the longings of the human heart. Essentially what the Buddha taught Jesus taught, as far as moral conduct goes. The intricacies of theology are not usually what concerns the artist. They're concerned with the big, beautiful fundamentals, and there I have never had any problem. In fact, anybody who has a narrow sense of their religion, whether they're Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever, has only to look long and intelligently at the great work of another tradition and they will see what the religions have in common. One does have to read up so that one understands the iconography, and that I found great pleasure in doing, and yet more than once when I'd done my research and had spoken about the work, I ended... sometimes by saying that the aura of that work was so intense that I think it communicated to those who have no idea of the religious beliefs behind it.

Willcock: If it's... a struggle for you to come to grips with the work, is it going to be difficult for people going to museums? I mean, should the museum... We go on vacation; we go for fun; we go for pleasure.

Sister Wendy: Remember, my struggle is to put this into words. People who go to the museum are not asked, lucky them, to hold forth about these works. My struggle has been to let them know there is something there to respond to and for them to respond to. Just as I used to think when I was at Oxford with English literature, these works were all written for pleasure -- Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens. These are delightful books, but the struggle is when you have to force yourself to react on every level of your being to what they're about, and I have to do this, but the fortunate viewers will just have the pleasure, just have the reading of the Jane Austen, not having to write an essay on her.

Willcock: ... One of the questions I've heard asked many times is, how do you talk about sex? How do you as a celibate come to talk about those things?

Sister Wendy: This question always baffles me. It baffles me even more than this religious/secular divide, because the body surely is a holy thing. God made the body and all the body's functions, and I can't see that there's any one of those functions that are either disdained by God or should be disdained by us. Obviously the criterion is, is it great art? If it's great art, then the body is used to reveal the spirit. Exactly the same themes could be used in small art where the aim is snickering and childish.

Willcock: And would you not do those paintings?

Sister Wendy: I don't do art that I don't think matters, so any art that even verges on the pornographic is by definition not within my remit. But of course in museums one doesn't see vulgar art. One sees art in which the artist has seriously and responsibly looked at God's creative work and used it. So I'm still baffled at a narrowness of mind, the naiveté of thought that could see certain subjects as not quite proper either for art or for someone speaking about art.

Willcock: What do you hope viewers of Sister Wendy's American Collection will get out of watching the series? Put another way, what is your goal for the series?

Sister Wendy: I hope that everybody who watches it will realize what art has for them; that this is their heritage, that they are foolish not to explore it, and that the exploration is pleasurable. I hope they will go to their own museums. I hope they will read books. I hope when they travel, they'll plan to take in a museum. I hope these things, and I hope them with a great deal of confidence, because most Americans do these things already. Americans are the most educated people in the world artistically. Every museum has a devoted following who not only go to the museum but think about what they've seen, who can speak about the works in their local museum. What the series will do is perhaps show them the treasures in other museums. It will also encourage those humbler than myself to realize that if you look and if you think, your reaction is as good as anybody's. There's no one way to look at paintings. In fact, several times in the series I challenge accepted ways, and although you may nod your head pityingly over my presumption, I hope it will encourage you to go and do likewise.

Willcock: If someone were to ask you how they could train now to see the art the way you do, what would you tell them?

Sister Wendy: I would tell them to go to a museum and look at no more than two or three works, perhaps even two or three taken at random. Look at them. Walk backwards and forwards between them. Go and have a cup of coffee. Come back again. Wander around the museum. Come back again. Go to the shop. Buy postcards of them. Look again, and go home. At home, look at the postcards. Borrow from the library books on these artists. Go back again. Eventually you will find they open up like one of those Japanese paper flowers in water. You have to expend time and energy. If you don't want to do that, you can still get a lot of enlightenment and entertainment by just wandering around, but you'll never get the deep spiritual nourishment.

Willcock: ... When did you first begin to really appreciate and study art, two separate things?

Sister Wendy: I think I've appreciated art since childhood. I began to study art possibly towards the end of the '70s when I could no longer carry on with my normal work for the monastery, which was medieval Latin translation.

Willcock: And you studied that for 20 years before you started. How long before you started writing books and art books?

Sister Wendy: Only about 10 years, really. I... did my first television series, first television film, at the time of the Tiananmen massacre, which I think was 1987. I had been writing for some time before that.

Willcock: ... You're not a Carmelite nun?

Sister Wendy: No. I was a Sister of Notre Dame from the beginning of 1947 until 1970. Then the order gave me permission to come to live in solitude, and the bishop consecrated me as a contemplative living alone with the Carmelite nuns acting as my order. They're not my order, but they do everything for me that an order would, and I owe obedience to the prioress.

Willcock: And your trailer's in the grounds...

Sister Wendy: My trailer's in the grounds of the monastery. I don't see them. I don't talk to the sisters. I talk to the prioress, and I write notes to the sisters. I talk to the sister who looks after me who gives me my provisions every day and my laundry once a week, but it is a completely silent, solitary life. After I've seen Sister Mary, who looks after me before mass, I will not see anybody again until before mass the next day.

Willcock: The Carmelites physically aren't allowed out of the cloister. What do they... How do they feel about you going off to do television?

Sister Wendy: They feel very sorry for me. There's a genuine compassion in the community, and I think a great sense of relief that they don't have to travel around the world. When I started, they accepted it because they trust me, and I said I thought it was a good thing to do. Now they themselves think it's a very good thing to do. They get letters from their families and from friends. The people who make the television [show] BBC Inspire have come down and shown them what I've done, and they see the value of it, and they think that for some strange reason that God has asked me to leave solitude for periods -- not, by any means, permanently -- to do something that is apostolically useful, but they feel as I do, that I've now perhaps done enough.

Willcock: And so what is your next project?

Sister Wendy: I have no next project.

Willcock: Solitude?

Sister Wendy: Solitude, yes. No more books. No more films. I might write an occasional article or two because I'm continually asked, but that will be it, and even that I'm doubtful about.

Willcock: And will you regret it?

Sister Wendy: Regret it? I take that as a rhetorical question.

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