by Christina Capecchi
"The Banquet," a painting by Ansgar Holmberg, 1995
At 77, Ansgar Holmberg '62, CSJ, is happier than she's ever been. The religious life she chose as an 18-year-old still fits. The art she enjoyed as a young nun has becomea vital expression of her faith.
Sister Ansgar's award-winning folk art flows from a buoyant spirit and serious convictions about care of the Earth and the least among us, a clear reflection of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet's mission "to love God and neighbor without distinction." So it is fitting that when St. Catherine University hosts the prestigious Opus Prize in November, a piece of Sister Ansgar's art will anchor the event's logo and theme, "A World of Good: Transformed by Faith in Action."
For St. Catherine art director Carol Evans-Smith, Sister Ansgar's work embodies the spirit of the Opus Prize, an international, faith-based humanitarian award that celebrates individuals who address the root causes of poverty and other social ills. "The theme itself made me think of her," says Evans-Smith. "I couldn't think of anyone better to interpret ‘a world of good' — and how appropriate to have a tie to the Sisters." Evans-Smith chose "The Banquet," an intricate composition saturated with bold colors and spiritual symbolism. "The Banquet" shows women and men of every color encircling a globe, each person offering grapes or bread or flowers with one hand and receiving those items with another. The globe is anchored by four trees, one from each season, whose branches frame a blazing sun.
"It is global, it is generous — giving and receiving, both. It is action, nourishing not just with food but also with beauty," Sister Ansgar explains. "It's inclusive. There are no boundaries, no hierarchy."
The emotional tenor of Sister Ansgar's art perfectly conveys the mission of both St. Kate's and the Opus Prize Foundation, says Mary Ann Brenden, associate professor of social work and one of three co-chairs of the Opus Prize steering committee: "It speaks beautifully to the dignity of each person, to community and the common good and Catholic social tradition. All of those are central to what we do here and to the values of the Opus Prize."
Sister Ansgar's frequent portrayal of women and of her life among women religious also relate, Brenden adds. "Past winners of the Opus Prize include many women who are doing vital and good work. So much evidence shows that if we improve the circumstances of women and their children, whole communities are improved."
Holmberg sketching in her studio.
Quiet focus The process of painting is so immersive and soothing that Sister Ansgar sometimes describes it as a "retreat." Art, she explains, is a form of prayer; it both demonstrates and deepens her faith. "There's no separation," she says.
Her work is an important contribution to the CSJs' heritage and to religious art at large. Sister Ansgar's illustrations have appeared in a number of faith-based children's books; and in 2010, Catholic Charities USA commissioned her to create an image for its centennial celebration.
A primary emphasis of her work is inclusivity, which spans not just gender but race and region. So her St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of St. Kate's, actually looks Egyptian.
Sister Ansgar depicts St. Catherine surrounded by St. Kate's students and alumnae — working on computers, building a house, making music. "Although she is only one she can do all things," reads the top border. The painting hangs in the center of the library in Coeur de Catherine and was dedicated during the alumnae reunion in June 2007.
"My education at St. Kate's was very broadening," she says, exposing her to a bigger world and more progressive ideas. The CSJs were among Sister Ansgar's most-admired mentors, which made the path to religious life feel like a natural one.
This fall she will move into Carondelet Village, adjacent to the St. Paul campus, where a mosaic of her painting "Green Place in the City" illuminates the lobby. She often visits the retired Sisters of St. Joseph who live there. "I love being part of their lives," she says. "They're really women of wisdom."
Sister Ansgar's ties to her alma mater have remained strong. Every year she speaks to students in the "Christian Spirituality" course taught by Professor of Theology Ed Sellner, sharing the prompts behind her paintings — be it a Biblical parable, a Julian of Norwich quote or a Guatemalan adventure.
And now her work will represent the year's signature event, what promises to be a transformative experience for St. Catherine University. "Her pieces are full of color and so vibrant," Brenden explains. "That captures the energy that the Opus Prize brings forward as it names these people who are renewing our world and calls us to heed their leadership and follow their vision. There's a lot of hope."