Uncategorized

Vincent in the Waiting Room

While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:

Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987

Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.

Van Gogh print hanging on a waiting room wall.

I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.

Here’s a better image of the painting.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.

Flowers/Flora outside of Upstate.
Uncategorized, Writing

Beyond the Glass Premieres in Las Vegas

My full-length stage play Beyond the Glass, inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, premiered last weekend at the Las Vegas Little Theatre. As the winner of its ninth annual New Works Competition, the LVLT has produced the play in the theater’s black box space.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

The show closes on May 14, and I am going out to Las Vegas this weekend to see it. Prior to the production, the play had staged readings in Toronto and Chicago. Here is the synopsis for the work:

In Beyond the Glass, one of the diner’s customers, Ray, wrestles with an existence he abhors but cannot alter. Ray feels trapped inside the urban coffee shop, but he cannot leave, since there is no door. The character Ed then reveals that he once lived on the outside as the artist Edward Hopper and had painted the diner scene. Ray plots to escape, but his plans are thwarted by the restrictions of the space and the realization that he is a figure locked in a painting.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

As excited as I am about having my first play produced—with real sets, real costumes, and real actors speaking the words I wrote on the page—my greatest joy is that I finished the piece. The project proved to me the importance of persistence when it comes to the creative process.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

I started writing the play in the mid-1990s, but I struggled with the plot. None of the versions I wrote worked because I tried to make it so Ray could leave the diner. I thought about what would happen to him in the outside world, where he would go, how he would survive, etc. He ended up coming out of the painting and “falling” onto the floor in one of the gallery spaces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Security guards chased him and then he roamed the streets of the city, hiding out while the investigation into his disappearance from the painting continued. I even questioned whether his painted surface would wash away if it became exposed to rain. The whole idea seemed artificial and forced to me; I became blocked, and then I gave up and decided to shelve the script around 2006.

Images by Courtney Sheets and the Las Vegas Little Theatre.

But a couple of years ago, a question tickled my brain: What would happen if Ray could never leave the diner, if he found out he would remain stuck inside for all of eternity? How would he react? What would he do? That was my breakthrough, and the drama of the play laid itself out for me in a simple and direct fashion. I’m not sure if the story works in its current form, but I’ll be observing the play with the intention of revising the script after I return from Las Vegas.

Writing

Dentist Office Artwork

I love when art makes me stop and pay attention to it, to lose myself in the experience of viewing the work. This happened to me earlier this week when I accompanied my wife Pam to the periodontist’s office for an appointment.

While I sat in the waiting room—rocking our nearly three-month-old son Colin and hoping the other patients would ignore what I thought was the smell of his soiled diaper—I stared at some artwork hanging on the walls. There were three oil paintings illuminated by the warm glow of recessed lighting.

The first painting showed a European plaza with flower stands on one side and an outdoor cafe on the other; the pedestrians were dressed in 19th century attire and some carried umbrellas. Even though it was a rainy day scene, the palette contained a mix of bright colors, including pink and violet flowers. At the top right corner of the frame, yellow sunlight fought to break through the clouds.

An oil painting of a European street scene (artist unknown).
An oil painting of a European street scene (artist unknown).

Another image showed a pedestrian bridge over a canal in Venice (or so I presumed) with cypress trees rising in the distance.

Venice scene. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.
Venice scene. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

And the third one depicted a woman’s bicycle leaning against a stone or brick building with an arched doorway and a windowsill festooned with red flowers.

Bicycle leaning against building. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.
Bicycle leaning against building. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

I wish I could give the artist credit by name, but I didn’t see a signature on the paintings. Of course these were not masterpieces painted by Van Gogh or Monet. However, the three works transported me to another place and allowed me to vicariously roam through the streets of an Old World city and stand on a bridge in Venice and observe the beautiful scenery.

Looking at these images interrupted the mundane experience of waiting in a dentist’s office and made the time pass more quickly. I also felt happy embarking—at least mentally—on a trip overseas. Although I dream of going on a European vacation one day, I know it’s unlikely I will visit Paris, Rome or Florence anytime soon, due to work demands and financial constraints. You see, right now the priority is paying for cans of Similac Expert Care Alimentum formula and a new bridge for my wife. Not to mention another box of Pampers for Colin.

Colin Joseph Close-Up.
Colin Joseph Close-Up.
Uncategorized, Writing

Sister Joselle Orlando: A Life of Art, Faith and Service

Here’s a follow up to a freelance article I wrote about artist and educator Sister Joselle Orlando of Syracuse. In our original interview, Sister Joselle told me a few stories that could not be included in the short magazine piece and web article published by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, and so I’ve decided to collect them here.


With her short stature, salt-and-pepper hair and tendency to talk with her hands—hands that have labored for many years—you could easily picture Sister Joselle Orlando as an Italian grandmother standing in a kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta fagioli (pasta beans) on a cold winter night. But these days Orlando, 74, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, New York, stays active by working on personal art projects, teaching art classes, and serving as a hospital volunteer.

Sister Joselle Orlando
Sister Joselle Orlando. Photos by Francis DiClemente.

At the Franciscan Art Studio on the grounds of the Spirituality and Nature Center at Alverna Heights in Fayetteville, she currently teaches adult watercolor classes, hosts “art as pray” sessions, and offers private art lessons. To find out more information, go here.

“Over My Dead Body”

As a young girl growing up in an Italian-American family in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Orlando loved to draw and her father, Salvatore, a machinist who worked in an airplane factory, showed her how to blend colors with crayons. Her mother, however, opposed her daughter’s budding creativity and wanted her to focus on the fundamentals of her education. Orlando says her mother, Mary Carmella, a homemaker and seamstress, once told her, “You go and learn your spelling and you’re not coming out of that room until you know them.”

But as a rambunctious child, Orlando says she rebelled against her mother.

“It took me until about fifth grade before I actually learned how to read or how to do math. So I fought with my mother all through the early stages of my education,” she says. “But I always loved drawing and I knew that I could sing. So the fact that I couldn’t read or spell or do math, once we had music or art, I had more confidence, so that kind of balanced it out.”

When she was in fourth grade, Orlando’s family moved to a neighboring town and the Felician sisters from Lodi, New Jersey, educated her. Through the Felicians, as well as her parish church, Orlando found herself drawn to St. Francis of Assisi, and her affection for the saint strengthened her faith in the Lord and sparked a desire in her to pursue a religious life.

“When I was 18 and ready to graduate, I finally said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to enter the convent.’ And she said, ‘Over my dead body you’re going to enter the convent.’”

Orlando says her mother wanted her to become a secretary. But Orlando followed her instincts. She wrote to the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse and they wrote back and welcomed her into the community.

She recalls the pain of leaving home on Sept. 1, 1959, and beginning her new life. “My mother would not come with me that day, she was sobbing terribly. My dad and my brother, my future sister-in-law, and I drove to Syracuse and they dropped me off at the back door. They left and I entered the convent. It was a bit of a dramatic way of entering the community, but I really knew that this was my call from God.”

Sharing Knowledge about Art and Life

Because the Sisters of St. Francis recognized Orlando’s artistic talents, she says the community wanted her to pursue an education in art with the goal of becoming a teacher. Orlando received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and education from Syracuse University in 1974. She later earned a master’s degree in art education from SU and a master’s in religious studies from St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia.

Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.
Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando spent more than 40 years in the field of education, teaching at both the elementary and secondary levels, and her profession became a calling, as she derived joy in molding students and helping them to develop their artistic skills.

She says, “I love to teach and to see how either children or adults evolve and discover talent within themselves and can say to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I did this.’”

Sister Jacqueline Spiridilozzi, who is also a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, has known Orlando for more than 40 years and says her vivacious and free-spirited personality is reminiscent of the character Maria from The Sound of Music. Spiridilozzi says Orlando always gave her students the “space, encouragement, and direction” needed to “bring out the best, promote the potential.”

Orlando has mentored many students throughout her career, including Sarah Guardia-Weir. Guardia-Weir met Orlando when Guardia-Weir was a freshman at Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, where Orlando taught art and served as a campus minister from 1995 to 2007.

Guardia-Weir says Orlando “showed me so many tricks that advanced my art skills and creativity.” She credits Orlando for helping her to get accepted into the demanding architecture program at Syracuse University.

But the relationship went beyond just the teaching of technical skills. While studying at SU, Guardia-Weir reconnected with Orlando, who was working and living in Syracuse at the time.

She says Orlando “taught me the power of friendship and the enjoyment of life through art … to have an adventure and trust in God’s path.”

Guardia-Weir graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a minor in ceramics. She works at an architectural firm in New Jersey and remains active in art, making crafts for her family and friends.

And she remembers some inspirational words Orlando shared with her that still resonate today. “I was worried about aging and worried that life might get boring as my young ideas fade,” Guardia-Weir says. “But Sister explained, ‘As an artist, I can assure you, even at my age that the gift of imagination will never die.’”

Challenged by Jerome Witkin

Bright sunlight streams through the windows of the converted chicken coop that now serves as Orlando’s art studio in Fayetteville.

On this morning, a clear subfreezing day in late February of 2015, Orlando sits at a long table, working on a bright watercolor painting of St. Marianne Cope dressed in her habit and standing in a Hawaiian setting.

Sister Joselle Orlando in her studio.
Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor painting in her studio in Fayetteville, New York.

St. Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. She helped to found St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse in 1869 and later devoted her life to caring for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaii. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21, 2012.

Orlando feels a close bond with Marianne and has produced many watercolor works depicting her, including some pieces for the Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum in Syracuse.

Orlando dips her brush in water, swishes it around, dips her brush in paint, and applies it to a white-yellow flower seen in the foreground. Later, she rises, walks a few feet, and points out a print of what she considers her favorite painting. It’s an image of dark cave area with a face visible in the scene.

Close-up of watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.
Close-up of a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

She painted the piece in 1990 while she was a master’s student at SU, and she recounts how one of her art professors, renowned figurative painter Jerome Witkin, taught her an important lesson about overcoming creative challenges.

In Witkin’s class students had to create a series of large-scale oil works, but they could only use two primary colors plus black and white.

“I painted St. Marianne leaning over a woman in a wheelchair on a beautiful Hawaiian beach,” Orlando says.

Orlando used red and yellow as her primary colors and had worked on the painting for several hours when Witkin came to critique it. As he inspected the piece, Orlando explained to him how Mother Marianne and the other Franciscan sisters had treated patients with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii.

Orlando recalls Witkin’s comments. “He said, ‘And they’re getting close to death, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they were dying.’ He said, ‘Well get rid of the sunset, get rid of the beauty … and show me that they’re suffering with death.’ And he walked away. That was Friday afternoon. They were due Monday. And I took my turpentine, washed the whole thing. I was swearing, I was so angry at Jerome.”

Orlando regained her composure and directed her energy toward the canvas, working over the weekend to paint a darker palette according to Witkin’s instruction, choosing red and blue as her primary colors.

The final scene depicts a leprous woman seated in a wheelchair and the woman appears to be part of a cave. The viewer can also see a leprous child’s face in the canvas, and the only source of light is the small figure of Mother Marianne entering the gloomy cave.

For Orlando, Marianne symbolizes the only source of hope for the desperate victims of Hansen’s disease.

Witkin praised the revised work and called it the best piece Orlando had ever done. But Orlando told him, “If I take this home and show the sisters, they’re gonna think I’m in a state of depression, it’s so dark.” She says Witkin then replied, “You don’t go down to the level of your audience, you bring them up to your level.”

Art as Prayer

One way Orlando combines her artistic and spiritual pursuits is by teaching an “art as prayer” class, in which non-artists learn how to use simple watercolor techniques as a language of prayer; a session is scheduled to be held in her studio in September.

During the retreats, Orlando incorporates the symbol of the mandala as an impetus for meditation. The mandala is a sacred circle that “represents the dialogue between the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven, the conscious and unconscious.” Students engage in quiet reflection, learn to paint mandalas, and share their prayer experiences.

A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.
A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando says the “art as prayer” program helps to enrich the faith lives of participants and gives them confidence in their creative abilities.

“I tell them, ‘It is not the product that you’re going to be displaying in a museum, it is your experience that you have when you’re using simple art tools. It’s what you feel inside.’”

Hospital Volunteer

In her community work, Orlando serves as a volunteer in the Surgical Waiting Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.

She interacts with the family members of patients who are in surgery, engaging them in a conversation and listening to their concerns.

Spiridilozzi, who serves as a coordinator for the sister volunteers at St. Joe’s, says Orlando possesses the ability to reach out to others, even strangers, and her presence provides support and strength to patients and their families.

“She kinda has a natural gift for being empathetic and sympathetic,” Spiridilozzi says. “She’s got that warm Italiano heart, and you know she’s just a natural with people.”

Orlando says she doesn’t ask the people she meets what faith they are, “because it doesn’t matter,” but she tries to allay their fears through an informal connection and the power of prayer.

“It’s sharing part of my spirituality with them and letting somebody know that God still loves them,” she says.

Orlando also privately reflects on her encounters with the family members. She will go to an upper floor at the hospital, look out at the view of the city of Syracuse, and pray for the people she has come into contact with. Her prayer is a simple one, summed up with the words: “Oh God help them.”

“You Don’t Go Singing in the Shower”

Inside Orlando’s art studio, a propane heater hums briefly before shutting off. Orlando stands over it, pushing some buttons and trying to coax the heater to stay on; she makes a plea to St. Anthony and then says in a singsong voice, “do your thing, do your thing, don’t go out again.” But when her attempts to revive the heater fail, she walks back to her seat, picks up her brush, and resumes working on the watercolor painting of Mother Marianne.

Sister Joselle in her studio.
Sister Joselle in her studio.

Her determination to create art and contribute to community life remains strong despite her age. And blessed with good health, she says she has no intention of slowing down her ministry as an artist, teacher, and volunteer. “I have longevity in my family. My dad died at 102 and he was still sharp … and my mother was in her nineties, so I have about another 25 years to go, so hang around.”

Orlando also says she has no regrets about the direction she chose when she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience more than 50 years ago. She believes that what she gave up to God when she entered the convent has come back to her more than a hundredfold.

“And I know that gifts that are given to us to share are not just for us. You don’t go singing in the shower,” she says. “Gifts that are given to us are given for others, and the more you give the more has come back to me.”

Writing

Filed Under Miscellaneous

I’ve been busy with video projects and working on my long-term nonfiction project, so I haven’t had time to blog much lately. But I wanted to share a few items worth noting.

The No Extra Words flash fiction podcast has produced one of my stories, Frozen Food, as part of its Episode 39: Sum of the Parts. The story was originally published in the online magazine The Literary Hatchet. You can listen to the podcast from the website or access it here.

Secondly, one of my essays, on the topic of “the writing life,” has been posted as a blog entry by the online magazine South 85 Journal. You can read the story here.

I also have good some good news about my experimental short film Fragments of the Living. The piece has been accepted as an official entry in the 2016 Athens International Film + Video Festival in Athens, Ohio. It will be screened on April 10.

And NewFilmmakers NY has selected Fragments of the Living to be part of its Spring 2016 Screening Series on April 25 at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan.

new filmmakers laurels 2016

Lastly on the writing front, my full-length stage play Beyond the Glass, inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, was read by actors recently at the WILDsound Writing and Film Festival in Toronto.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942.

Here’s the link with some information about the project, which I still consider a work in progress. When I get the time (and the courage), I intend to watch to the table reading with headphones and a notebook so I can jot down ideas and notes about problem areas in the script. Revision Awaits Me!

And finally I have one personal note I must share. And this trumps everything else. My wife Pamela gave birth to our son, Colin Joseph DiClemente, on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, at 10:29 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.

Colin Joseph DiClemente at the pediatrician's office.
Colin Joseph DiClemente at the pediatrician’s office.

Both mother and baby are doing well, and we are getting used to having a little one in the apartment. Of course, this means less sleep for us and short writing blocks for me, before I get pulled away from the computer by the sound of Colin screaming or a request by Pam for me to make up a bottle of formula. So I will be writing in bursts, trying to get down bits of text before duty calls. I hope the words I type in first-draft form will make some sense to me later.