Sister Helen’s Art

Posted by: Roy Wilbur

A nun whose artistic beginnings include the Young Artists Workshop at Moore is showing a lifetime of work for the first time in a public space.

More than 200 pieces of Sister Helen David Brancato’s art are on display in the Gatehouse Gallery at St. Aloysius Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

“This gatehouse houses 50 years of work, things I’ve never been able to show until now,” said Sister Helen.

Sister Helen’s bed had served as her easel for years at the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in Springfield, Pa. The gatehouse was not being used, and her religious community decided to gift it to her as a studio space and a gallery.

“I call this place a haven because I’ve never had space to create, to paint, or to show the work,” she said. “All of it was leaning against a wall in a small room in the convent, so if anybody came to see the pieces, I would have to go through and pull them out. So it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time.”

Sister Helen’s relationship with Moore goes back to the early 1960s.

“I had a Saturday scholarship (for the Young Artists Workshop), and I loved it, it was wonderful,” she said. She attended classes on drawing the human figure and printmaking in her junior and senior years of high school.

“If I hadn’t gone to the convent, I would have chosen Moore for my college studies,” she said. “(Moore) played a great role, and especially the fact that it was dedicated to women. I really appreciated that, because women have been so short-changed in the field of arts and art history.”

She went on to become an art teacher, leading classes at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia, just blocks from Moore.

“As a matter of fact, I had Moore students as some of our student teachers each year,” she recalled.

Her connection with Moore continued years later, when she became the organizer of the Southwest Community Enrichment Center in Philadelphia, what she called ‘an art center for the people.’

The self-taught artists from the center – senior citizens, teenagers and children – were invited by then-Galleries director Richard Torchia to exhibit their work in a show at Moore in 1994.

“I’ve always had a good relationship with Moore,” she said. “It was a wonderful show.”

Sister Helen currently teaches drawing and printmaking at Villanova University three days a week, and then paints at the gatehouse Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Sales of her paintings, many of which feature biblical figures, benefit her IHM community, and she uses the rest to purchase art supplies and frames.

She enjoys talking with visitors to the gatehouse about her art.

“I’m mainly oil painting right now, but I’m into everything,” she said. “Now I have a nice easel in a beautiful space.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s thrilling just to be able to show my work, finally.”

See more of Sister Helen’s art here.