Catholic Herald Staff
Bubinga, bloodwood, basswood, beech. Sr. Shirley Wagner’s basement is a bank of exotic wood.
The Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration works with approximately 40 species of every hue — vermillion and ebony to Osage orange and pink cedar. Sliced and sanded, the pieces are fitted into intarsia art that praises God and celebrates nature.
Sr. Shirley, 84, professed her first vows in 1950, then earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Viterbo University and the University of Colorado, respectively. After teaching music and conducting school and community orchestras in the Midwest for 30 years, she retired and took up a new hobby.
Intarsia is the art of inlaying wood or marble pieces to create designs. Fifteen years ago, she saw an intarsia wolf in a craft magazine.
“I can do that,” she thought, and bought her first scroll saw.
Many saws, sanders and planers later, Sr. Shirley has completed 525 commissioned projects. Her hobby long ago evolved into a second career, and the Medford-based sister has created countless crosses and Last Suppers, saints and logos, crucifixes and angels — and those are only the sacred subjects.
Northwoods characters, too, figure largely in her body of work. Deer, birds, flowers, horses, wolves, eagles, ducks and more — all are featured in her three-volume portfolio. Some of her proudest achievements are the life-size Christs and crucifixes, giving trees and Last Suppers that adorn church, school and convent walls.
The Last Supper in the dining room at St. Rose of Viterbo Convent, her motherhouse in La Crosse, spans 12 feet across. Donor trees can be larger still — up to 16-feet high by 16-feet wide — and her 7-foot Christs and crucifixes are on display at Catholic and Protestant churches near and far. Other notable projects: The woodworking in the Little Flower Perpetual Adoration Chapel at St. Francis of Xavier, Merrill; a dove and flames representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit at Holy Ghost Parish, Chippewa Falls; and an intarsia St. Clare of Assisi for St. Clare School, Wrightstown.
Each project presents specific challenges, she explained. For Last Suppers, making each dark-haired, bearded participant look different can be tricky. She also takes some artistic liberty with her creations — Judas, the apostle who would become Jesus’ betrayer, may be deliberately omitted, or a handful of nuns and an eminent Catholic or social activist might be invited to the table.
Although Sr. Shirley uses stains as needed for commissioned jobs, she prefers to rely on the natural variations in sustainably forested timber, thus her stash of exotic wood. Like many artists, she also dabbles in other styles and media — charcoal, painting, stained glass and, lately, wood turning.
A lathed bowl, miniature horse barn, Victorian dollhouse and fretwork clock are a few of her latest endeavors. Commissions have tapered a bit, allowing her time to devote to the projects of her choice.
“I’m to the point where I’m not getting as many orders now, so I get to do this,” she said, gesturing to the lathed bowl, “for which I’m extremely happy.”
The bowl represents her first foray into wood turning. She still has to sand it, but her appreciation for the medium shows in the variegated grains and the number of species she’s incorporated.
A handsome but humble object, the bowl is quite the opposite of the deluxe Victorian dollhouse she spent 1,000 hours making. Blue and burgundy, turreted and trimmed with gingerbread, the house is meticulously furnished — two carriage lights by the entryway; mirrors, a wardrobe and wall hangings in the bedroom; curtains on the windows; and 4,900 tiny shingles on the roof. She recycled old kitchen cabinets to make the furniture.
Despite her pride in completing the project, she wouldn’t say it’s her favorite.
“They all are,” she said. “When you put that much into pieces, it’s like giving birth to them.”
The dollhouse was displayed at Fourmen’s Farm and Home Center in Medford, then auctioned for charity in December. Sr. Shirley was delighted when a farm family won the bid. As a student of St. Francis of Assisi, she admires those who tend animals and care for the land, and she keeps her own small menagerie of dogs and cats for company.
The Chimes of Normandy, her current project, should strike a chord with woodworkers and history buffs. In the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, the fretwork clock was popular with hobbyists who used new technology — scroll saws and jigsaws — to cut intricate designs interlaced with faces, geometric patterns and winding vines.
It’s an undertaking worthy of a woman who likes a challenge. Sr. Shirley spent five hours cutting out the first piece, and the pattern did not include directions for assembly. When she called to ask for instructions, she was told anyone capable of making the clock could figure out how to put it together. So, she did.
“The whole thing needs to be taken apart and refinished, because it’s pretty dusty from sitting here,” she said, eyeing her masterpiece. “Never a dull moment, let me tell you.”
Nearly every piece she’s ever created has gone elsewhere, but Sr. Shirley intends to keep the clock. After she’s gone, she wants her protégé to “put it in a showcase somewhere.”