'The Nuns' Garden' provides a rare glimpse into cloistered lives

by Liz Keill
Monday October 06, 2008, 7:13 PM

REFLECTIONS AND RENEWAL -- "The Nuns' Garden" is a book of art and poetry by Helen Frank and Holly Scalera, based on the cloistered garden of Our Lady of the Rosary Monastery.

AREA -- "The Nuns' Garden," a book of art and poetry by Helen Frank and her daughter, Holly Scalera, gives a glimpse into the cloistered lives of the Dominican Nuns who reside in Summit. The Monastery of our Lady of the Rosary, which includes a chapel, is located at the corner of Morris and Springfield avenues. Ms. Frank, an artist with permanent collections at the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, described the serendipitous experience that brought her to this secluded setting. "I was tired and it was a hot day and I just went into the chapel where the nuns were holding Vespers. At the time, I didn't know they were cloistered...or even what that meant. But while I was there, they told me about the garden," she said, which is not open to the public. "That visit inspired me to create an artist's book about these women."

When she presented the proposal to the nuns, she said. "They were so delighted and happy and just loved the idea. The nuns vote on everything," she said of decisions by the 21 nuns and six novices who live in the monastery. In the meantime, her daughter Holly, who is not only a poet but has studied horticulture at the New York City Botanical Garden, said she would collaborate on the project. Ms. Frank sees "The Nuns' Garden" as a book of reflection rather than a religious text. Its spiritual tone offers comfort and a sense of serenity that is missing, she said, from our fragmented lives.

Ms. Frank said the book is divided into seasons, starting with fall, then winter, spring and summer. "Fall seemed like a logical beginning," she said. She and her daughter would visit the garden, then retreat to their own silent thoughts on the way home. Although writing and drawing were separate, they blend in harmony on the page. They worked for over a year on the project, including a vacation that they spent combining the poems and pictures. The book is sold in the Lady of Rosary gift shop as well as on the monastery's website, http://www.nunsofpsummmit.org/. The cost is $15. Ms. Frank said all the artwork is in black and white, partially to keep the cost down. The cover, however, is in color. "So many people have asked to buy the original," she said, "but I can't let it go." The cover page shows three nuns in their blue habits, hoeing and weeding in the garden. The oil paint on paper, which was placed under plexi-glass, was designed to have its own distinctive look, she said.

"Very few people really know about it," she said of the 1926 building on the hill, "although I've seen it all my life." Ms. Frank said she drives past the monastery on every trip to the Summit YMCA, where she met Rhonda Cyrus, a Summit resident who has helped her promote the book. That was also a serendipitous meeting, Ms. Frank said. She and Ms. Cyrus met in an exercise class and Ms. Frank said she just had "a feeling" that her new friend would respond to the project.

Ms. Frank reflects her love of art and creative energy in her Springfield home. Her portfolio ranges from a Seder accordion book to features about her art and family in Victoria Magazine and Becoming Family Magazine. She illustrated the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts brochure in Summit and has exhibited her works at Gallery 9 in Chatham. She has received numerous awards and grants and her work can be found in both public and private collections. She studied at Yale University, Cooper Union and the Art Students League.

Daughter Holly has six published books of poetry and lives in South Orange. She has started her own business, Holly-Grow-Lightly, specializing in small gardens and decks. Her poetry in "The Nuns' Garden" reflects the changing seasons and peacefulness of the surroundings.

One passage reads, "The Mother stands in the still February air waiting for the black shadow of trees to grow longer and for the sun to decode the message that will begin new life again." In an orchard scene, the words say: "In every grain of dirt there is God. In every leaf and flower, a song, a prayer, a memory of the Garden of Eden."

That sense of renewal and reflection is a constant reminder to the artist. "The world is in a great state of confusion," Ms. Frank said. "We need to find ways to bring us back to our inner selves and to be reminded of our humanity."