Activist, artist, and renaissance woman: Adé Bethune collection sees the light of day

There is something special about “Adé Bethune: The Power of One,” a semester-long exhibit in the Catherine G. Murphy art gallery on display this fall. Besides the fact that the exhibit will abide longer than most at the art gallery, this exhibition will consist of pieces that belong to St. Kate’s instead of simply highlighting visiting artists.

The Adé Bethune special collection has resided on campus for 30 years. The collection encompasses Bethune’s art, papers, writings, and correspondence. Deborah Kloiber, University archivist and head of special collections, was glad for the opportunity to present this art exhibit, which most people on campus don’t know about.

“I was able to pull in support from other places on campus… [and] actually bring in scholars who knew [Bethune’s] work and in some cases actually knew [Bethune] herself,” Kloiber said.

Those scholars are appearing in a series of lectures on Bethune as a result of a collaboration between the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the St. Kate’s alumni association and Friends of the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery. In the first lecture of the series, Dr. Julia Upton, RSM, visited from St. John’s University on Sept. 18 to share her latest project: a book-in-progress about Adé Bethune.

In her lecture, Upton described the life of Bethune, a woman she considered to be a wisdom-figure: Born in Belgium and raised in New York, Bethune was an artist who became heavily involved in the Catholic Worker movement beginning in 1933 and creating liturgical art for churches worldwide. Bethune first came to St. Kate’s in 1939 through the Catholic Art Association.

Bethune was a social activist and artist across various forms of media, from drawing and painting to stained glass and architecture, to mosaics and carving. Bethune was known for her depictions of saints as ordinary people and workers, which continue to appear in editions of The Catholic Worker today.

“It was the saints acting like regular folks that she was trying to communicate,” Upton said.

Bethune worked for social justice from the 1930s, beginning by working closely with Dorothy Day on The Catholic Worker, to the late 1990s, working on a nonprofit home for the elderly until her death in 2002. Throughout the decades prior to her death, Bethune traveled alone to the Philippines—this was during the post-World War II period that saw relatively few solo women travelers—she ended up running her own art business, working for affordable housing, and designing churches based on both form and function.

“She didn’t do these things all by herself. She worked with other people,” Upton said.

The biggest challenge for Kloiber and graduate student assistant Andrea Hoff, who compiled the Bethune exhibit together, was the sheer scope of the collection.

“How do you show all the different sides of [Bethune] without making it look like visual chaos?” Kloiber said, describing their dilemma.

The archivists’ answer to this was to ensure the chosen pieces fit with Bethune’s work and with each other. For Kloiber, it was important that the art be seen as more than an object; textual explanations accompany all works in the exhibition to show how the individual pieces connect with Bethune’s activism and with each other. In some cases, the explanations point out examples of Bethune’s sense of humor in her work.

Kloiber called Bethune “a renaissance woman.” Bethune educated herself about all the various techniques she needed to use in her art, and she dedicated herself to artistic, liturgical, and activist movements.

“When you think of St. Kate’s,” Kloiber said, “There’s the tripod of women, Catholic, and liberal arts. [Bethune] embodies that… Her life and her work stood for the same things that St. Kate’s says: This is what we are.”

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