LATROBE, PA – A new digital exhibit launched by The Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College showcases the creative work of students enrolled in the honors course Thomas Merton: Monk, Writer, Spiritual Master.
Taught by Dr. Patricia Sharbaugh, the course is an exploration of the life and work of Merton, a Trappist monk, writer, theologian, scholar, poet, artist and social activist. The new digital display showcases a class project in which students were tasked with creating photographs by using Merton’s method of imaging-making within their home environments.
The creation of the digital exhibit, entitled “Creative Expression in the Style of Thomas Merton,” was born from a more than year-long collaboration between Sharbaugh and Andrew Julo, curator and director of the Verostko Center for the Arts.
Sharbaugh first connected with Julo when she was developing the course prior to the spring 2019 semester, and the colleagues discussed at length their mutual appreciation of Merton’s work. In the spring, when the Saint Vincent Gallery hosted the exhibit “A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton,” Julo delivered a presentation to Sharbaugh’s class, which included a nature walk throughout the Saint Vincent campus during which students were asked to take photographs in the style of Merton. This photography was subsequently featured in a display at the 2019 Saint Vincent College Academic Conference.
“Students were challenged to make photographic images that borrowed from Merton’s signature style of zooming in on overlooked elements that surrounded his hermitage,” explained Julo. “I was impressed with how well the students imaged the environed world of campus, revealing a myriad of new details, angles and vistas to great affect.”
“The students really enjoyed this project,” recalled Sharbaugh, “and we decided that although we would not be bringing Merton’s photography to campus again, we would repeat Mr. Julo’s lecture, the nature walk, the photography assignment and the display at the 2020 Academic Conference.”
These plans had to be altered due to the transition to online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the strong collaboration between Sharbaugh and Julo enabled the students to still receive a deep exposure to Merton’s art and an opportunity to showcase their work.
“When we were forced to convert our classes to an online version,” she said, “Mr. Julo provided students with a beautiful and informative lecture through PowerPoint slides on Merton the artist. I asked students to look for beauty in their local environment, to photograph it and to reflect on the way the exterior picture inspired interior reflection. When students submitted their assignment to me, I sent it to Mr. Julo. He created the beautiful website and is primarily responsible for how well the assignment turned out.”
Julo jumped at the opportunity to work with the students and share his knowledge of one of his favorite artist-theologians. Following both his in-person presentation and subsequent Academic Conference display last year and this year’s online class, he was impressed with how the students grasped and appreciated Merton’s work.
“Several students are drawing our attention to these moments of shift in the season in the form of budding blossoms and flowering trees,” he said, “while others are indicating the trace left by humans – signage, footprints, an empty road and the structures of a built environment. Through their photographic and written work, these students are directing our gaze to very quiet situations that would go unheeded by most of us. They’re witnessing a vision of the world that prioritizes concentrated, thoughtful looking in order to identify insights taking place right outside our window, which is something Merton was very interested in sharing.”
Sharbaugh was also pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response of her students to Merton’s work, which, she says, is especially pertinent during this unsettled time of the COVID-19 quarantine.
“Throughout the quarantine,” she said, “students in the class have written on discussion boards and in their reading journals about their deep appreciation for Merton during these times, an appreciation that carries over into their photography, essays and poems for this assignment. Although the students experience frustration with online learning, loneliness for friends and grandparents they are unable to see and stress because of the uncertainty of our circumstances, reading and studying Merton has helped them to also appreciate this time as an opportunity to put into practice some of the values he writes about. I have been amazed by the students in this Merton class and inspired by their continued engagement with the material in its online format.”
More than 50 years after his death, Merton remains one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. A strong proponent of interfaith understanding and a champion of peace, spirituality and social justice, he is best known as an author, having written more than 50 books, including his best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which chronicles his early life and conversion to Catholicism. His writing was often contemplative and introspective and has made an impact on Sharbaugh’s students.
“Merton is a great American writer,” she said, “who explored and wrote about living a spiritual life. His writing expresses his full-hearted embrace of Christianity through the Cistercian tradition and yet displays a mind open to listening and learning from many points of view. He shares his own experience, vulnerabilities and insight through journals, books, essays, poetry, art and photography. Because his writing is so rich and broad, and because he expresses himself in many artistic forms, the students find a way to connect with him and learn from him in many diverse ways. Merton’s expression of his own personal struggles allows students to explore their own struggles and learn something more about themselves as they learn more about him.”
Though best known as an author, Julo explained Merton had a deep appreciation for art, which influenced his writing throughout his life.
“The child of a New Zealander painter,” said Julo, “Merton was unquestionably raised around art. He maintained a long-standing relationship with the poet Robert Lax and modern abstractionist Ad Reinhardt, beginning when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University. Upon becoming a Trappist, Merton’s work continued to be deeply influenced by the artists, poets and authors of his day that ranged from members of the avant-garde to those working with more traditional methods.”
This influence was also demonstrated in Merton’s drawing and photography. While it is not as well-known as his writing, Julo feels that his artwork is just as impactful and hopes that it has inspired the SVC students.
“While Merton was trained in drawing,” said Julo, “his photographic work was much more experimental. I hope that the students who participated in this project are reminded that to create something meaningful – especially in times of uncertainty – is often as simple as picking up the tools and beginning.”
The digital exhibition will be featured permanently on The Verostko Center for the Arts website at http://www.verostkocenter.org/th-346hndash01--thomas-merton.html.
It includes the work of 15 Saint Vincent College students: Carly Belich, sophomore middle-grade education major from Aliquippa; Abigail Kyle, sophomore sociology major from Butler; Zeke Makule, sophomore psychology major from Houston, Texas; Marena Mathe, freshman biology major from White Oak; Kelsey Myers, sophomore marketing major from Gettysburg; Antonio Noble, junior marketing major from Latrobe; Lorenzo Nave, sophomore integrated science-allied health major from Milano, Italy; Gabrielle Sadekoski, sophomore early childhood education major from Greensburg; Andrew Scott, junior environmental science major from Greensburg; Maura Skelley, sophomore communication major from Altoona; Anna Tatham, freshman undeclared major from Norton, Ohio; Brennan Valladares, freshman management major from Eighty Four; William Varesio, sophomore English major from Indian Head; Matthieu West, senior psychology major from Northampton; and Daniel Whirlow, junior English major from Greensburg.
PHOTO: The homepage of the digital exhibition "Creative Expression in the Style of Thomas Merton."