5 Questions for Susan Kelly Von Medicus: Local Artist Brings the Golden Age of Irish Manuscripts to Villanova

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Susan Kelly Von Medicus
Photo by Katharine Gilbert

Photo above: Ne Timeas: walnut ink and egg tempera on Fabriano paper. Study for student project based on decorations in Lindisfame Gospel text from Luke at Annunciation: Fear not Mary.

Were you always interested in art as a young girl?

When I was quite young I was more interested in religion, at Sisters of Mercy school I had wanted to join the convent. By the time I was in high school art was my main focus. Now, in my work religion and art come together. I have the great fortune of three great teachers who gave me art wings. Ruth Fackenthal at the Baldwin School, Morris Blackburn at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Vladislav Andrejev, Prosopon School of Iconology. I keep them close in mind as I am myself now a teacher.

When did you discover your interest in Irish art/Irish history?

With the maiden name Kelly I have always identified as Irish American, even though I admit to a fair dose of German and Scottish in the mix. We have family that we keep in touch with in Westport Co. Mayo, from whence the Kellys emigrated several generations ago. This was a connection my father loved and maintained.

My Aunt Grace purchased the family cottage in Ireland at the foot of Croagh Patrick in the 1970s and was very excited about restoring it. So, the interest and connection I inherited, with visits there as an adult I have cemented a love of my own with Ireland and made friends there.

While raising your sons did you find the time to be engaged in your own art? Did you find yourself fixing their art projects?

Raising my three sons was my primary occupation for many years, however, there was always some time to carve out for art making. I need to use my hands, in the garden, painting, cooking, knitting, making baskets. Making is more a compulsion than a hobby or profession. My children are all artistic, but then I think everyone is. One is a digital animator and photographer in California, one is a musician and farmer who can draw like an angel in North Carolina and the other is an automotive designer in Philadelphia, so all in the creative world, however, I lack the skills in these particular fields to offer any help. When they were in school, I did not interfere with their art endeavors, they were theirs and they needed to see them to their own conclusions.

Gilbert_VonMedicaus_4You mention a grant from Princess Grace Foundation which allowed you to live and work in Ireland. Can you tell us a bit about that time and can you tell us about the Foundation and its mission?

I have completed two residencies concerning Irish art. The first was a winter semester in 2013 at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughn, Co. Clare. This was an artist in residency where I lived and worked in Ballyvaughn and travelled around Ireland a bit. The studios at BCA were extraordinary and offered a way to undistractedly make art for the semester. My work there was not specified so I learned new techniques, painted, drew, made prints and walked in the rain a lot.

The more recent residency was sponsored by the America Ireland Fund at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco summer 2015. Villanova University, where I teach, asked that along with an art history professor, I develop a course offering for the university, cross disciplinary with Irish Studies, Studio Art and Art History. The course is hands on learning Irish Manuscripts of the Golden Age (6-8th C).

The Princess Grace Irish Library, under the Princess Grace Foundation, is a library housing the remarkable collection of Irish books collected by my Aunt Grace and now greatly enlarged. The library is a place for research, reading and residencies for those working with Irish art and literature. Their website is www.pgil.mc and contact there is Judith Gantley. Aunt Grace had a great love of Irish letters, theater, literature and after her death, HSH Rainier established the library to house her collection and sponsor lectures and Irish literature education to further her mission.

During the residency, Dr. Bizzarro (art historian, Rosemont College and Villanova University) and I spent research time using the library resources and then offered a series of lectures and hand on art making using the traditional materials, techniques and visual heritage of the subject period. It was terrific and we have returned from Monaco with a course for Villanova developed and ready to offer.

How important is your Irish ancestry to you and can you tells us why?

From the above it is obvious that my Irish ancestry is an important element in my life.  Significant is time spent there. The BCA residency was huge. Also influential was when I accompanied Prince Albert II on his official state visit to Ireland from Monaco in 2011 (50 years after the official state visit to the free state of Ireland in 1961 by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, a precursor to the 1962 visit by President Kennedy).

Unforgettable, I have driven a van load of students on art history course (Neolithic art to the political murals of Belfast) from Rosemont College (another Dr. Bizzarro adventure — we make a grand team). I have gone to Ireland and visited Mercy International on Baggot Street Dublin, home of Catherine McAuley and saw the beautiful illuminated certificates made by Sister Clare for the sisters when they took their vows (saw some who taught me at Mater Misericordia Academy).

I brought my sons to see the country and hike Croagh Patrick and a few trips just to tramp down the windy roads out west — it is something I hope to be able to do again and again; seeking a castle ruin, a holy well, some wildflowers in the grykes of the Burren, a peat fire at the pub, all with eyes open, it does my heart good.

Questions and Photos by Katharine Gilbert

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Knotted Cross: walnut ink on calf skin vellum modeled from Glammes Angus Stones