INTERVIEW: Miriam Therese MacGillis

Part I

In 1992 I began working with the environmental activist and founder of Food & Water, Inc., Dr. Wally Burnstein. One day he suggested that I invite Miriam MacGillis to speak to my Macrobiotic group, at the time in Sarasota, Florida. Miriam was the Dominican sister Wally often spoke of, whose learning center, Genesis Farm, was becoming a hub for teaching the work of the eco-theologian, Thomas Berry.

I extended the invitation, and she arrived one blistering hot autumn day. Soft-spoken with an acute awareness of shaping her words, I listened while we drove around the city, arriving at the large hall I had rented for the occasion. I then watched as Miriam pinned a string around the whole of the room, taping Post Its, several feet apart, to acknowledge significant earth events that had occurred over the span of 4.5 billion years. Later that evening as she spoke to a room full of people, she would come to the end of that string where two Post Its were pinned almost side by side. This depicted the short time of devastation that has occurred since homo sapiens appeared on earth. It was a major awakening for me. In 1994 I found myself living at Genesis Farm, a sacred learning center for people from all over the world, coming to study with Miriam MacGillis.

Over the following years, I interviewed Miriam on my former radio show, Food For Thought. In none of those conversations did we speak of her work as an artist. Yet when you make your way through the Genesis Farm gardens, walk along the woodland paths, and the moss covered trails around the pond you see the work of the Divine present everywhere. Look inside the straw bale buildings you will find simplicity in the furnishings, bare walls, and deep window sills. There a religious icon can be seen framing a birds nest holding a blue marble of the earth; suddenly you know there is another artist at work here.

I asked Miriam for this interview because I wanted to hear her tell the story of how she, as an artist, shaped this vision that has become Genesis Farm. We sat outside in the Founders Grove, whom she has each honored with an art piece that speaks their presence in the shady grove.

I offer you the interview in two parts as I feel Miriam’s is a life worth contemplating slowly, savoring the evolution of a visionary artist creating her masterpiece.

What were your creative beginnings as a child?
When I was a child around 9 or 10 years old, there was a Sunday television show, Drawing with John Nagy, which I lived for, and I was so absorbed in watching that, but I had no idea that I had any talent. We were poor, we lived in lower Bayonne, and I would think, ” I could do those pictures if I had charcoal,” or things like that. That was my awakening when I was a little kid. I had a natural talent, but nobody knew it. My older brother Bobby, had talent and everyone recognized it, and I was in the background then, but it did not matter because I was into horses. When I went to high school, my teachers recognized my talent, and they would ask me to do sketches for the literary magazine or the newspaper.

Later the sisters in my congregation recognized that I had a talent and they encouraged me to go out to the University of Notre Dame and study art. I was maybe 22, and my first degree was in education and English. I had no background in art, and at the time I was a first-grade teacher.

How old were you upon entering the convent?
I was 17. I had just graduated high school the summer before and entered the congregation in September, and that was not unusual, half the girls in my class got engaged at 17. Very few went to college; we were a struggling working-class culture, college was not in my plan.

Did you know at a young age that you had a calling to enter the convent?
Well, I think like many of the people in my time, I was born in the forties, we came out of the depression in the thirties. As an immigrant culture living in Bayonne and there were a lot of Irish Catholics and Polish, Italians, Slavs, and in those days my childhood was in a religious faith milieu. It was the most meaningful system of that time. So, my mother said, I was driving her crazy at four years old because I had taught myself to read, so she begged the principal to let me start school, and I entered a real traditional Catholic school, and the sisters were like saints to me. The church next door to the school was the most beautiful space I had ever been in my whole life, and the stain glass windows were gorgeous, and when you were in there, you were in another dimension.

And that is where my soul woke up, my mystical aspect and I think my esthetic one too.

When I was in high school everyone was asking, are you going to go to secretarial school, are you going to go to nursing school, are you going to get engaged? What are you going to do? Girls did not have the opportunities, not in our society anyway. I knew I would be bored with any of that, and the world of religion and God and that relationship was so sharp and so intense, I just sort of knew that’s what I needed to do.

I was a postulant for one year, a novice for two years, I was a scholastic (a further student), at the college level for another year, then was sent out to teach first grade in West Orange, and that is where they decided I had talent. So, two things happened, one is “you’re going to go to University of Notre Dame and get a Masters in art.” I didn’t even have a Bachelors in art. Except for charcoal from John Nagy. And secondly, we’re sending you to St. Dominick Academy in Jersey City, and you’re going to teach art.

In those days you just did what you were told. So that’s what I did. I was so lucky to have the sister, who was the principal and herself an artist and she realized how could I teach any of these subjects? I had never picked up a watercolor brush…so she would coach me, usually at night or on the weekends for what I was going to do with the high school kids…and they were fresh kids.

I also had to learn photography, because the art teacher historically had the yearbook, and the previous art teacher gave me this camera, a Hasselblad, the Cadillac of cameras, and here I am, never had a camera in my life. I had big shoes to fill, and my saving grace was that I really got along well with the kids and they really liked me. I would teach during the school year and in the summer go out to Notre Dame to do my studies. And in those days, the early sixties, Notre Dame was still an all men’s college. Women were not allowed on the campus to study; you could only go in the summer when the students were gone. And the University just changed its whole orientation towards religious; there were thousands of priests, brothers, sisters and the Vatican Council had these amazing theologians and thinkers advising the Pope during the council, who were invited by Notre Dame to come out and be lecturers.

Now we had never heard of any of this kind of stuff. I grew up with the stained glass windows…so it was huge to go out there and listen to thinkers saying things I thought was almost heresy. It contradicted almost all my beliefs, and then I would go home, go back into teaching, studying, and trying to figure out what they were talking about. Then the next summer go back out again and hear more, and that was a ten-year process because I could only go in summers to get my Masters.

Wasn’t that the time the Vietnam war was starting up?
Yes, it was 1968, I was still teaching at St. Dominic’s, the racial riots had happened in Newark and Jersey City. The leaders of our community were deeply committed to intervening on behalf of the poor and the blacks in Jersey City and Newark. Then the war got really bad, and one of my high school students challenged me about what did I think about that war. I was completely unconscious, and she kept asking me questions, and I couldn’t answer her questions. By the end of that year, she gave me Daniel Berrigan’s play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” which was the story of them burning the draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, and he made a play out of it, on Broadway, and that was it. That was my major conversion.

Did you put these new thoughts into political paintings?
Not thoughts, just painting, I was just painting. In those days I wasn’t that politically savvy. It started a fire in me, and then I had to go to Sister Julia Barie and Sister Vivian, and my brother Bobby who became a soul partner. He had six kids up in Connecticut, and on summer vacations, I’d get a couple of days off, and I’d go up there, and we’d go off photographing, and painting, really critique each others work. It was a wonderful, wonderful relationship; and so I’m saying to him and my mother and my family and the congregation,

“I’ve got this Masters degree that you invested in me. I know you want me to take over the college art department at some point, I can’t do it, I’ve got to follow these bigger questions.”

Now, this was all happening late 60’s, early 70’s. I was still teaching at St. Dominic’s, going through this inner struggle, and I was sent to Lacordaire school in Montclair. That easy rapport with the kids at St. Dominic’s, street kids, they weren’t rich kids like at Lacordaire. These were from really wealthy families and so spoiled, and I had to deal with a whole new culture, but they were so emotionally needy, and I could see that fast. And they were also extraordinarily talented. That school only had 200 students, and 50 of them were art majors. I was sent there to start an art majors program, so it was four years. A student came in as a freshman, and I was preparing them for universities, colleges and art schools, and they went to them, it was a wonderful time. I loved teaching, but all through that time I’m struggling with the war as well, and I’m accused by the parents of being a communist. I’m hauled into the Department of Education in Newark and “she’s a communist, she’s on the side of the Viet Cong,” I mean it was awful, awful, a nightmare.

The Jane Fonda of the convent…..(laughter)
Uhhum. And Liz McAllister, who was also a war resister and married Phillip Berrigan, she had gone to Lacordaire, so this Monsegnier down in the Department of Education, he was acting like he knew what the war was about, and Liz McAllister and what they’re all about, and I’m on trial….(laughter), it was crazy. Anyway, I spent four years at Lacordaire, and that’s when I probably would have left the Dominican Sisters because I was isolated. It wasn’t like I didn’t have friends, they just didn’t know what I was talking about. My family didn’t know what I was talking about. My brother didn’t know what I was talking about.

So you are growing and evolving, and everyone is staying still?
Or they’re in their own important worlds, but I was gone, you know? So, Sister Vivian, she knew something was going on in me, and she said to me, “Ya know, there is an opening for an intern position at the Newark Archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace. And she said, “Father Propracter is a wonderful man, would you like me to introduce you to him, maybe that position would be available to you.”

Now no-one had ever done anything like this in our congregation. We were all school teachers.

I went down to his office in Newark and met with him. I told him I was interested in the racial situation, and the labor unions, which was the most important topics there; that’s what they had been focusing on. But I told them that I was really, really concerned about militarism and war; and I want to be involved in studying what is going on. They opened a global desk, and I was the Captain of the global desk (laughter), I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no background.

How old were you at this time?
I was 31. I worked there one day a week as an intern, and then at the end of that year, they hired me full time. I worked there until ’76. In that period of time, I met Pat, and Jerry Mische, who were the founders of Global Education Associates. I was working in Newark, and their office was in East Orange, and they had strong ties to Seton Hall.

Are you doing any art during this time?
What I was doing was sketches for newsletters, just that kind of stuff. Actually, when I left teaching art, I really put down my paint and brushes. I knew I had to make a choice. If I was going to be a painter, I was going to do it 100 percent. I couldn’t. My paintbrushes are in a little shed behind my house. I keep thinking before I die maybe I’ll pick them up again.

But that’s interesting they’ve traveled with you, they’re always there.
Yes, they’re there, but that hasn’t been the way I’ve done art. I would do it whatever way it was connected to the work I was doing. And then when I went to work for Global Education Associates, they had a journal that they put out called The Whole Earth Papers. I became the Art Editor of that and did all of the graphics and all of the sketches. Here in our library, we have the whole index of those. And that’s when I began to do political cartoons, and political drawings and stuff. So that was in the 70’s, but by ’74 I was very focused on world hunger. Because that’s what was happening, and the United Nations had its first world conference on hunger; and established the UN Center for Food and Agriculture in Rome.

Global Education, GEA, was very connected to the United Nations, and the kind of structural changes that had to happen to get people past Nationalism, and they identified Nationalism as the fuel for war. I was concerned about peacemaking and ending war. And they were to, but they came at it through analysis of global systems. I was doing research on world hunger from ’74 straight through. That’s what I knew most about, was distribution issues around food. I really learned about the food supply, and agriculture and the history of agriculture and the distribution system and corporate takeover. Then the chemical phase of agriculture when industrialization happened.

I had all that background that I was doing theoretically, and speaking about, and traveling, and writing, when the Baron left this land to the Dominican Sisters.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that you were prepared? ….or sort of!
Well, if I hadn’t had that and they inherited a farm, and I’m teaching art at Lacordaire…….

Ok, so now the Dominicans inherit the land that is to become Genesis Farm, and you are how old?
I was 38 when we got the news, 39 when the whole congregation was invited to write proposals to see if they had an idea, but they had to have their own funding because there wasn’t going to be any money from our congregation. Our congregation went into debt to do a settlement with the daughter who contested the will, and so did the other two beneficiaries. She was settled out of court so it wouldn’t go on forever. The Sisters went into debt to provide her with that settlement, so there was no money to subsidize what was going to happen here. If you had a thought as to what you wanted to do at Red Cat Farm you had to have a business plan and submit a proposal by such and such a date to the leadership team. So, we made the whole thing up, we didn’t know what we……

But why did you want a farm?
There were a couple of reasons. The first one was, by 1979 after studying hunger, farming, and agriculture; I just had this longing to have some way to put it all into practice. I had become a vegetarian in ’74 when I realized the injustice of food distribution. And I remember reading Francis Moore Lape’s book Diet for a Small Planet because she was the writer in those days talking about diet. Her work guided my personal choices.

She wrote that if the food the animals were eating in the feed lots of Chicago…if that food were distributed around the world, there would be enough food for everybody. I couldn’t make that equate. How could they feed those animals when in those days twenty-five thousand people a day were dying of starvation. It was just incomprehensible to me. That’s when I decided to become a vegetarian.

Your original intention then was to take Red Cat Farm and grow food?
I had already started to explore a couple of retreat centers, and there was one down here by Chester called Bethlehem. This priest ran it, and it was hermitages. His name was Gene Romano. I made a retreat there, and I said to him, “What if you hired me to grow the vegetables, and I cook the meals and put them out for the retreaters. It was small, you might have five people. By then I was a good cook because I had learned in Jersey City. I suggested that if we had a little card that said, ….the reason we are serving this food…and then you gave the rationale for why…. and it was really delicious…it was a way to shift peoples perception because everybody was eating an American diet.

He was very open and we were exploring that, because I knew I still wanted to be working at GEA, but I could be doing this as well. That’s when we got the word that our proposal about the farm had been accepted. So, you see I had already been transitioning in my work.

The wheels were in motion!
Yes, the wheels were in motion. I came out here to the farm in May of 1980, and I had just turned forty.