Art At the Abbey

You are the custodians of beauty in the world!” was Pope Benedict XVI’s message to artists meeting in Rome.

With that kind of support, is it any wonder that a New Orleans artist intent on establishing an art colony would set her sights on a chicken coop at a Benedictine abbey as the colony’s home base?

That is where artist Lyn Taylor is headed with her long-held dream of bringing art to the masses – who maybe never thought they had artistic talent in the first place.

Taylor teaches “Abbey Art Atelier” – not-for-credit classes – to some 30 (“15 come on a regular basis …”) aspiring or merely inquisitive artists in a room under the classrooms of the St. Joseph Seminary College on abbey grounds north of Covington.

“Art has been my life since I was a little girl in Uptown New Orleans,” she says. “I remember nothing made me happier than a new box of Crayola crayons. That smell. Those colors. Wow! I was fortunate that my parents encouraged me every step of the way and had me attend art classes. When I went to Auburn (University), I studied art. The thought of creating art – creating beauty in the world –has always been a big part of who I am and what I am.”

Taylor has worked with the biggest of the big names, such as Zella Funck in New Orleans, and has exchanged ideas on the creation of art into other disciplines with such luminaries as the late iconic writer, Walker Percy, whom she calls “a very good friend” and who’s interred under a simple marble headstone on the abbey’s grounds.

“I remember my little brother saying he had a ‘knack’ for hitting a ball clear out of Kirsch Rooney Stadium,” Taylor says. “Later on, Walker Percy talked about ‘having a knack’ for doing something. As I reflected on that, it made me realize I didn’t believe in ‘talent’ as it’s spoken of today. Walker had a knack for writing poetry. I realized that I had a knack for drawing and the nuns in school noticed, and they encouraged me, also. Show me pictures of ancient Greece and put a roll of butcher paper in front of me and voila, I’d create a colorful frieze for the walls of open house when the parents came in.”

It was in the late 1980s when the Benedictine monks opened the abbey to “outsiders,” as Abbot Justin Brown O.S.B. jokingly recalls the period; Taylor began studying philosophy there. She soon found Abbot Justin to be a staunch ally for her plans not only to teach art at the abbey but also to nurture her idea of a bona fide artist colony somewhere down the line.

“Abbot Boniface Wimmer, who founded the first Benedictine monastery in America, said that an abbey that doesn’t promote the arts isn’t fulfilling its purpose,” says Abbot Justin. “That was pretty much to the point. So really, we had a duty to encourage and teach art, and we believe that encouraging and helping to perpetuate art is part of the Benedictine mission.”

While the abbot and artist strolled the expansive grounds of the monastery one afternoon, they stopped at a battered and faded but solid yellow building – a long-abandoned chicken coop. A light bulb went off in Taylor’s head and again, voila, the seed of an idea – an artist colony in a chicken coop – was planted.

The Gibraltar-solid building is made of cypress beams and boards and has stood the tests of time, summer heat and hurricanes. In earlier days, it served as home to thousands of chickens that did their part for the monks’ egg business. But, like the cows of the dairy business operated by the Benedictines in the early part of the 20th century, the chickens could no longer compete with the big-business conglomerates of the outside world and wound up on the monks’ dinner plates. (“We ate chicken for a year and a half,” Abbot Justin says.)
It is 100 feet by 40 feet, the Abbot says. “That’s 4,000 square feet,” Taylor says with all the enthusiasm she showed when she opened that first box of crayons years ago. “It’s perfect.”

“Perfect” if you don’t count the years’ worth of accumulated junk that litters the building from one end to the other. “Everything there was something left over or thrown out after renovation to one of the other buildings or something was torn down and somebody thought this or that from the demolition was too good to throw out,” Abbot Justin says. “All of that wound up in the chicken coop. It’s going to take a massive cleanup job to get it ready!”

Not fazed one iota by the mountainous cleanup job ahead, Taylor is already dividing up the building in her mind’s eye for various artistic disciplines and laying out the modus operandi for the colony.

“I can see Raymond Calvert (renowned for his masterful icon creations) operating in one area,” she says. “We can have a creative writing class in another area. We can have weekend sessions. Lectures. It will be non-credit and people don’t have to sign up for a year or two. If you want to come and hear a lecture or try your hand at painting, you can come. And you don’t have to be a Catholic or an alumna of St. Ben’s. Even when we have groups that are already scheduled to come to the abbey, men and women on retreat, visiting priests … we can just tell them, ‘hey, c’mon back to the chicken coop!’”

Taylor stops to take a breath and admits that her views on “art for and by the masses” are what drive her passion.

“I want to get as many people involved as we can get,” she says. “I want to convey the idea that artists aren’t people to be looked on as some superhuman beings having a talent nobody else can have. Remember what I said about the words, ‘having a knack for something?’

There are so many people out there who have a knack for art. And others who just want to try their hand at art. I want people to come here and be comfortable.”

She continues, “Humankind has a wonderful history of the craft of art. I have long felt that the craft has been lost. We see so much junk today that people try to pass off as art. So much of what is called art is based on its edginess and vulgarity and this ridiculous notion that ‘I did it … therefore it’s art!’ Well, that’s nonsense! And this equally idiotic business about the ‘starving artist,’ that if you’re starving then you’re probably good. This is nothing more than the romantic nonsense that has been handed down over the past years.”

The abbey artist colony in the chicken coop?

Abbot Justin Brown says it should happen “by the end of the year.”

Lyn Taylor says, “Hopefully by the end of this summer!”

One thing we know for sure, Abbot Justin Brown O.S.B. is following the guidelines long ago set for the Benedictine Order.

Lyn Taylor? Well, she’s still on an all-time high that she’s been on since she sniffed those first delicious aromatic fumes that flowed up from that box of crayons she opened as a kid in Uptown New Orleans.

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