Chapel Arts Center spring exhibits transforms torn paper into art


Courtesy/Jake LaMontagne

Fr. James Palmigiano’s gallery of collages and sculptures will be on display through May 6 in the Chapel Art Center

Carter Brannon, Crier Staff

The Chapel Art Center’s spring exhibition, James Palmigiano, Collages and Bagatelles opened Thursday, March 25 with art, food, conversation, and excitement as the Chapel Art’s opening receptions return to Saint Anselm College.

 “This is the first time in years that we’ve had an opening reception,” said Chapel Art Center director Fr. Iain Maclellan.  “It’s a little nerve racking because we’re out of practice, but we’re ready.”

The spring exhibit features collages and assemblages made by Fr. James Palmigiano, a Cistercian monk at Spencer Abbey in central Massachusetts.  The gallery is filled with several layered collages and small wooden sculptures.  In addition to being part of the Chapel Art Center’s interest in Art and Monasticism, this show also overlaps with other subject areas the center values, including New England art and artists, and contemporary art.  The exhibit will be open through May 6.

Palmigiano’s pieces are made from old scraps of paper and other objects like scrap or used wood and wire.  The artist finds these objects to be more than just waste, and allows them to become art.

“He’s really resurrecting torn pieces of paper and refuse, in some instances, things that have been thrown away that he’s been able to gather and garner for the inherent richness in them,” commented Fr. Iain.

“We call this found objects.  Objet trouvé was a whole movement.  Just putting things together, but a big part of these is letting things fall apart,” Fr. James reflected.  “You don’t want it to look too finished, you know.  Like in our lives when things fall apart, and you think it’s the worst thing, and then when you look back and say, well, there’s something going on there as well.  But falling apart is important.  Rising, falling.  But the big part is about a search for an intimate space.”

Palmigiano is a very intelligent and very humble person, according to his longtime friend Nancy Salafia, a Seabrook resident who came to see Fr. James and the exhibit during its opening. “He’s actually a genius.  Very humble guy.  Seems very happy,” Salafia said.

“He’s been a monk a long time; he’s been in religious life a long time,” Fr. Iain said.  “He’s an artist in his mid-sixties, so he’s been practicing art for a long time.  He’s very well educated, he was a Jesuit for some time, and then he looked at monastic life.”

The kind of art Palmigiano makes is heavily influenced by his life as a Cistercian monk.  He had been an artist before becoming a monk, but joining a monastery guided him to focus on collages.

“I’ve been doing art since I went to college,” Fr. James said.  “Some of my most fun things I did in college were collages.  When I came to the monastery, I couldn’t paint anymore.  Well, I did, but I had to change my clothes ‘cause I was getting oil paint in the habit.  It’s hard.” 

Fr. James said he likes the structure of his monastery and how his schedule lets him set aside time to make his art. “I like [it] in the monastery because our time is all broken up,” he said.  “The bell’s always gonna ring when you have to go to prayer, so I like to just have an hour and then you have to go do your prayer.”

This monastic connection is part of what makes his art appealing to the Chapel Art Center.  

“This show is part of what the Chapel Art Center is trying to do with our exhibition curriculum,” said Fr. Iain.  “Art and Monasticism is one of those subject areas we want to cover now and again because of our monastic roots, and because we have a monastery here.”

Saint Anselm community members generally had a very positive impression of the exhibit. “This is actually probably one of my favorite exhibits,” said Claire Newhall ‘22, an art history major and gallery attendant at the Chapel Art Center.  “It’s a lot different than what we normally do.”

“What I really like about it is it evokes the imagination,” noted President Joseph Favazza.  “It’s very sparse in some ways, but it invites you to kind of create a story around each of the pictures.  It invites you to be creative and create a story.”  

Rachel Spencer ‘22, who is also a gallery attendant was impressed by the uniqueness and effort that went into the pieces.

“We were saying how all these pieces look as though like ‘oh I could do that’ but really we couldn’t,” Spencer recalled from a conversation she had at the opening reception.  “He has such a unique mind and way of putting things together.  I just love the uniqueness, especially the collages and all the little details that go into it.  The more you look into it the more you find in it that you don’t see at first glance.”

“There’s one called Municipal, which has a city map incorporated into it and it’s quite interesting,” observed Ben Mickens ‘23.  “I don’t even know what it is, but there’s something about maps that I quite like.  So that blended with an art piece, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that before, certainly not in an art gallery, and that’s quite cool.”

Other community members, such as theology professor Kelley Spoerl are excited for future exhibits and programming, hoping these will demonstrate a return to a past level of arts at Saint Anselm.

“I hope that the college can kind of bring more of these things back.  I mean it’s been challenging because of the pandemic, it’s been challenging because of our budget, but the college has brought in, both at the Dana Center and the Chapel Arts, many wonderful art exhibits, concerts, dance concerts, music concerts, and fantastic lectures,” Spoerl said.  “I think the college has been a leader in high level arts in southern New Hampshire.  We’ve kind of had to slow it down because of the pandemic and challenging budget environment, but I’d like to see it come back.”

Upcoming Chapel Art Center programs include a concert April 7, a Come Friday! forum on Does Good Art Have to be Beautiful? April 8, and a discussion with James Palmigiano April 21.  A French concert was held March 30, and Professor Katherine Bentz gave a lecture on Italian Renaissance gardens March 31. 

“All the programs in some way relate to the exhibit, and that’s something that happens pretty easily,” Fr. Iain said.  “It’s not that the programs we’re having wouldn’t relate to another exhibit, but they relate to this exhibit in special ways.  I suppose you have to be here to see it and feel it.”

“I think when you look at the collages especially it’s hard not to think about the components of music, about tone, about sound, about the color of tone,” explained Fr. Iain.  “There’s a mood that’s happening you can even think about the highs and lows of melody and song in these pieces.  I really have found them easily relatable to music.”

Every viewer may notice something different in Palmigiano’s art.  Some may enjoy the colors or the texture.  Some may sense a musical quality to his work.  Others might pay attention to what Fr. James called his “fun and goofy” titles to his pieces.  Some might see a spiritual element to his art.

“Let things fall apart.  Falling apart is okay, because then something beautiful can come about it, if you do it with grace and seek God’s help,” said Fr. James.  “It’s kind of didactic with a bunch of scraps of paper, but also it’s like using what you’ve got on hand.  You know the saying ‘you have what you need around;’ what are the resources you have?  So just look around and see what you’ve got.”