Rhode Island clay artist Valorie Sheehan has completed a seven-year project that highlights 26 women — one for every letter of the alphabet — as depicted through ceramic figurines of saints that Sheehan meticulously crafted.
In her exhibit, “Alphabet of Saints (and Other Tough Chicks),” “some of the stories are inspiring, some are funny, and some are horrifying, but they all sort of lend themselves to the same sort of narrative,” Sheehan said. “It’s about highlighting the confidence and the courage these women had to stand up for what they believe in.”
“People have been trying to silence women for the last 2,000 years, and women have had the courage and forbearance to stand up to that,” Sheehan added.
Each 11- to 13-inch figurine is mounted inside a wooden shrine with a brass name plate. The figures represent “mostly saints, with a few others tucked in there,” Sheehan said, adding that she also included personal heroines like former justice of the Supreme Court, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Kenyan activist Wangari Muta Maathai. Each wall piece is for sale for $500, and all proceeds will be donated to Universal Promise, a Portsmouth nonprofit that supports education in South Africa.
“It’s quite a gesture,” said Martha T. Cummings, founder of Universal Promise, adding that if all the pieces sell (18 of the 26 have so far), the project will bring in $13,000 for the nonprofit.
Sheehan, 70, of Newport, said the project started out as an “exercise in consistency” and working differently in her studio.
“I usually work bigger and looser,” Sheehan said of her traditional style as a ceramist. “I was like, ‘Let me try something different. Let me work smaller. Let me work in this detailed way.’”
She settled on the idea to craft 26 saints.
“I was going to use six colors, one kind of clay, one firing, really fast,” Sheehan said. “But it didn’t turn out that way at all.”
The figurines led Sheehan in different artistic directions than she intended, and she wound up using every color, glaze, and clay she could find. She fired each piece a minimum of three times, and instead of a final product with muted hues as she intended, the exhibit pops with bright color and shiny gloss.
“I know that magic happens in the studio when you show up, and that’s what this project really became,” Sheehan said. “Consistency was out the window, but I was liberated.”
Sheehan dove deep into the project until it became “an obsession,” she said, researching each saint and her story, and deciding which 26 she’d pick. When traveling, she’d try to find relics. She now has a library of books about saints.
“Every story had some hook that drew me to it,” the artist said.
The first figurine she crafted was of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of the people of Paris, young girls, and the French National Gendarmerie (the French police force). Genevieve led a life of prayer and charity, and helped prevent famine among Parisian people in 451. The figurine is painted with pale skin, dark hair, and an expressive face. She holds a devil in one hand trying to blow out a candle in the other, and gazes up at onlookers with wide eyes.
Another saint represented in the project is Saint Hildegard of Bingen, the patron saint of ecologists, musicians, and writers, who was named a Doctor of the Church in 2012.
“She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony (songs without harmony), the most recorded in modern history,” Sheehan wrote of the saint in its accompanying biography. “There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages, and one of the few to have written both music and word.”
Sheehan also highlighted non-Catholic women, like Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, the first woman warrior of Islam. An advocate for Muslim women, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab questioned why the Quran only mentioned men and seemed to deprive women of importance. Later, a verse in the Quran was revealed, enshrining the spiritual equality of men and women, Shaheen said.
Despite the pious themes, Sheehan isn’t Catholic, and didn’t choose the project for religious reasons. She simply found the saints’ stories worth exploring. She highlighted another, Saint Ulphia, patron saint of amphibians, who told the frogs to be quiet after a local priest ordered their extermination for loud croaking during Mass.
What started as a “somewhat cheeky” idea, Sheehan said, turned into a project the artist poured years into. Sheehan said that many of the women represented in the exhibit laid the groundwork for the women’s rights movement and the #MeToo Movement.
While she was hanging this work earlier this month, Sheehan couldn’t help but think about the silencing of women that happens today, in the United States and around the world.
She hopes people will see the exhibit and honor the influence and strength women have had throughout history.
“They would not be silenced,” Sheehan said in her artist statement. “And they call on us to continue their legacy.”
“Alphabet of Saints (and Other Tough Chicks)”, will be displayed at the Hunter Gallery at St. George’s School in Middletown through Nov. 18. It is exhibited in partnership with Universal Promise, to highlight “the importance of commitment, courage, confidence, and education as essential elements to challenge injustice and to effect profound, sustainable change,” an exhibition statement said.
Partnering with Universal Promise, founded by Cummings in 2011, was a fitting choice, as the Portsmouth nonprofit works to provide equitable access to education in South Africa, where Sheehan has recently traveled. Sheehan and Cummings are longtime friends, and they chose to exhibit the show at St. George’s because Sheehan’s children attended school there, and Cummings has led volunteer trips to South Africa with the school’s community.
“I think education is probably the most sustainable investment of all,” Sheehan said. “When you educate children, you uplift the whole community.”