Sr. Varley prays with paint

  • July 12, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - She may not be able to trace her ancestral roots to Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley, but Sr. Virginia Varley, CSJ, says that in the art world, “the name does me no harm.”
Sitting in the living room of her apartment, surrounded by colourful artwork, the Sister of St. Joseph describes her painting as a ministry.

“My ministry consists in offering spiritual direction, group facilitation and in expressing spirituality through art,” Varley told The Catholic Register.

Varley took a serious interest in painting in 1988 when a co-worker at the Loyola House in Guelph, Ont., suggested they take watercolour classes together. Along with her friend Barbara Lea, Varley now holds annual art exhibitions that draw between 200 and 300 visitors to the community room of her Jackes Avenue apartment building in midtown Toronto.

Varley often sells her paintings, but “some I keep for awhile, because they still speak to me.” By leaving paintings sitting out in her apartment, Varley said she is able to “listen” to the paintings, which allows her to discover their names and see images in them that inspire her to paint others.

Painting is a form of spirituality for Varley.

{sidebar id=2}“I pray with my paintings. I ask for growth, intimacy and to be drawn into mystery as I paint,” she said. When people at exhibitions comment on the contemplative and spiritual nature of her work, Varley is thrilled.

Varley often paints in the Mandala style, which is the practice of drawing a circle, usually on black paper, and creating paintings from within it. She said the circle is a “comfortable shape” to work in. It is an ancient symbol in several faith traditions and in psychology — it can represent God, oneness, wholeness or completion. Once the circle is drawn, “the rest of the painting often paints itself.... In the randomness, mystery presents itself.”

Varley uses a variety of media, often combining more than one to achieve a particular look. Sometimes she uses latex paint over top of an acrylic painting to “soften” its look. Other times, oil pastels serve as a resist under a water-based paint.

Born and raised in Toronto, Varley became a Sister of St. Joseph at age 19 after attending the sisters’ St. Joseph’s College School on Wellesley Street.

“I was always impressed with the sisters there, they had a realness and a happiness about them and they took a genuine interest in the students,” she said.

After graduating from St. Joseph’s, Varley pursued a bachelor of arts degree at the University of British Columbia, a master’s of divinity at the university of St. Michael’s College and spent several years teaching at elementary and high schools in Toronto, Winnipeg and Prince Rupert, B.C.

Currently, she offers spiritual direction at St. Joseph’s Morrow Park and at her own parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Varley also facilitates groups that are planning for the future.

In facilitating, she said, “I simply help (groups) to get where they want to go. It’s not my agenda or vision, I just help others realize their own.”

Groups she has assisted in the past include the Institute for Cultural Affairs Canada, Faith Connections and the Wellington Deanery in Hamilton.

In her spare time, Varley has formed her own group of seven artists who gather for five hours each week and paint together. “It is a sacred time for us,” she said.

Next year, Varley will celebrate her 60th year with the Sisters of St. Joseph, and is happy to have dedicated her life to God and service in the church.

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