I didn’t know Sister Wendy was my hero until she died last year. Beckett, a brilliant scholar, turned down an invitation to study at the foot of J.R.R. Tolkien. A religious nun, and fellow art-obsessed fangirl, she was one of my favorite people. I knew I loved her. But it wasn’t until she left this mortal coil that I found out how much. After forty years of ardent devotion to art, Sister Wendy died December 28, 2018.
For an audio version of this post, click below:
Sister Wendy Beckett’s soft-spoken manner served her purpose with perfection. That’s because her humble British voice forces audiences to listen. She has a notorious speech impediment to boot. So, how did a mousy sibilant speaker become the most profound and powerful voice of art history? Beckett’s a remarkable person. She makes the world a better place – even in death. See an example of her thoughtful insight in the interview with Bill Moyers below. Sister Wendy takes her time. She not only answers questions but shines brilliant illumination on the topic too.
Like all success stories, hers radiates with passion, fortitude, and luck. It started with her simple desire. She loved art and wanted to study it. So, in 1980 Sister Wendy began researching art and writing books. In the process, she often spoke at galleries and museums about her ideas. Her insight, vision and clear explanations held listeners spellbound.
Sister Wendy – Reluctant Star
On one such occasion a video crew (working on another project) overheard Sister Wendy in a museum. She waxed with such eloquence and insight – so unique – they asked to film her. This vid ended up with a BBC producer who saw Beckett’s potential. He offered Sister Wendy her own show on the network. She was effusive without grandiloquence. It’s a rare combination but a natural outgrowth of her humility. This was a person in love with art. She surrenders to the wonder and awe of artwork. It shows. This intense adoration and understanding make Sister Wendy’s videos intriguing. Thus, art shines as the hero in her loving spotlight.
She didn’t seek fame. Rather, to share a reverence of art. Thus, Beckett democratized this often elite world. That’s the impact Sister Wendy had on the world. She made art accessible. A few years and many many books after her debut on the BBC, Sister Wendy hit PBS. That’s where I found her and fell in love with this marvelous nun and her fervor for art. It was 1997 and, like the rest of the universe, I worked at a startup. A young dreamer with a dial-up connection, I had a singular mission. Democratize art. It’s all I cared about at the time. The Internet was a new-fangled entity. I was determined to create a free worldwide museum with it.
So, when I discovered Sister Wendy she was doing exactly what I dreamed about. The prevalent ideology at the time framed the art world as an elite club. To speak about it or even appreciate it, one needed extensive art history education. I lacked this. But I loved art. Thus my conundrum and desire. Sister Wendy resolved this for me. It wasn’t just because she taught me about art.
More importantly, she taught me that my take on a piece was enough. I could have my own experience of artwork and it was 100% valid. In fact, I might even open up a new gateway with my particular viewpoint. This is true for all of us. Artists believe that more than anyone. Talk to some and you’ll find out for yourself. After all, art is about making a connection with you, the viewer. Artists want that most of all. When it happens, it’s a celebration.
Sister Wendy’s Masterpieces
As an untrained art lover, I often wondered how to spot a masterpiece. It’s a word we throw around without true understanding. A pop song sits aside a Michelangelo these days with the way we toss around “masterpiece”. But Sister Wendy provides bountiful pointers to the word’s true meaning. She wakes up the world. Oh yeah. That’s right. “Masterpiece” actually means something. It’s got levels, shows mastery, resonates emotion, and establishes lasting significance. A masterpiece changes you. Then, the world.
That’s why my favorite book of all time is a coffee table book. In fact, because Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces affected me so much, I found others I adore. Read more about them in my piece about the best art and photography books. Still, I always come back to Sister Wendy. In fact, her book isn’t in my pile of favorites. That’s because I look at it so often, it lives near my writing desk. Some things are too awesome to put away.
It’s an exquisite collection of the very best paintings. They’re organized alphabetical by artist last name. So, it’s easy to browse even with purpose. But Sister Wendy’s hot takes on each piece are the best part. She’s brilliant and relatable. Her bold and clear revelations bring the artworks to life. Beckett makes the paintings fun and digestible – even the hard stuff, like Mark Rothko. Click his moody blue work above to read more about this mysterious man.
Sister Wendy – A Passionate Purpose
Sister Wendy taught me so much when she was alive. But her most profound gift came after she died. Although I’ve endured great loss before, her death devastated me. My world crumbled. Thus, I had to really look at myself. Why was I so upset? After a lot of consideration, I realized it was the gap she left behind. Sister Wendy made art available to everyone. She made it possible for any person with any background to love and appreciate great art. I was sad for the loss of that. Nobody would be taking that helm. That’s what made me realize my purpose. Not that I can carry the torch with Sister Wendy mastery. But I have her passion.
I live in New York City, surrounded by incredible art. In fact, the public art alone would take a lifetime to explore. Forget the many museums! As calamitous as her death was to me, it was also a catalyst. I have lots to say about art thanks to Sister Wendy. Now she’s also given me a reason to say it.