At first glance, the photographs of nuns in Clara Gutsche's "The Convent Series" could not seem to be further from her work "In Habitable Places," shown at Concordia's Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery in 1994, or from her acclaimed photographic record of the effect of heavy industrialization on Montreal's Lachine Canal.
It need not be. She admits that "whether I photograph people or uninhabited spaces, I attempt to map the inner landscape of emotions. . . [to discover] private mysteries that are hidden behind the public exterior of buildings."
Gutsche graduated from Concordia in 1982 with her MFA, and has been an instructor since 1986 in the Photography program, in the Department of Studio Arts. She recently exhibited 90 photographs at the Musée d'art de Joliette, and some of the photos are being shown at the Musée de la Civilization in Quebec City. This work is the outcome of seven years she spent photographing nuns of about 25 religious communities in Quebec, most of them cloistered.
The convent in Quebec is a deeply rooted institution where recruits, particularly in the past, often came from the society's rich and famous. Religious orders founded by women like Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance figure prominently in the social history of New France, and the determining role these female religious communities played in the fields of education and hospital care has few equivalents in Anglo-Protestant societies.
Naturally, Gutsche has taken pictures of nuns praying and going about their business in the austere, rather severe interiors of the convents. It is the photographs that discover "private mysteries" that will come as a surprise to a public generally accustomed to seeing nuns providing spiritual, educational and medical care -- like the foursome playing tennis against the wall of their Valleyfield convent, or crimson-and-white-robed sisters playing cards in the gallery of their Nicolet residence.
Besides mapping "the inner landscape of emotions" in this feminine world of silence and meditation, Gutsche's work also stresses the cultural significance of the Catholic Church and the contribution of nuns. As a testament to history, these photographs may be some of the last records of the gradual erosion of a way of life in the increasingly empty convents.
A recipient of several Canada Council advancement grants for work shown in exhibitions since 1973, Gutsche has served on the juries of many photography projects and competitions.
The Joliette exhibition will travel to Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, in Halifax, in February. The show at the Musée du Civilisation in Quebec City contains other photos of nuns; it started in September, and will continue until next August.