The Nun, Picasso and Me

First day of school, age 11 – knock knees, straw boater and white gloves!


The Nun, Picasso and Me


Kirsten Harris


I have recently started writing about art and the process of making art.

It has led me to the question, why did I chose art as a route in life in the first place?

Believe me, I was discouraged the whole way –


‘No-one ever makes a living from art!’ ‘

‘Only mad people become artists!’

‘Kirsten! You’re not THAT good!’

‘You’ll end up being an artist for the government, drawing the dole!’

That helpful comment was usually accompanied by guffaws of laughter followed closely by the quip ‘Ha Ha Ha, A piss artist!’


Proof that all the nay-sayers were correct came when I was rejected from 5 art schools. Uptight, slumped, angry teenager I was lost for words when the art schools asked about my process.

What process? I didn’t have one!

I completely froze at the interviews.


Yet I persisted..and persisted….something has always kept me going…


Looking back I realise that Sr Marie Therese, the ancient, diminutive, French nun who was my art teacher at school (yup, convent girl) had planted a seed that endured. It is only now I fully realise what she did. She encouraged! She helped us find a beauty that we were capable of revealing.


Every girl at the school, year after year, passed art O’level. There were no failures in her class.


Sr Marie Therese would always find something of merit in our endeavours and help us build from there. A use of colour, an excellent brush mark, a tiny bit of the paper that we had managed to make look beautiful with our pots of poster paints. She spotted something good in us all as she went round the room inspecting our work. She applauded. She was genuinely delighted.


‘Look, Zat bit eez good!’


By drawing our attention to the good bits and ignoring the rest, we made progress.

So simple, so effective, yet so completely stand alone in my school education that art became my calling.

The glimpse of light that I felt I could work towards. A seed of encouragement dropping into the murky waters of my teenage mind.


But what of Picasso?


One day Sr Marie Therese showed me a portfolio of her exquisitely painted gouaches of circus scenes – performers, horses, acrobats, clowns, monkeys, crowds of people and fabulous Parisian street scenes. Painting after painting full of adventure and drama, colour and comedy, observation and exageration. I had never seen anything like them before and never have since. The closest I can think of are Seurat’s circus scenes, but these were smaller, more complex and infinitely more jewel like.

They were incredible…Alive! Still burning in my mind’s eye more than 35 years later.


And then she told me she had been a friend of Picasso as young woman in Paris.


‘Wow you knew Picasso!’ I enthused in my excited 15 year old way.

‘Sister these are amazing! You are a brilliant artist! Wow! Look at that! Wow!’


Something in her clammed up.

‘Zat eez enough now. Go! Go!’ She hastened me out of the art room.


I found out that not long after Sister destroyed all her paintings! She said she had exhibited a terrible ego to show me and that was wrong. What a huge loss to the art world!


Why had Marie Therese become a nun? What had happened in Paris that had led her to the convent? I will never know


But I will never forget her amazing paintings. Or that she taught me we learn best through encouragement – having our own beauty shown to us through our endeavours, so we can follow its path.


As Picasso said – ‘I start with an idea, and it becomes something else.’


I started with an idea of being an artist, a light was lit, though only dimly burning for many years. It wasn’t until learning Alexander Technique that my work was truly ignited and started to sell. Alexander Technique encouraged. The lesson had come full circle. I learned to work with what was working, and let go of the rest.







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