What is the meaning of life? We’ve all asked ourselves this question at least once in our lives, and we’ve all pondered a great many thoughts, perhaps without ever really getting any real answers. John Schlimm, Harvard-educated author and artist, published his book Five Years in Heaven with the byline, “The Unlikely Friendship that Answered Life’s Greatest Questions.” His 2015 book was recently granted the prestigious Christopher Award, a recognition of “the highest values of the human spirit.” The Christopher Awards will be given in a special ceremony this year on May 19. More than 20 television shows, films, and adult and children’s books will be presented with the award.
Five Years in Heaven is a sweet memoir about Schlimm’s friendship with a nun at his local convent. Sister Augustine, also known as Gussie, ran the ceramics shop at St. Joseph Monastery in the little town of St. Mary’s in rural western Pennsylvania. The book tells about the last five years of Sister Augustine’s life, where she and Schlimm bonded and taught one another about art and life. The octogenarian nun taught Schlimm about ceramics and Schlimm gave her new ideas. As the two got to know one another, not only did their own friendship grow, but they boosted the sales and awareness of the St. Joseph’s ceramics shop to a much broader audience.
Schlimm’s memoir is a delight to read and has gotten plenty of great reviews. If you’re looking for something to give you hope and faith, this is the book for you. To celebrate his upcoming Christopher Award, examiner spoke with the author to get his thoughts on life and art:
Examiner: What a great read! Tell us more.
John Schlimm: My memoir Five Years in Heaven is set in a humble, four-room ceramics studio hidden away on the grounds of the storied 160-year-old convent in my small hometown. At the core of the book is my life-changing friendship with cloistered nun and self-taught artist Sister Augustine during the last five years of her life, starting when I was 31 and stuck at one of those crucial crossroads in life that we all encounter from time to time. She was 87.
Over the course of the next five years, our hundreds of weekly visits became a master class in living life to the fullest, all amidst the riotous colors and inspired trappings of art in its purest and simplest form. Sister Augustine helped me as a young artist, writer, and educator to navigate life’s twists and turns by handing me the blueprint for living with purpose. I got to return the favor by showing my friend how her life as an artist still had one very important final chapter left to go.
At its core, Five Years in Heaven is a story about two artists from very different worlds, who came together for the joyride of a lifetime.
Examiner: The Christopher Award celebrates the writers, producers, illustrators and directors who “shine a light that illuminates the darkness by choosing to practice faith, love, compassion, courage, teamwork, and determination.” What values does your book touch upon?
JS: Sister Augustine’s universal messages of hope have become a guiding candle through the darkness for readers across the country, and beyond.
I mean, here was this incredibly gifted artist, Sister Augustine, who had created a prolific body of work during her almost 45-year career, but all done quietly and with zero fanfare. Her pieces were collected by people throughout the country and around the world. There is at least one of her Nativity sets in all 50 states, as well as in Japan, England, and Germany. And her other clayware pieces have travelled as far away as Central America, Africa, and even Russia. Not too bad for a simple farm girl who joined the convent in the early years of The Great Depression! But by the time I met her, she had become long forgotten by the world.
In the vein of the Christopher Award’s mission, Sister Augustine took the very art of living and creating to a higher level. She taught me that life itself is a precious work of art to be embraced and shared. She showed me how we can find love and happiness in the most unexpected places, and that the building blocks of a full, purposeful life at any age are always within our reach. Meanwhile, I proved to her how even in the most remote corners of our existence, second acts are always possible.
It was during those last five years of her life, from ages 87 to 92, that Sister Augustine would create her most famous oeuvre and become a celebrity in her own right. Using leftover paint (so as not to waste a single drop) and applying it to clayware bowls and vases (often as a means of cleaning off her brushes while doing other pieces), Sister created her Gussie’s Special series.
Each of the nearly 500 abstract Gussie’s Specials she created during those final five years presents an explosion of glorious color and emotion. Looking at each Gussie’s Special, the viewer sees entire universes, stories, and inspiration. The Gussie’s Specials, along with Sister Augustine’s other work, call to mind such iconic American artists as Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cy Twombly, Alexander Calder, Andrew Wyeth, and others.
Examiner: How important is it for a young person to have art in his life?
JS: Children are the most genuine and natural artists in the world. They still find magic and triumph in coloring outside the lines. They still marvel at the shapes of passing clouds, at the spray of water from doing a cannonball into a pool, and at the chirping of baby birds. They still believe anything is possible! For them, the man on the moon is waving back. These are traits we, as adults and as trained artists, spend our careers seeking to recapture because they are pure and authentic.
Examiner: How can art help to answer some of life’s greatest questions?
JS: Life is art, art is life. By some grace, I was led to that special place at a time in my life when I was most struggling and vulnerable. Now readers can also pull up a chair at the table with me and Sister Augustine, and embrace the comfort, guidance, and sparks of inspiration that they need at this time in their lives.
Every corner of Sister Augustine’s studio and shop – from the floor-to-ceiling shelves of paint and glaze and brushes; the hundreds of vintage plaster molds in her backroom; the vats of wet clay; the bisqueware parading along her horseshoe of work tables; the kiln; the front shop; and, most importantly, the artist herself – provided the ultimate metaphor and lessons for the ever-evolving creation of our lives. If ever there was a genuine embodiment of “the medium is the message,” this was it!
Examiner: What meaning does art bring to your own life?
JS: The short answer: I see my entire life as a work of art – whether I’m painting, writing, brainstorming, cooking, walking, laughing, working with students, volunteering at the local animal shelter, sitting in the boardroom of my family’s 140+ year-old Straub Brewery, visiting with the homeless, or even dancing on a tabletop in celebration at a party!
Examiner: What is it like being an artist?
JS: Being an artist for me – which encompasses my work as a visual artist, writer, educator, and activist – is embodied in my participatory art piece titled THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours).
THE SMILE is an 18-foot-long white canvas installation on which I have drawn dozens of black circles in all sizes with dots for eyes, and then the participants add the smiles in their favorite colors. For me to collaborate with folks of all ages and walks of life to convey the power we each hold to impact the world around us will always be one of the greatest and most humbling honors I have as an artist. And if those participants walk away realizing that their life is a work of art as well, then I’ve done my job.
Five Years in Heaven has also proven to be a participatory work of art. Not only did it inspire a global social media movement that reached nearly five million people, but I’m hearing from readers across the country, and as far away as Korea and China, how they are uniquely connecting with the book’s message and applying it to their own lives. These include the mother of a drug addict who has drawn comfort from Sister Augustine’s advice to me; a grandma in Iowa who has used the book to cope with the tragic cancer-death of her six-year-old grandson; a teacher in Korea whose work has been enlightened by Sister Augustine’s powerful calm and humility; high school students who are emulating Sister’s art and studying the book in their classrooms; and a quadriplegic, for whom Five Years in Heaven—read to him a chapter a night by his older brother—has helped him come to terms with his own mortality.
This is what being an artist at its most beautiful is all about: sending ripples into the world.
Examiner: Why did you become an artist?
JS: I didn’t choose art, it chose me.
As an artist and writer, I am only a messenger with a paintbrush and pen. Nothing more, nothing less. Five Years in Heaven and THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours) are gifts I have been blessed to be able to share with the world, and which will both live on long after I’m gone.
Examiner: If readers take only one thing away from reading your book, what would you hope that is?
JS: Everything you do and experience in this precious life – both the joys and the sorrows – is the paintbrush to your canvas, the chisel to your block of marble.
Examiner: What’s next for you?
JS: I will be doing a two-day event with Five Years in Heaven and THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours) installation at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art on June 4 – 5. The growing museum is located in Greensburg, Pennsylvania and is devoted to American art, particularly focusing on artists of western Pennsylvania. On Saturday, June 4, come out to participate in a conversation, then on June 5, jump in and create your own smile and work of art in the participatory museum version of THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours). You won’t regret coming out!