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5 Truths About Creativity That I Learned From an 87-Year-Old Cloistered Nun & Artist

11/14/2016 11:02 am ET | Updated Nov 14, 2016

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Gussie's Special bowl by Sister Augustine

As a 31-year-old artist and writer, I met 87-year-old cloistered nun and ceramics artist Sister Augustine. At the time, I was stuck at a crucial crossroads in my life, and a stalemate in my career. Meanwhile, Sister Augustine had been long forgotten by the world as she quietly worked six days a week in the studio and shop she had founded in the 1960s on the grounds of the oldest Benedictine convent in the country.

As I recount in my memoir Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship That Answered Life's Greatest Questions, the next five years were the joyride of a lifetime for us -- artist to artist.

During our hundreds of weekly visits, Sister Augustine not only showed me the blueprint for living a life grounded in purpose and hope, she also revealed five very important truths about creativity that anyone anywhere can use.

Creativity Has No Expiration Date
As a result of Sister Augustine's nearly 45-year career as a self-taught artist -- spent mostly under the radar and with little fanfare, 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!

However, it was during the 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 years presents an explosion of glorious color and emotion.

Inspired Takeaway: It's never too late for creativity, and even in the most remote corners of our existence, second acts are always possible.

Creativity is Contagious
After each of my heart-to-heart visits with Sister Augustine, I would go home reinvigorated and often start a new Americana Folk Art painting or add new material to the beer cookbook I was writing. The creative energy and humility I experienced in Sister's simple four-room studio unclogged my mind and propelled me in my own creative endeavors.

Inspired Takeaway: Surround yourself with creative people and resources, especially if you feel uninspired or somehow blocked in your work and life.

Creativity is Life
I once asked Sister Augustine to create a self-portrait of herself using a small plaster mold of a nun in full, traditional habit -- including the bib apron smeared with paint that she always wore. When she obliged, I looked at the miniature replica of her and better understood how our life itself is the purest embodiment of creativity, and, in turn, creativity has a living, breathing, growing spirit all its own.

Inspired Takeaway: Be mindful of how everything you do is an act of creating something, most of all your life.

Creativity is Limitless
Sister Augustine proved that the creative process is infinite, expansive, radiating in all directions. As a self-taught artist, she could transition from style to style faster than you could make the Sign of the Cross.

Her Gussie's Specials best conveyed this point. A quick glance at these bowls and vases call to mind the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock's work. But then there's the bowl that evokes a southwestern desert -- denim sky and cocoa sand with rivers of turquoise and fire that would be at home in a Georgia O'Keeffe landscape. A more minimalist bowl, stark white with apple-red chips suspended quietly like an Alexander Calder mobile across the rippled surface. And, two curvaceous bud vases that look as though they were rolled across a wet Cy Twombly canvas.

Even her primitive forget-me-nots on plates, vases, teacups, and tiny crosses crafted from leftover clay are like ones Grandma Moses may have scattered across a sunny pasture.

Inspired Takeaway: No matter who you are or where you are, your unique gift for creating is limited only by your desire to get moving and do something.

Creativity is a Gift Inside Everyone
One of Sister Augustine's legacies has been her ability to continue touching and inspiring people years after her passing.

I recently partnered with a high school art teacher and his students who studied Five Years in Heaven and Sister's Gussie's Specials. The students were then challenged to create their own limited edition bowls inspired by her work. Some of the students are interested in art, but others are planning for careers in engineering, pharmacy, teaching, or simply navigating the day-to-day rollercoaster of being teenagers. Still, they all embraced the assignment, which benefitted the local Arts council.

At "The Gussie Tribute Collection" gallery opening, 150 student bowls sold out in less than two hours. The best part was watching how the students marveled at the success and interest in something they had created with their own hands.

Inspired Takeaway: You (yes, YOU!) are creative! Now don't ever forget it.

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Gussie's Special bowl by Sister Augustine

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