Story and photography by Amanda Koehn
For Diane Therese Pinchot, art talks back. Collective and personal experiences, the spirit of the organic material, the creation process, our diverse cultures and shared dialogue, and the Earth below us all collect to create something sacred.
The ceramic artist’s work is informed by the world and those around her, those far away and those who have died. It’s informed by injustices around the continent and beyond.
It’s the latter that has been getting her into trouble.
“My whole life, I was in trouble,” she says with a laugh during an interview with Canvas at Article/Art in Cleveland gallery, where her studio is located. “I try to behave. I’m still trying to behave.”
Pinchot, who first saw success at art shows early in her career, recently shifted to working as an artist full time after completing a career as an art professor at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike. Almost everything she’s making is selling.
An Order of Saint Ursula nun, Pinchot has long been inspired by the Earth and protecting it, as well as drawing attention to and fighting human rights abuses. She went to federal prison after protesting nonviolently at an American military school that’s trained killers in El Salvador and at the U.S. border with Mexico. All connected, her current work draws attention to the challenges our Earth and exploited groups specifically face as a result.
“She’s a gem – I’ve never met anyone like her before,” says ceramics artist Kimberly Chapman. “She has such a calming presence and a calming influence on everybody she comes in contact with.”
Pinchot’s work appears and feels organic, like it is part of the natural world and not separate from it. At 76, she continues to push toward new artistic challenges while constantly asking, what makes art sacred? And if something is sacred, how do we protect it?
Pinchot grew up in the Euclid projects as one of six children and enjoyed playing in the woods in her backyard. Her mother would have her play with finger paints at the kitchen table as a way to keep her out of trouble.
“I say I like to practice nonviolence and all of that, but I can be pretty agitating. … I’m always checking myself, and I really got into trouble with my mouth,” she says, reflecting on her childhood. “I still do.”
After graduating from Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in 1963, she joined the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. Prior to graduating from Ursuline College in 1968, she won her first art show and repeated the win in 1969. She then pursued graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Institute of Art and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in the midst of her teaching career.
Initially, she focused on metals, but saw those working with clay at CIA “were having a whole lot more fun.”
She earned her final graduate degree in ceramics from Ohio University in Athens in 1990.
“I know they called it the party school, but I never saw the light of day,” she says of her time at OU.
As an early-career artist, she was in about 185 shows, she says, then going by Sister Fidelis Pinchot (she changed her name to distinguish herself from her biological sister, who also became a nun with the same name). In her first graduate clay show with National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Cincinnati, she says she was shocked to find her work displayed at the front of the exhibition and considered a top piece.
“I never thought I was ready for this. … It caused me to know that I could do this and I could be a competitor,” she remembers.
While studying, she was focused on making items like altars and crosses for the Catholic Church. Eventually, she was faced with a question by OU faculty that shifted her perspective – what makes these items sacred, beautiful, holy and mystical in a way that’s “any different than a bar table?”
To come up with an answer, she studied history and art from around the world.
“I realized it was really about the beauty of the culture and the people, and what the people really do to be beautiful in their lives,” she says. “Most everything I saw was connected to the Earth in some way.”
There was no single answer, but rather, you know it when you feel it.
“I thought … there are multiple answers to this, so I’ll just stick with the things I know when I feel that chilling in my body,” she says. “That’s how I know that’s where it is. … But if you haven’t had that experience, you wouldn’t be able to explain it to many people.”
Into the village
After graduating from OU, Pinchot secured tenure at Ursuline College. As department chair and superior of the college nuns, she says she “wasn’t getting any time to think because people were at my door at 3 o’clock in the morning.” She moved out of her community to Cleveland’s Little Italy, taking a cue from Angela Merici, the founder of Pinchot’s order, who advised nuns to “live in the village, with the people.” Pinchot was the first in her community to live by herself.
Around that time, she went to El Salvador to build an altar on the spot where four Catholic missionaries were found after being raped and murdered by members of the El Salvador National Guard in 1980. Pinchot knew and was inspired by one of the women who was murdered, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel.
When Pinchot first went to El Salvador in 1992, she saw the ravages of war firsthand – how it leads to the destruction of people and the destruction of the Earth, she says, and it “completely changed” her. She also found out Kazel’s murderers were trained by School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, an American army school at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
“It was absolutely awful, and if you knew (Kazel), you would want to do something about it,” Pinchot says. “She was powerful.”
Pinchot began to attend protests against the School of the Americas, which have since shifted into protesting the training it does for military at the U.S.-Mexico border and the human rights abuses that occur there.
At one nonviolent protest at the military base, she was arrested for trespassing and sentenced to two months in federal prison. She was one of six arrested and who went to prison in 2009.
During her trial, a friend brought a piece of Pinchot’s called “Shallow Grave” to show the judge. The judge carefully looked at the piece, which had gotten into a national ceramics show, she says.
“I took it out, showed him (and said), ‘This is Dorothy,’” Pinchot says. “I was supposed to get six months and I only got two.”
Serving in a West Virgina work prison, she could see the mountains during walks she was allowed to take.
“What sustained me in prison was being able to walk outside,” she says, adding she worked in the kitchen there, washing floors and dishes. “The mountains around the whole prison were absolutely magnificent. So it gave me a lot of food for thought.”
Still, she met “really, really good people” there, some of whom she’s remained friends with. It wasn’t a wholly terrible but powerful experience, she says.
“When I got into the van when the nuns picked me up,” Pinchot says, “I was quiet for quite a while, and they said ‘So what now?’ I said, ‘Everyone ought to experience this.’ They laughed hysterically.”
She went back to Ursuline, but was burned out, she says. She continued taking part in demonstrations and teaching, and her artwork took a back seat.
Pinchot continues to hold dear her teaching career and the dialogue she’s had with her students.
“I was their teacher and I taught them things that I really appreciated,” she says. “And they, in turn, taught me things too. It was the same way I handle art – the back and forth.”
While teaching at Ursuline, she met Chapman in the early 2000s. At one point, Chapman, who was marketing director at the college, invited her over for lunch and Pinchot gifted a “beautiful raku pot in deep jewel colors,” Chapman recalls.
“It was still warm from the firing,” Chapman says. “It was so beautiful and it produced such an ache in my heart to want to do ceramics again that after the lunch, I called the Cleveland Institute of Art and decided to become a full-time student and went back to school.”
Chapman has since become a noteworthy local artist in her own right, creating delicate porcelain sculptures that revolve around the dark themes of what women endure and injustices they experience. She’s had solo shows around Northeast Ohio in recent years and has two in Athens this spring and summer. She was also profiled in this magazine in 2019.
“She inspires so many people though,” Chapman says of Pinchot. “… Being at Ursuline kind of opened my eyes to the whole social justice thing.”
Pinchot’s art and teaching also tends to revolve around women, Chapman adds, such as her altars honoring the female missionaries killed in El Salvador or a raku mask-making project she led for women staying at a homeless shelter.
Another artist, Janus Small, who also graduated from CIA, hadn’t made new work in 20 years while focusing on her career in nonprofit leadership and teaching. Her daughter had bought her nice colored pencils to help her get creative again.
But Small says it was Pinchot who said something that clicked: “Just sharpen the pencils.”
Upon retiring as professor emeritus after 51 years as a teacher – 38 of which she taught college art at Ursuline – Pinchot started making art full time in 2019. In addition to her Ursuline sisterhood, she formed new family-like connections in the local arts community, namely at Article/Art in Cleveland gallery in the Waterloo Arts District.
Louis Ross of Article first met Pinchot through the late artist Kathy Skerritt about three years ago. He quickly saw Pinchot’s work was high caliber and offered her studio space, he says, and began to learn more about the social justice and environmental subject matter she covers.
“She brought some expertise with curating and showing shows, and public awareness and social causes,” says Ross, who has run Article on Waterloo Road with his wife, Susan, for 11 years. The Rosses are also both artists. “That’s been great for us … we need it on the street.”
Pinchot’s work has evolved and expanded during her three years working at Article, Ross says. In 2020, the gallery hosted a show about the experiences of living at the margins, where Pinchot focused her work on the human destruction at the U.S.-Mexico border, she says. Although the show didn’t go as planned because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all her pieces in it sold.
“It was the same thing again – being in the cold of Arizona, seeing those graves in the desert where people died and where people put crosses up,” she says. “It was the same stuff all over again as what was happening in El Salvador when we saw those graves everywhere. Again, it was about the Earth and the destruction of people and how they were buried in the Earth and how they dehumanized everything.”
Her work in recent years has addressed climate change more specifically, considered injustice as it relates to marginalized people experiencing its worst effects now and in the future.
Pinchot has also shown at Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland and is among its roster of artists.
Chapman says Pinchot’s often vessel-like ceramic creations have an ethereal effect on people – one which is inseparable from the artist herself.
“You look through those eyes and you are seeing into somebody’s soul basically,” Chapman says. “She’s an amazing teacher, and her art is just so soulful. I mean, everything she does has such meaning.”
Pinchot is also president and co-chair of the board of the InterReligious Task Force on Central America – an organization she wanted to give back to in retirement to honor the way Kazel would have given back, had she lived, Pinchot says. She’s finishing up a busy three-year term on the working board, causing her to get to her studio at around 2 p.m. most days and working on her artwork until around 9. Various elements related to aging – caring for family and physical ailments, noting an eye condition that affects her vision – also slow things down.
“I’m very slow at making (art),” she says, adding her artistic process often involves making detailed drawings and smaller iterations before larger pieces, while the dialogue is forming. “I’m very reflective.”
Speaking at a gallery opening at Nicholson B. White Gallery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, she describes how she connects to the Lakota phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin,” meaning “all my relations.” Pinchot incorporates this idea that all natural beings are part of the web of life, and even her relatives, into the artwork. It gives it much to say.
She tells Canvas, “It becomes final at the last stage, when I realize, ‘Are you done talking to me?’”
• Diane Therese Pinchot has work on view at the Nicholson B. White Gallery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2747 Fairmount Blvd., Cleveland Heights, through May 15. Also featured in the show are Northeast Ohio artists Nancy Lick, Robert Muller and Bess Rodriguez Richard. For more information, visit stpauls-church.org/gallery.
• Pinchot regularly has work on view at Article/Art in Cleveland gallery, 15316 Waterloo Road, Cleveland, including during the Walk All Over Waterloo art walks the first Friday evening of each month. Her studio is also open during events. For information, visit facebook.com/artincle or call 440-655-6954.