Sister Dennis Frandrup’s artwork featured in new Haehn Museum exhibit

The ceramic sculpture, pottery, jewelry and other works created by Benedictine Sister Dennis Frandrup are featured in a new exhibit titled “By the Work of Her Hands” at the Haehn Museum and Whitby Gift Shop on the campus of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph. The opening reception is from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, and the exhibit runs until Friday, Dec. 23. (See information at bottom of story.)

Benedictine Sister Dennis Frandrup

“I always had a hunger to do art, but as a child I never thought of that as a gift, but an interest that fascinated me,” Sister Dennis recalls.

She vividly remembers her father saying, “An artist will take care that their whole piece is developed well, even the parts that people can’t see. Though I was only 4 or 5 years old at the time, his words have stayed with me — it was that important. When I did a work of art, that was always in my subconscious: to be honest with the material and the message I was trying to portray.”

Her early schooling didn’t allow for many art classes: only if the students had behaved and then only on Fridays, she said. As a Benedictine, Sister Dennis served as a teacher and principal for 18 years. At first, she taught all subjects, including art.

“Art supplies were very limited so I often had students draw from real life. I would instruct on the elements of art so they could understand what they saw and what to look for. People had negative attitudes about art, telling me that they couldn’t draw a straight line. But a straight line is not actually very interesting,” she said.

“I didn’t have a great many expectations — each child will experience art in a different way. Once I had a fourth-grade student who was a little toughie. After I gave a lesson on using color to interpret the students’ response to music, this fellow could have experimented with color for a couple of hours. Seeing his success was its own reward.”

Even when her school became departmentalized and Sister Dennis could focus on teaching art to grades 7 and 8, much of her time was spent in writing lesson plans, correcting assignments and preparing for the next days. There was no time to do serious art herself.

“Then, in 1970, our superior, Mother Henrita, visited the mission where I taught,” Sister Dennis said. “She asked if I’d ever be interested in going to school to get a degree in art. I answered that I wanted to, but only if I could study full time, which I’d need to complete an art program. I taught there one more year while making my plans.”

With advice from community artists, Sister Dennis selected Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.

“After a short time with painting and printmaking, I realized I wanted to work in three dimensions — clay would satisfy my desires. And to get a serious art degree, I needed to transfer. The next semester I went to Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. At the end of my first semester at Adrian, I was asked to be my instructor’s assistant due to my experience in schools. I was his assistant all through my graduate study.”

In 1973, after earning her master’s degree in fine arts, with a focus on ceramic sculpture and pottery, she returned to Minnesota and began teaching ceramic sculpture, pottery, drawing and design at the College of St. Benedict, continuing for 32 years. She added a jewelry course when that teacher left and continued to teach a yearly course in jewelry for six more years.

Sister Dennis Frandrup, right, and Kelly Mahlum, 1991. (Photo courtesy of St. Benedict’s Monastery)

“Ceramics is labor-intensive — organizing, stacking and firing kilns. Equipment needs repair. And every glaze is almost its own chemistry course. College teaching entails committee work and occasionally chairing the department, which also takes lots of time.”

Sister Dennis retired from her full-time professorship in 2005.

“Then a wonderful thing happened,” she said. “The college honored me with the position of ‘professor emerita and artist-in-residence.’ That gave me a space, material to work with and time to pursue doing my own thing. I could work on ceramic sculptures which take a whole different kind of time — I could stay with a piece until it was finished. Before I could only work on them in the summers.

“Sculptures are concepts made visible in clay — I’d choose a concept roaming around in my head and wait for something to happen to it. From that I’d try to deliver a message with my sculpture,” she said.

“One example in the exhibit is ‘Memory Village.’ I created it when our community discussed its plans for a major building that I felt had true, honest, artistic qualities — it might be sold or renovated or destroyed. I was emotionally upset, concerned about losing it but not sure what our community would decide,” she said.

“The ‘Domus’ sculpture — which is Latin for ‘home’ — was done that same summer. In it, you can see a kind of apartment house or building. I like to incorporate other materials, so this has a staircase made of copper tubing.”

Sister Dennis also pointed out a piece called “Compassion” and a playful one called “Rock Pile,” made with rocks she’d collected along Lake Superior.

She said her time of making ceramic sculpture is mostly concluded, and she now focuses on pottery. Nearing 90, she’s closing down her studio and looking in other directions, like catching up on reading.

“When I’m decorating even one little mug, I want it to be bold and simple, visually strong without being busy, fussy and overbearing,” Sister Dennis said. “In Stearns County, people tend to want functional things, and a mug can be used on a daily basis. I swear the coffee tastes better from a wonderful mug, and there’s something beautiful and enriching about being able to eat off plates that are also gorgeous and artistic.  I’ll always be interested in art.”


“By the Work of Her Hands: The Art of Sister Dennis Frandrup”

What: Opening reception: 4 to 6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 21 (tour Haehn Museum, purchase items by Sister Dennis Frandrup and other sisters at Whitby Gift Shop)

This exhibit runs until Friday, Dec. 23.

Where: Haehn Museum, Art and Heritage Place, St. Benedict’s Monastery, 104 Chapel Lane, St. Joseph

When: Tuesday through Fridays, 12 to 4 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

For more information: Call 320-363-7100 or visit

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

Leave a Reply