Don Pesci: Learning how to make frescoes at Enders Island



Enders Island is la few miles from Mystic Seaport. on Long Island Sound.  In the first week of May, I spent a rainy eight days there laboring, with some success, to produce three mural frescoes under the guiding hand of Chady Elias, a masterful religious artist who is the Vice President & Dean of Administration at Sacred Art Institute Enders Island and the Adjunct Professor of Sacred Art at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.

About the rain: I cannot help mentioning a morning prayer delivered by Sister Eugenia, a Master Catechist, after a sumptuous breakfast before we set out for the studio. It contained the usual appreciation and gratitude for all things large and small, with a slight knock “even though the weather has been not to our liking.”

When someone – was it me? – pointed out that this was a proper Biblical way of addressing the God of mercy and justice (See Job, 7:11), the sister pointed out with a slight Irish lilt in her voice, “Well, I’m Irish.” Such mild reproofs are to be expected of Irish lasses: Roses mingle with thorns.

And she was Irish, full of green thoughts, prone to laughter and seated comfortably on years of study and learning. A certified Spiritual Director and a member of Spiritual Directors International, Sister Eugenia has degrees in Education, Music, Religious Studies, Spirituality Theology and Scripture. She left Ireland when she was eighteen, but Ireland, as we know, never leaves the Irish. She has taken Ireland with her to several states – agnostic California among them -- loves children, has dedicated her life to the service of God and man, quotes Wordsworth at length from memory, and composes, on the spot and with flawless fervor, prayers that tickle the ears of angels.

Frescoes can be intimidating. Through our eight days, Chady leads us by baby steps – first a watercolor of the subject, then a painting on dry plaster, and finally a portable fresco mural on a wet surface. How, one may ask, is it possible to paint on a wet surface? Ah, but with God, who leads the senses to beauty and form, all things are possible. Every bit of Michelangelo’s art in the Sistine Chapel is fresco, a process that involves simultaneous multiple steps: plotting the image, preparing the surface with a combination of lime, sand and plaster, waiting patiently for the moment when the surface will accept dry pigments dissolved in lime-water, kissing the  surface softly with a brush plunged in color.

One thinks of Michelangelo, suffering under the mild lash of a pope, carving forms on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with brushes the size of brooms, wondering, like Job, when the horror will end so that he might return to his first love -- sculpture.

As they say in the fairy tales: There are things twain; one you must do, the other you must not do. A fresco is a form to be seen from afar. And so, on the final stretch, you must see the projected painting from a distance, plastering in large blocks of color that change hue as the fresco dries. Chady puts it this way: NO DETAIL! The final strokes will be lines, bordering off the colors, the way stained glass is presented from a distance when a raking sun floods the forms with the light of creation.

After eight days of spiritual comradeship and hard work, I came home with three frescoes thinking, oddly enough, of the sea wall surrounding Enders Island and of Sister Eugenia’s yet unanswered prayer. During a violent storm, part of the sea wall collapsed. She was assured by the Army Corp of Engineers they would repair the wall. In years and years following that assurance, large boulders necessary for the repair were collected on the island. She prays, she waits, full of a fugitive hope. The boulders lie untouched by the Army Corps of Engineers. There may be somewhere in Connecticut a politician attuned to God’s whisperings, so quiet they seem to be faint commands tucked in whirlwinds. Heaven needs earth to move Heaven.

Following its connection with Holy Apostles College & Seminary, St. Michael’s has become an internationally renowned religious Art Institute.  It is a jewel in the heart of Connecticut that has drawn artists and aspiring artists the world over. It’s time now to shout for joy, time to ring the bells – time to fix that wall. Do it for Sister Eugenia, do it for Art, do it for God. But do it.

Don Pesci  ( is a writer who lives in Vernon. Conn.