St. John's

The Weigh-In: Tommies and Johnnies – Artistic Associates


When you hear this word as a St. Thomas community member what do you immediately think of?

Saint John’s University?

We all know about the competitiveness we have with Saint John’s in sports. What you might not think about when you hear UST and SJU in the same sentence however, are the ties that bind us together.

Many who work or study here at St. Thomas are Johnnies (or Bennies for that matter) like Terry Langan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences or Mike Sullivan, associate professor of finance in the Opus College of Business. Art History graduate student Brady King is an alum of Saint John’s undergraduate studio art program. But what are our similarities?

We are both anchored in the Catholic intellectual tradition, a tradition we have brought to bear so strongly on higher education in the state of Minnesota and beyond. King also appreciates the quality of the faculty at both schools and the fact that everyone says hello to each other on campus. Although the rivalry with Saint John’s in sports is emotional, the respect between our two schools is profound.

Another important shared belief between St. Thomas and Saint John’s is the importance the arts have in a humanities-based education.  I have witnessed this first hand in two significant ways. First, for the past decade or so, I’ve been researching and writing about architect Marcel Breuer’s 1953 design for the Abbey church in Collegeville.

Since my first visit to central Minnesota I have been treated with the greatest kindness and respect. The Benedictine monks have always supported my work and in fact the completion of my book manuscript in the coming months is in large part due to and because of them. They share information, constantly find things in the depths of their archives, and always encourage me to get the project done.

Of course, it is not that there haven’t been interesting moments given that I am a Tommie. In the fall of 2011 the president of Saint John’s and the abbot of Saint John’s Abbey invited me to a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the completion of the Abbey church. Dinner was lovely and then we headed into a lecture hall for a roundtable discussion about Breuer’s work on the church.

As I was waiting to be introduced to the crowd, I grew just a little nervous because the Tommies had beaten the Johnnies in football on Palmer Field in O’Shaughnessy Stadium just three days prior by a score of 63-7! Yet, there were no boos from the crowd and only laughter when I told them (jokingly) that I was a little nervous to be on the stage at that moment.

The second collaboration has been going on around us for the past three months and showcases our mutual respect for the arts. “Stoked: Five Artists of Fire and Clay” is currently on display in the lobby gallery of the O’Shaughnessy Education Center on the St. Paul campus of St. Thomas.

Richard Bresnahan

Master potter Richard Bresnahan speaks with guests at the Stoked: Five Artists of Fire and Clay Exhibition Opening, Oct. 4, 2012 (Photo by Olga Ivanova)

We have Art History Department manager Sue Focke to thank for making this exhibition and a wonderful series of supporting events happen. Keenly aware of the artistic nature of this region, Focke had a vision to bring Saint John’s long-time artist in residence and potter Richard Bresnahan, and the work of his apprentices, to our campus, with the support of the department and the College of Arts and Sciences leadership.

Focke recalls that Bresnahan was thrilled at the opportunity, as he had always wanting to show his work on our campus.

Installing “Stoked” in early September was an excellent learning experience for our art history student exhibitions assistants, as Bresnahan’s installation team, led by Steven Lemke and Ryan Cutter, allowed them to be a part of the entire set up.

Graduate students from art history also assisted in publicity for the event, organized the keynote lecture and opening reception, and acted as docents during the many gatherings we’ve had in the OEC lobby gallery and beyond, including a Saint John’s alumni event held in the Anderson Student Center this fall.

At all of these events Bresnahan shared of his time generously, talking with students and other guests at the many receptions hosted on campus. In addition, Bresnahan invited Focke and myself to his pottery at Saint John’s for a tour and afternoon tea. The collaboration has been a great success and in my mind there is no doubt there will be more between the urban and rural Catholic cousins.  Saint John’s is home to a thriving studio art program that complements nicely with the art historical focus we have here at St. Thomas.

In every class I teach at St. Thomas, I spend a great deal of time talking about the Abbey church in Collegeville. There is never a sigh of disdain from my students when it shows up on the screen – they are genuinely interested in the visual power of the concrete church and bell banner and what it means to its Collegeville users.

I’m thrilled that both St. Thomas and Saint John’s are powerful entities in my life. For me they are rivals in the best sense – forces that compete in order to bring out the greater good in each other. From football to fine art, we are fortunate to share the relationship we have with the Johnnies.