St. Andrews Abbey: A World of Wonder

Art creation goes hand in hand with the appreciation
of the natural world and devotion to God

Story and photos by Lara Hartley
© copyright Lara Hartley

Father Maur van Doorslaer catches one of his highly detailed model cars before it gets away from him on the floor of his art studio at the St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo.

Father Maur van Doorslaer catches one of his highly detailed model cars before it gets away from him on the floor of his art studio at the St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo.

DesertUSA Note: This story was written in 2008. Fr. Maur, born Etienne van Doorslaer passed away February 1, 2013. As of 2010, the Abbey ceased to host the Valyermo Fall Festival, but welcomes visitors. They continue to make and sell the ceramics designed by Father Mauer, as well as other items. Read more here.

 

van Doorslaer works on a new sign for the abbey at small table in his desert studio. A drawing for a special plaque and his well-used tools sit on his drafting table. van Doorslaer works on a new sign for the abbey at small table in his desert studio. A drawing for a special plaque and his well-used tools sit on his drafting table.
In every man lives the heart of a boy, an innocent child.

Even in the esteemed personage of 81-year-old Father Maur van Doorslaer, the artist-in-residence at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo. It didn’t take much encouragement for the nimble van Doorslaer to show off one of his model cars on the floor of his studio where he is busy creating his world-famous ceramic plaques and collectibles.

The Benedictine monk is also known for his white on white fine art paintings and drawings which he creates at his monastery in Sint Andries Abdij, Zevenkerken in Brugge, Belgium.

“It is a very modern style,” said Tim Benedict, the operations manager for St. Andrew’s ceramics. “It doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans.”

What does appeal, though, is the ceramic art that van Dorslaer has created for the abbey since 1965. He spends five months (May to October) a year designing ceramics in the high desert at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The iconic figures, with their signature wide-open eyes, were inspired by Mexican and folk art. He calls these simplistic designs “cookies” because they reminded him of the Saint Nicholas cookies given to children in Belgium.

 

A few of the plaques have different shaped eyes than the unique round ones found on the angels. “If we know what someone looked like in real life then we try to make that plaque more realistic, like the one of Pope John Paul II,” said Benedict

Van Doorslaer’s sense of humor is evident in some of his creations such as “Jesus in a Jeep” or the group of angels playing cards.

Folk-art style Madonnas are for sale at the abbey ceramics shop.

Folk-art style Madonnas are for sale at the abbey ceramics shop.

There are Madonnas, occupational angels, saints, musicians and sports angels and special plaques commemorating unique events, such as a wedding or a retirement.

Benedict said “We make more saints that anybody else in the world.”

The ceramics studio at the abbey has about 500 designs and creates 40,000 to 50,000 pieces a year. There are 900 retailers from Canada to England that carry the line, plus mail order and internet sales.

The youthful monk designs all the the ceramics and carves the original molds. Workmen apply the clay to the mold and cut it out by hand. It is fired once, painted one color at a time then fired again at a higher temp.

van Doorslaer works on the new sign for the abbey.

van Doorslaer works on the new sign for the abbey.

Volunteers put together gift baskets for the festival at St. Andrews Abbey.
Volunteers put together gift baskets.

St. Andrew’s Abbey
Founded in 1956 by nine Benedictine monks who were exiled from China, the monastery now accommodates over twenty members and opens its doors to others.

“We are a monastery that has a Retreat Center for people who want to enjoy the peace, silence, and rhythm of life of the monks who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.”

There are weekday retreats — both overnight and day only; weekend retreats — both private and groups, as well as days of reflection (Tuesdays through Thursdays).

The monks offer spiritual counseling, a Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, program directors on specific topics for your group, preached retreats and silent, non-directed retreats.

 


Today's Desert Artists
The Strange Tale of the Lady in Blue

Other Photo-Stories by Lara Hartley

Cassini Call Home: Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex
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Intimate Landscapes

      
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