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Artistic talents combine with religious vocation

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
McKnight Journal
Sister Dolores Conley, at right, talks Beth Polen of West View through one of the first stages of paper making during a class Sister Dolores was teaching at the St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Polen is the mother of one of the students who took the class. Photo: Dona S. Dreeland|McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Grace Doerfler, 13, of West View, in front, prepares to catch some sodden linter onto the screen, while teacher Sister Dolores Conley shows Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township how to tap a paper sheet out of its frame and onto towels. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Sister Dolores Conley, at left, watches as Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, taps out a wet sheet of paper on dry bath towels. When the paper is flat, Christina will press out the extra water. The paper-making class was part of Sister Dolores’ schedule of classes held at the St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View, at left, and Emma Polen, 10, of West View watch cotton linter swirl in the blender. They took part in Sister Dolores Conley’s paper-making class at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center held during their winter break from school. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Mary Doerfler, 11, at left, and Emma Polen, 10, both of West View, add dimensions to their paper sheet by including zigzag edging and narrow ribbons. Both girls attended Sister Dolores Conley’s paper-making class at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View, in front, and Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, take their handmade paper sheets through the final stage: ironing out the remaining moisture. The girls, both veterans of other paper-making classes, took part in Sister Dolores Conley’s lesson at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Sister Dolores Conley instructs her students in the steps for making paper as the students, from left, Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township; Grace, Doerfler, 13, and Mary Doerfler, 11, both of West View; and Emma Polen, 10, of West View, listen. Sister Dolores teaches a number of art classes in many media for children and adults at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View, at left, and Emma Polen, 10, of West View use a hot iron to steam away the last bits of moisture in their handmade paper sheet. They took part in Sister Dolores Conley’s paper making class at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center held during winter break. Photo: Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Three students, from left, Emma Polen, 10, of West View; Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View; and Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, break apart cotton linter in the water, the first step in paper making. They and Grace Doerfler, 13, of West View, took part in one of Sister Dolores Conley’s art classes held at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Photo: Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, catches water-logged linter on a screen to make a sheet of paper. She chose to mix pink and blue linter to make a soft purple shade. Christina was one of the students participating in Sister Dolores Conley’s paper-making class held at St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. Photo: Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal
McKnight Journal
Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View, at left, and Emma Polen, 10, of West View place a second paper shape atop a wet rectangle of blue paper. They took part in Sister Dolores Conley’s paper-making class at the St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center held during winter break from school. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal

If there's another kind of artistic expression out there in the world, Sister Dolores Conley is likely to find it, learn about it — and then teach it.

The 69-year-old sister who lives at the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh monastery in Ross Township has brought her love of the arts and her talents to St. Athanasius Parish Education & Community Center in West View. If adults or children want to try their hands at fiber arts, drawing or painting, there are classes for those subjects during the winter session. Making handmade paper and calligraphy also are on the center's schedule.

Sister Dolores discovered art early. She loved coloring books as a child, she said, and was able to stay in the lines in the pictures she transformed from their black and white outlines.

“I knew to color the way the colors were,” she said, and won compliments from her parents and extra attention from her elementary school teachers in Hazelwood, a Pittsburgh neighborhood.

By grade seven or eight, she was taking classes in fashion drawing in Pittsburgh's East Liberty.

While she was certain of her interest in art, she wasn't sure how she could tie it and her religious vocation together. But she pursued both when she attended the academy on the monastery grounds as a high school freshman. In 1962, she became a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh.

“My dreams were fulfilled in a way,” she said.

She pursued degrees, first at La Roche College in McCandless and then at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, before eventually earning a master's degree in art education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“The more I knew, the more I could teach,” Sister Dolores aid.

She taught in local grade schools and brought her fascination with the art world to her students, just as she does today. Her favorites are ceramics and paper making.

Student Mary Doerfler, 11, of West View enjoys the art of paper making, as well.

“It's messy in a fun way,” said Mary, eager to begin her second paper-making class with Sister Dolores.

“It feels so cool to know how what we use so often is made.”

The steps are simple: Blend cotton linter with water, pour the pulp on a framed screen, pat out the shape on a towel, and press out the water. When the sheet takes its shape, it's time to iron out the extra moisture.

“Anything with fibers can become paper,” Sister Dolores explained — even wasp nests.

As the students — and two mothers — created their paper pieces, the teacher moved from bin to towel to ironing board to supervise their progress.

“This is fun,” said Christina Koman, 12, of Ross Township, at the beginning of the lesson.

Having taken a paper-making class at Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Christina found some aspects of this afternoon to be new. Happily, she went home with a pretty purple sheet.

Sister Dolores said she enjoys interactions with each of her students, no matter their age.

“What I hope for the students is to enjoy an area of art they're not familiar with,” she said.

“Then, they can explain it to somebody else, display it or give it as a gift.”

The art of writing also has attracted Sister Dolores. She has written two books: “Bitsy and Big Leaf” and “Bitsy's Strange Adventures.” Bitsy is a tiny leaf that longs to explore the world. Along the way, he learns more and more about nature and himself. Sister Dolores' words and drawings tell the tales.

Sister Dolores also has a dance background. She added the art of liturgical dance to her repertoire in the 1970s. This was a natural transition from her ballet studies, she said. Using motions, steps and pirouettes, the parts of the Catholic liturgy are acted out.

“It's really a prayer,” Sister Dolores said. “That's what it should be to lift people up.”

Being creative does just that and can do something more.

“Every talent God has given us, we should use to praise him,” Sister Dolores said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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