Sculptor, nun and Anglican priest. Sister Angela's sculptural practice was informed by her religion, her sense of the sacredness of the land and her contemplations on light, space and the materials of her art. In 1975 she began to oversee the construction of a monastery at Stroud, NSW, which was finally dedicated in 1997.
sculptor, nun and Anglican priest, was born in Maitland, NSW, where she spent her childhood. Due to recurrent bronchitis ('I grew too quickly’), she was sent to boarding school in Moss Vale where it was hoped that the air of the southern tablelands would improve her health. Holidays were spent in the company of her two brothers, either roaming the grassy plains of her father’s home country of Moree or in the Hunter Valley droving cattle from Aberglassyn. The sounds, smells and excitement of the bullock teams moving up Maitland High Street to the noise and dust of the saleyards, the crack of the stockmen’s whips and the music of the blacksmith’s forge all left impressions that were to re-emerge in her sculpture.
Solling was always interested in healing work and considered studying medicine but was dissuaded by the prevailing attitude that professional careers were wasted on girls. So in 1945-46 she enrolled at East Sydney Technical College under the sculptor Lyndon Dadswell . Being among the first intake after the war, many of her fellow students had come straight from the army. It was 'an exciting and dynamic time’, an education she valued highly and later claimed was superior to anything she learnt overseas. She made the mandatory pilgrimage to London in 1947. Although rather lonely, she thoroughly enjoyed the world of the Tate Gallery, Bond Street and the latest exhibitions. She studied at the Slade ('the traditional thing to do’) but found it had little to offer her and set up in a studio in Chelsea, where many of her wire sculptures were completed. They were exhibited in 1951 at the Galerie Apollinaire, London.
She returned to Australia in 1952 and had a solo exhibition at David Jones Art Gallery in September. Then followed a freelance period with many commissions for portrait busts, including those of the singer Rosina Raisbeck and author Hans Christian Andersen. The latter, commissioned by the Danish community in 1955, was presented to the City of Sydney and installed in the grounds of Phillip Park. It disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1984. Solling was one of only two women sculptors in the group exhibition held by the Society of Sculptors and Associates at David Jones Art Gallery in 1955, the other being Kathleen Shillam .
She returned to the UK in 1956 with a firm commitment to a religious vocation and entered the closed order of St Clare of Assisi where she remained until returning to Australia in 1975 to found a similar community at Stroud (NSW). She was the energy and guiding force behind the construction of a remarkable group of buildings and chapels built of handmade earth bricks and local timbers. Her sculpture – 'meditations on things you see’ – and her religious faith were never in conflict but worked in harmony to carry the message of St Clare, whom Sister Angela considered one of the earliest feminists.
Aged 66, Sister Angela decided to seek ordination. She was made a deacon, then a priest in 1992. She created a second stage of her monastery, which she planned to open to lay involvement and ministry. Dedicated in 1997, it was named 'Gunya Chiara’ from the Aboriginal word for house and the Italian word for light. She became interested in learning from Aboriginal women, developing ideas about the relationship between Aboriginal Dreaming and the Franciscan tradition and encouraging non-Aboriginal women to spend weekends at the monastery to learn about the sacredness of the land.
An accident with molten wax while Angela was absent from Gunya Chiara resulted in the burning down of the library and of Angela’s workshop and her works in progress. Already in trouble with numbers and over its aims, this sealed the fate of the monastery as a woman-centred place. It became the home of the First Order of Franciscan Brothers at the Hermitage, along with other Anglicans, and is now administered by the Samaritan Foundation, the social care agency of the Diocese of Newcastle. At 74 Angela accepted an offer to become an assistant priest in Church of the Good Shepherd in the diocese of Massachusetts (USA), where she worked with an artist interested in the visually impaired (Brennan). She died from a sudden massive stroke; her funeral service was held in St Philip’s Episcopalian Church, Brevard, North Carolina on 9 February 2002. Her ashes were scattered wide: on the hills of the local riding school for disabled people that was involved in and in Australia: on the hills surrounding the Stroud monastery and in the outback desert. Memorial services were held on 7 March in the Anglican Cathedral, Newcastle, and on 11 May in Gunya Chiara.
Solling/Sister Angela’s sculptures are held both privately and publicly. The Man from Snowy River (1955-56), a wood and copper wire mural, is in the Ashfield Hotel, Sydney, while one of her many sculptures on religious themes is in the Anglican cathedral at Newcastle (NSW). A small collection was included in an exhibition of modernist sculpture at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, UNSWCOFA, c.1999
Contemplation and sculpture were always the dominant forces in the life of Wendy Solling (later Sister Angela). As a child she was more at ease making toys with hammer and chisel than with dolls, having been introduced to tools by her doctor father. At school she chose drawing classes, but found static, still-life arrangements and an emphasis on perspective and shading little to her liking. Dissatisfied and restless, she longed to draw a tree, to catch the movement-'the spiralling thing’-so abandoned her lessons and began to carve straight into her material: fence post, wooden ruler and rifle butt.
As Sister Angela, she considered contemplation to be about shedding the inessentials and reaching back to 'the bare bones of what Clare is about’. Hence her decision to abandon plaster, colour and all embellishment and use the unadorned wire’s sinuous curves for movement and its cast shadows as shading ('we make our own shading’) was a logical development in her art.
It was not so much homesickness as an expatriate’s longing for the spaciousness of the Australian plains and a touch of nostalgia for the droving life – the cuppa over the fence, the swearing and cursing at the stockyards, the 'mystery and the poetry’ in the frosty light of early morning musters – which led her to the use of such icons of national identity as the bullocky, the drover, the shearer and his sheep. She remembers school holidays 'up Moree way’ where in the heat, dust and dryness everything, even clothing, is stripped to the bare minimum. The grasslands with their interminable wire fences are dry, parched expanses, littered with the sun-dried bones of animals: truly 'a land that could dry out the body and spirit’.
Sister Angela shared with the poet Judith Wright not only their images of the archetypal male Australian heroes, the Bullocky and the Drover, but also the same insistence on bone, bare and bleached. Both ignored the bravado of much masculinist representation; for instance, in this case the drover is not presented as a man of action but in a moment of repose, the horse’s head hanging tiredly down (Wright’s 'bone whisper[ing] in the hide’), the insubstantiality of the wire frame an allusion to the passing of an era. In Wright’s 1943 poem the bullocky, too, is rendered vulnerable by obsolescence:
Grass is across the wagon tracks,
and plough strikes bone beneath the grass,
and vineyards cover all the slopes
where the dead teams were used to pass.
The ghosts of dead teams and the fine-drawn shadows of the wire sculptures, now become ghostly mementos, are in marked contrast to the swirling, dusty action in Tom Roberts’s The Breakaway or Adam Lindsay Gordon’s 'running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs’. The figure of the drover, at one with his horse and constantly on the move, thus epitomises the poet’s spiritual journey into the country of the self and the artist’s own search for creative and spiritual identity.