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Bowed Heads (The Kneeling Nun)

Categories: Arts

March 7, 2020

'Bowed Heads' original painting on canvas board by Barbara White, Silver City, New Mexico

In 2000, I was hired to work at a fine art gallery in Las Vegas.  Except for photography, I knew very little about visual arts.  I was hired as a photographer, and for my computer and technical skills.

During my 12 years there, I was involved in research of hundreds of works by such masters as Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, Miró, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and so many others.

Among my various duties was to filter all the emailed solicitations by artists around the world hoping to find gallery representation.  I saw thousands of images of their art - mostly paintings, but sometimes drawings, sculptures, and other media.  Most were average.  Some were impressive.  Many were dismal.  A few were scary.  From this, I began to see why the masters were masters, and the rest were just artists.

Rewind to my childhood, c.1963.  While on a road-trip vacation with my family, we visited my aunt, Barbara White, in Silver City, New Mexico.  She was an impressionist, and worked in a variety of media - paintings, drawings, pastels, and even jewelry made from minerals such as turquoise.  She was the first president of Grant County [New Mexico] Art Guild.

During our visit, she took us to various southern New Mexico attractions, such as Carlsbad Caverns, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, City of Rocks, the Catwalk, and one place near Santa Rita known as the Kneeling Nun, a scene which my aunt had painted.

As a boy, I remember hearing criticisms of her paintings because of the colors she used.  Yes, her color choices were unusual, but that made her art unique.  I liked her style then, and I like it now.

When my mother passed away in 2012, her estate included some of Barbara White's paintings, including my favorite, the painting of the Kneeling Nun.  I was surprised that this painting had fallen into my hands; that no one had snatched it up when they had the chance.

"Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," as the saying goes.

This painting, entitled Bowed Heads, is one of my most cherished possessions - partly because it was created by my aunt who was so kind to my family while we were visiting, partly because of the subject, but mostly because I think it's just a beautiful painting.  While it hangs prominiently on my wall, very few people have the opportunity to see it and appreciate it the way I do.  My photographs don't do it justice, but I decided to post the images here anyway (below).

The painting is, I believe, oil, but may be acrylic.  I haven't been able to determine that yet.  It is signed "Barbara White", lower right.  The canvas board measures 12 inches by 16 inches.  The frame is 161/8 by 201/8 inches.

The subject is the rock formation, commonly known as the Kneeling Nun, near Santa Rita, New Mexico, with the desert landscape, including the "bowed heads" of the yucca plants, in the foreground.

On the back is the title and notes, "'Bowed Heads', (Kneeling Nun / Santa Rita, N.M.) by Barbara White / Silver City NM", hand-written with black ink, presumably by Mrs. White.

Also attached, verso, is a copy of The Story of the Kneeling Nun, a 1909 poem by Walter Sellers (his title is actually The Legend of the Kneeling Nun).  Here it is:

The Legend of the Kneeling Nun

This is the tale as they tell it. How in the days of old.
Came the explorer and the soldier; seeking the glitter of Gold.
Robbing and burning and killing, all in the name of the King.
Eyes agleam for the honors men to the Conqueror bring.

After them came the Fathers, close on the steps they trod;
Holding aloft the sign of the Faith, chanting the Glory of God;
Gentle were they, and tender, healing the wounds of pain;
Left by the sword and fireguard of the pitiless hand of Spain;


This is the tale as they tell it; How by the Aztec trail;
They built an Indian Mission, the Knights of the Holy Grail;
Here in the desert they labored, teaching the Truth and the Light;
Showing the ways of another race to the savage sons of night;


Fairest of all the workers was the Sister Teresa the Nun;
Teaching the Indian children quickly their hearts she won;
Soon through the desert country where'er spread the Mission's fame;
Even the gurgling infants were trying to lisp her name.


This is the tale as they tell it; How Diego the Soldier came;
Staggering into the courtyard, weary and sore and lame;
Leagues had he crawled through the desert, seeking a kindly hand;
Last of all his comrades, dead in the new-found land;


Then through the long days of sickness, quietly there by his bed;
Watched the Sister Teresa, cooling his fevered head;
And while he raved of his tortures, there through the night;
Faithful, kindly and patient she watched for the coming light;


This is the tale as they tell it; How Diego's eyes grew clear;
And gleamed anew with a shining light when the Sister nurse was near;
Hours would they talk together-he with his stories of strife;
Strange to her quiet seclusion, these tales of the struggle of life;


So did their hearts grow fonder, till ever she bore in her mind;
The name of Diego the Soldier, and love to her vows was blind;
Till at last in his arms they found her, eyes like stars above;
Shining into the depths of her lover's breathing the life of Love;


This is the tale as they tell it: How on that fatal day;
Stripped of the Garb of her Order they turned the Sister Teresa away;
Forth to the desert she wandered and built an altar of stone;
There she knelt in her suffering, at last with her God alone;


Then came the storm and darkness-madly the thunder crashed;
Loud rolled the earth in its anger-cruel the lightning flashed;
And oft through the night to the Mission was borne her piteous cry;
"O, Madre de Dios! Thy mercy on such as I!"


This is the tale as they tell it: How with the coming of light;
There where had been an altar, a mountain had grown in the night;
While before it was Kneeling-so saw the Mission flock;
The Sister Teresa of yesterday, turned to eternal rock.


So in the desert country, through all the length of the days;
Kneeling before her altar, for the erring souls she prays;
Oft when the storm is raging, they hear her piteous cry;
"O, Madre de Dios! Thy Mercy on such as I!"

Barbara Smith White was born on March 9, 1914, and died on December 15, 1981.  She was survived by her husband, my uncle, a true cowboy, Thomas M. White, who passed in 1994.  She was interred at Memory Lane Cemetery, Silver City, Grant County, New Mexico, USA.

Bowed Heads, framed
Bowed Heads, upper right
Bowed Heads, lower left
Bowed Heads, lower right
Bowed Heads, The Kneeling Nun
Bowed Heads, signed 'Barbara White', lower right
Bowed Heads, verso
Bowed Heads, title (verso)
Bowed Heads, The Legend of the Kneeling Nun (verso)

"If you can't say something nice, let's hear it!"   — Joan Rivers

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