Jo Israelson with her handmade breviaries featuring paper she made from recycling 40 years of journals.

Artist Jo Israelson was stuck. 

She had just finished an extensive, two-year art installation project called “Welcoming the Stranger.” She had fallen from some scaffolding and needed to heal from a broken ankle. Her mother died. She was creatively, physically, and emotionally depleted.

She responded by shredding 40 years of journals and turning them into paper pulp — 50 gallons of it. She began to make new paper. She visited the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore, studying the collection of medieval books of hours and other illuminated manuscripts. She began to be inspired by not only bookmaking, but also prayer itself. She looked up Benedictines and discovered the opportunity to become an artist-in-residence at St. Gertrude’s.

“Benedictines are known for prayer,” she said. “As far as I know this is the only Benedictine artist-in-residence program.”

Jo Israelson, a Jewish Quaker, lives in a converted historic firehouse in Maryland and spends her summers in Maine. In addition to her installation work, she also carves stone sculptures and makes documentaries. This June she spent three weeks as a St. Gertrude artist-in-residence.

She thought she was coming to do a project on prayer but with all the issues in the news on borders and children, she began to think about the theme of protection. “Does prayer protect?” she asked. “And what does prayer bring in?” In the top floor sewing room she found a drawer full of thimbles, and felt drawn to them as symbols of protection. She became fascinated by religious Latin terms such as “religare” — which means to “bind” or “protect.”

She did a large drawing of one thimble made by the Household Company, the name she also found symbolic. “A house that holds,” she reflects “…St. Gertrude’s is a house that holds prayer and that has held me.”

She made a breviary, a collapsible book with sayings from the Rule of Benedict and gifted it to the sisters. She made several other books, incorporating the ancient coptic stitch, and then asked the sisters for their ideas on what the content should be. She also found a batch of old frames in the Arts & Crafts Room of the Monastery and set out to fill them with symbols of protection.

Her time included evening walks up the hill to take in the vast skies of the Camas Prairie. She also restricted her intake of the news. After her immense “Welcoming the Stranger” project, friends challenged her to only make what she could fit into a shoebox. Now with a new array of handmade books and drawings she has kept to that.

“St. Gertrude’s has been a gift of time and support,” she said. “I am not stuck anymore.”


Visit the artist’s website:

Read Jo Israelson’s blog, The Stone Path:

Learn more about the “Welcoming the Stranger” project…JOJO

Learn more about becoming a St. Gertrude’s artist-in-residence

A breviary gifted to the sisters.