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Art People: Jerry Bleem, redeemer of garbage



It takes a long time for Father Jerry Bleem to answer the bell. It rings somewhere deep in the empty building, a long walk from the friary door. Saint Paschal's, an Oak Brook school that became a home for 90 retired Franciscans, is soon to be sold to the Du Page County Forest Preserve District. Only Father Bleem and four other brothers live here now, rattling around in its vastness, tending to its needs until the order finally shucks it off.

Jerry Bleem came to this place 17 years ago as a novice. In those days he wanted to be a minister, a pastor with a parish. He tried it. By the mid-1980s he was back at Saint Paschal's trying to figure out what was missing from his life. He fooled around with pottery, served as a design consultant to tradition-bound parish rehab committees. When a ruptured disk put him out of commission long enough to dwell on it, he vowed to get serious about art.

Bleem enrolled in an MFA program at the School of the Art Institute and soon began to see popular religious art with new eyes. "Before I went to school, I would have made fun of this," he says, pointing to the collection of crosses, Madonnas, and Sacred Hearts that decorate his studio. "Now I realize these objects don't have to be personally significant for me." From the wall above, a half dozen Jesuses gaze tenderly down on him, their exposed hearts aflame. "I see them as historic documents," he continues, "which is also why I collect vestments."

By the end of the 19th century, Roman Catholic mass had evolved from its origins as a group activity to a sort of operatic performance. While parishioners watched, the sacraments were performed by clergymen dressed in elaborate brocades, lush velvets, and intricately embroidered silks. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, sought to change all that, demystifying the service, bringing the people back into active participation. The elaborate outfits became passe. They were stashed in closets, then began to disappear. "I think people actually pitched 'em," says Bleem (looking, in jeans and T, more like a Gap model than a priest). "We closed a 125-year-old parish in Chicago, for example, and couldn't find a single fiddleback [chasuble], though they were worn into the 1960s and there should have been lots. I suspect they were burned or tossed. They became garbage."

He's brought out two long wardrobe boxes. Bleem began collecting these costumes when he fell heir to garments and scraps salvaged by another friar, a tailor, now dead. The contents of these boxes are spectacular: a gold-trimmed overgarment, called a dalmatic, of silken crimson velvet; another, an angel-decked, art deco woven chasuble that looks like polished brass; another with hand-painted leather trim, stiff as a sandwich board. There are accessories--stoles and maniples and burses--and the decorative bands called galloons and orphreys, all enhanced with embroidery fine enough for fine art--embellishment on the embellishments, a profusion of lace, sequins, beads, and braid.

"More is better. That's the aesthetic," Bleem says. "This was about making beautiful garments, worthy of worship. And it was also about separation. Keeping those who are holy and doing the worship apart from those who are merely observing. What the hell to do with them, I don't know, but at least they're not in the garbage."

The garbage is where he turns, however, for his supplies. His work is a redemption of the humblest fibers--found pieces of cardboard, scraps of paper, photographs. He waxes them, tears them into bits, staples them into new shapes. Corrugated boxes are resurrected as fossil-like vessels, riddled with staples (as many as 30,000 in one piece), complex as the surface of a shell. People have told him some look like human organs, strangely out of their element. A pancreas, say, making its own way in the world, disembodied as a Sacred Heart. Most, humped and hollow, suggest something more like an empty chrysalis, the battered home of a spirit that has long since moved on.

Jerry Bleem will move to a friary in Cicero this summer, where he will work part-time in the Franciscan vocation office. Some vestments from his collection are included in "Ritual Raiment: Liturgical and Fraternal Order Vestments, 1850-1950," an exhibit curated by Lou Cabeen and showing at the Arts Club of Chicago, 109 E. Ontario, through June 23. Hours are 10:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday, 10:30 to 4:30 Saturday. Call 787-3997 for more information. Bleem's sculpture will be on display in "Content/Container," a group show at the Textile Arts Centre, 916 W. Diversey (929-5655), June 25 through August 14. Hours are noon to 5 Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 5 Saturday. Both shows are free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith, Michael Tropea.

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