Sister Fran Ault glides blue, yellow, and purple pastels across manila paper. Her blue eyes dart behind her tortoiseshell glasses. They glance at my head.
"You have a lot of yellow, which means a vibrant mental life," she says. Sister Fran, a Dominican nun, says that she can interpret the color auras she intuitively senses around people. "Auras are the energies that the right brain picks up as colors," she explains. "Murky colors are unhealthy. The clearer the colors, the more positive the energy."
She shows me the paper on which she has just sketched my aura. It is completely round, with yellow, blue, and purple flame-shaped swirls. "The blue is sensitivity to people, and purple means creativity," she says, writing these definitions under the colors.
Sister Fran, dressed in a T-shirt and maroon pants, perches comfortably on a chair at Saint Barnabas, the south-side convent where she lives. "I was an art teacher at Visitation High School in 1981, when an English teacher said her poems contained colors because she saw people as colors. I said, 'I know what you mean.' We talked about that the whole afternoon, and the next day--we had the whole school drawing the colors of personalities." At the time, she saw her ability as "a fun, curiosity thing." She read auras at fairs and art shows for a dollar. Her readings were so well received that she began giving talks on auras at women's clubs and art centers, and even read auras at an annual gathering for her order. "As long as I don't usurp God's position and try to control people's lives, my religious community sees nothing wrong with my aura readings."
Sister Fran says she has presented more than 110 aura workshops, most of which are attended by eight to ten people. She charges $20, which she donates to the Dominican sisters' retirement fund.
"Auras can appear anywhere around the body, but I mainly see them around the head," she says. She was seven the first time she saw one. "Very bright and clear blue and red colors just surrounded my father's head. I knew that the blue meant sensitivity and the red stood for physical strength. I just thought that's the way things were." But it was years before she had the beginnings of an explanation for what she was seeing. According to Elizabeth Fuller's Everyone Is Psychic, an electromagnetic halo around the body can be photographed with infrared film.
Sister Fran flicks back her close-cropped gray hair as she lists colors and the aura meanings she attaches to them: "Green is calm; brown is practical; black, solitude; white, change; pink, nurturing; gray, nonemotional." She believes the intensity of the colors is also significant. "Light green is shyness, olive green is sadness, forest green is practical creativity," she says. "The color interpretations may differ with some people, but the qualities are usually the same. I once did an aura workshop with a psychic, and he picked up the same things I did, even though our individual interpretations were different.
"Basically I try to help people celebrate their lives through my aura readings. I don't touch on anything medical or psychological, because I don't have the training for that."
Sister Fran graduated in 1956 from Saint Xavier College with a bachelor's in art. "God had given me a gift for doing art, and I wanted to use it to help people," she says. After graduation she entered a Dominican convent to begin training as a nun. "I really thought I wasn't good enough. I thought nuns didn't have to struggle to be good."
She is now an art teacher at Saint Martin de Porres High School. "I read the kids' auras, and there's only one faculty person who can't accept it. She doesn't think nuns should do things like auras."
Sister Fran says she constantly fights stereotypes about what nuns should and shouldn't do. "People always think that our lives are so dull because we're nuns. It's not that way at all--we travel and have interesting assignments." Yet her students don't seem to harbor such notions. "I was flipping through my date book, and one of the senior boys came up behind me. He saw my schedule and said, 'I wish I were doing all those things.' Can you imagine a teenage boy saying that to a nun?"
A glimpse inside Sister Fran's convent would probably change many people's views about nuns. They sit at their long wooden dinner table and discuss everything from sex education ("We used to teach it with a red and blue pencil," says one sister, laughing) to current movies. They dress in everything from jeans to coordinated outfits.
Half of the ten nuns Sister Fran lives with have asked her to read their auras, which she says they've described as "interesting." Sister Fran appreciates their acceptance of her life-style. She grew up on the south side in the 40s and remembers when Catholics were not noted for such liberal thinking. "I grew up on Vernon Avenue, where there were a lot of Lutheran Swedes and some Irish Catholics. In those days Catholics had this attitude of 'us against the world.' I remember arguing with my little Lutheran friends that if you aren't Catholic, you won't go to heaven. But my father always taught me never to make fun of the beliefs of others."
She still follows her father's advice. She realizes that her aura readings attract people with various beliefs, and says that her clients don't have to believe in auras or even Catholicism. Yet she says most of them come for the same reason. "People who are looking for direction spiritually and emotionally want their auras read."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.