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The Artist in the Cloister: The Life and Works of Father Dunstan Massey

By Daphne Sleigh

Review By Maria Tippett

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 242-44

Art and Roman Catholicism have, for most of the church’s long history, gone hand in hand. And Roman Catholic churches, schools, and abbeys in British Columbia are no exception. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the work of artists Sisters Mary Osithe and Marie Helene de la Croix adorned the walls of Victoria’s St Anne’s Academy. From the middle of the last century, Father Dunstan has produced frescos and paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows for the Westminster Priory in Burnaby, and then for Westminster Abbey in Mission. And this is not all. Dunstan is an accomplished pianist, the author of several plays and poems, and the creator of films and multi-media events.

Bill Massey was born in Vancouver in 1924 to a modestly successful businessman and his French Canadian wife. The couple’s early separation saw Bill and his mother move to the east end of the city. Bill might have remained there had not Isabelle Burnada, an internationally known mezzosoprano, and Amy Buckerfield, a wealthy philanthropist, heard about the boy’s musical and artistic ability. These women paid for young Bill’s music lessons. They subsidized his instruction at the Vancouver School of Art and later at the Academy of Applied and Fine Art. They saw to it that he visited the studios of local artists like former Group of Seven member, Lawren Harris. And when Bill had accumulated a substantial body of work, they helped him show it at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He was sixteen years old.

The art critics made much of Bill Massey’s east-end-of-the-city upbringing. And they praised him for not succumbing to Modernist art. What Bill’s critics and patrons did not know, however, was that in two years time, Bill Massey would renounce a career in art and music and enter the Benedictine Order, where, as Daphne Sleigh tells us in The Artist in the Cloister: The Life and Works of Father Dunstan Massey, “he would feel at home in a community that set high value on art and music and literacy” (61).

For his part, Father Dunstan could not have foreseen that he would initially be encouraged to paint in the austere late nineteenth century Beuronese style. That he would sometimes be told what to paint. That carelessness would occasionally result in the destruction of his work. And that prior to the construction of the Order’s abbey in Mission, Abbot Eugene would make “a tour to study world art and architecture,” instead of sending the artist who would produce the artwork for the new building (180).

It took a great deal of single-mindedness and tenacity for Father Dunstan to oversee these and other difficulties. Even so, he thinks that “The monastic life has been a blessing . . . because it removed me from the mainstream of modern art” (192). This is true. Throughout his long career, Father Dunstan’s stylistic touchstones have remained William Blake and Picasso, Salvador Dali and the Old Masters. His favourite subjects have, equally, remained death, purgatory, and the Resurrection.

Daphne Sleigh regrets that Father Dunstan’s work is not better known — and if he was better known, she has no doubt that he would be among the province’s most distinguished artists. This is an ambitious claim for someone whose work is largely derivative. Even so, one cannot fail to admire what Father Dunstan has accomplished within the parameters of sacred iconography. His output has been, and will continue to be, enormous. And Father Dunstan’s following, thanks to Daphne Sleigh’s well-researched book, will no doubt increase.

The Artist in the Cloister: The Life and Works of Father Dunstan Massey
By Daphne Sleigh 
Victoria: Heritage House, 2013. 208 pp. $26.95 paper