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Sample of my work from the class on my handmade linen paper w/ onion skins inclusions

Whisk me away to a place by the sea, where I can relish my peace, dream my dreams, and make art…

That was indeed my plan when I decided to slip away for a workshop on illuminated manuscripts at St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island. Ender’s Island is undeniably the closes thing to a far away land one is likely to find on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. With its stony sea wall and ancient looking gardens, it is a compound that comprises about eight buildings crowned by a twentieth century arts and crafts style mansion. Named after the former owner Thomas Enders, the beautiful 12-acre island sits in Fisher's Island Sound, at the mouth of the Mystic River, just off the quaint seaport of Mystic, Connecticut. Ender’s is connected to the mainland through Mason’s Island by the tiniest causeway I have ever seen.

St. Edmund's Retreat, which occupies the entire island, is an independent ministry that provides spiritual development, adult education as well as a sacred arts program. As a papermaker and novice calligrapher, I have long been interested in and collected samples of illuminated manuscripts. In the traditional sense, illumination means the creation of elaborate, decorated letters and initials, which reached it apogee in the monasteries of medieval Europe.

Embellished with gold leaf, the illuminated letters of those early scribes seemed to reflect light, as thought they were indeed “illuminated,”(1) hence the name. Today however, artist like Donald Jackson, creator of the St. John’s Bible,* (Book of the Prophets, one of five volumes available, above left) and Ellen Frank (, with her “Cities of Peace” project (, have taken illumination and the sacred to a whole new level which feels very exciting to me as a mixed media artist.

…So, we arrived at Enders at dusk, just as the fog was obscuring what lay beyond the tiny causeway… Ever the adventurer I took courage and drove across anyway to find a magical place that time had seemingly left behind…. But make no mistake about it, St. Edmunds is firmly planted in the twenty-first century. In fact the retreat runs like a well oiled machine – clean comfortable rooms, morning mass daily (optional), meticulous grounds with many places for quiet reflection, and, wonderfully prepared meals three times a day. (None of us attending the workshop were quite prepared for the sumptuous creations that include homemade jams, fresh fruits and salads, baked goods daily, local seafood, and an assortment of the chief’s own uniquely prepared specialties).

Standing: Instructor: Jed Gibbons, calligrapher: Dianne (Dee) Condon, artist/photographer: Leonora Brooks, Instructor: Valerie Weilmuenster, Seated are artist: Paulanne Townsend, and me -- just after our last sumptuous breakfast... Alas all good things must end...
From Memphis, New York, and New Jersey, four of us came to learn the secrets of “Manuscripts Illumination & Gilding” from Valerie Weilmuenster (a master illuminator and engrosser (another term used to describe those who create elaborate calligraphy and legal/important documents)), and Jed Gibbons (a well known designer and illustrator who focuses on the ancient art of Illumination and other sacred art designs, his work can be seen in many houses of worship such as the floor design of St John Cantius in Chicago, Illinois (seen below) and the Stations of the Cross in Our Lady of the Assumption Chapel on Enders Island).

Saint John Cantius

Study under Valerie and Jed was pure delight as they focused as much on the spiritual aspect of what they taught as the technical. From them we learned to value connecting our hearts to the medium, tools and the sacred possibilities of design. The week long class began every day at 10:00 am and finished at 5:00 pm with open studios in the evenings. I marveled at how they were able to help us digest centuries old processes and skills in such a short period of time. Which, they did by reducing every detail into short manageable increments. The entire experience was a bit more intense than I had anticipated, but I don’t think any serious artist would begrudge the discipline. Without question the classes, on the expensive side, are well worth the investment. Certainly worth a look for book artist, calligraphers, papermakers or mixed media-ites like myself.

I traveled to Ender’s with fellow artist and photographer Leonora Brooks, who captured the week in a wonderful portfolio of images. See Ender’s through her eyes here by clicking the following link:

(Also, there are more of my own beautiful images of the island available from the top menu bar under  “PHOTO ALBUMS”. Please click on “Ender’s Island” and “Mystic, CT” to see them).

Sample of my work from the class: my own version of the traditional "White Vine" design,
on my handmade linen paper w/onion skins inclusions

REFERENCE INFO:St. Edmunds sacred art classes includes; various calligraphy courses, iconography, marble mosaics, wood carving, stained glass techniques, and even Gregorian Chanting. However, there is a variety of other types of retreat programs available, just check out the website for details: The grounds are also open daily for walks and meditations if you find yourself in the area.
Please contact Jed Gibbons and Valerie Weilmuenster; personally for additional information about their work or upcoming class schedules. Both are stationed in the Chicago, Illinois area and teach at other locations throughout the US if you are not able to travel to Enders.
* The St. John's Bible (the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in 500 years) was commissioned by the monks of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The sixth and final volume is due out in the Spring of 2010. You can learn more about the Bible at: . Also See the DVD version of: "In The Beginning" & "The Illuminator" a PBS/BBC documentary on Donald Jackson and the making of the St. John's Bible.
See actual original pages February 15 - May 10, 2009 Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland. On display are: Prophets and Wisdom Books (Check for additional exhibit dates and locations).

Related Resources:
St. Edmunds Retreat Center on Ender’s Island
British Museum’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (great on-line resource):

For some of the supplies used in course:
(There are a wealth of other resources on this subject, you can simple Google "Illuminated Manuscripts" to begin your own reference file).

(1) The Bible of Illuminated Letters, A Treasury of Decorative Calligraphy, Margaret Morgan, 2006. Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge, New York


  1. You did a great job describing everything. I especially liked your shots of the island! Really beautiful. I am trying to work it out to go back in November to the icon class.

  2. Thank you -- the island such a beautiful place, I hope I was able to capture some of that. Please let me know when you are going to be in the area so we can plan to get together. Blessings,

  3. Ros,
    How do you find these magical, spiritual, teaching places?!? Thank you for sharing this.
    Eileen E.

  4. I visited St. Edmund's on Enders Island for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and fell in love with it! I especially loved Jed Gibbon's illuminated stations of the cross in the chapel, and came across your blog while doing a Google search for information about his art. Really enjoyed reading about your experience there, and seeing your photos. Couldn't find the link to your other photos, though - is that still around? Regards, Heidi Thibodeau

  5. Hi Heidi;

    Thanks for stopping by and letting me know that about the photos link. I have added it back to my blog on the top menu bar. Jed's work is really amazing, but sometimes hard to find as he does not spend too much time on-line. Good luck.


  6. I also came upon your site by chance. It was nice hearing about your
    experience at Enders. I have traveled from the West Coast three times
    to study with Jed - he is incredible. As far as the island goes - it is the
    closest thing I can imagine to heaven. The piece you did on your hand
    made paper is beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and bringing back happy memories.

  7. Thank you for your post. The illustrations are magical


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