Irma Susanne Wagner, a Jamaica Plain artist, died peacefully at her home April 28. She was 81 and had courageously lived with Parkinson’s disease for over a decade.
Irma was well known for her annual calendar, which she published for 15 years. From 1996 to 2010 she created a calendar of her art “accompanied by the words of chosen writers to inspire us on our way.” A retrospective of her calendars was held at the Connolly Branch of the Boston Public Library in 2011.
With her appreciation for and belief in the power of nature, she was for many years a participant in women’s ritual circles celebrating the cycles of the seasons and gratitude for the gifts and beauty of the Earth.
Irma was deeply involved in the antiwar, civil rights, and anti-nuclear movements from the 1960s onward. She supported the Milwaukee 14, who in 1968 destroyed draft board files while reading the Gospel to protest the Vietnam War. For many years Irma publicized and supported the work of Jim Harney, a former priest who as photojournalist documented the poor, “the excluded, the undocumented,” particularly in the Americas.
Her art was inspired in part by walks in Franklin Park, the Arnold Arboretum and Forest Hills Cemetery and around Jamaica Pond, and in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood where she lived for 36 years. No one loved her Boston home more than Irma, and her view from the third floor window of the triple-decker inspired several of her most memorable prints. Her block print designs were used by the Women’s Lunch Place, the Poor People’s United Fund, the Haymarket People’s Fund, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and Jamaica Plain Open Studios, among others.
Born in 1931 in Pine Creek, Pa., a rural area north of Pittsburgh, to John Leo and Ilma Emilie Scheid Wagner, Irma joined the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1949, where she took the name Sister Susanne. She remained with the order until 1975. While in the convent, she trained to be a teacher, studying first at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, and later earning a master’s degree in art at Notre Dame University in Indiana. It was through the encouragement of a drawing teacher at Notre Dame that “I began to have opinions,” she once recalled. She taught in schools in Pittsburgh and in New England, including St. Francis Xavier School, Weymouth, Mass.; St. Cecelia’s School, Stamford, Conn.; and Sacred Heart School, Kingston, Mass.
Following on the changes of the Vatican II Council, in 1974 Irma moved out into a smaller house in the community with several other sisters and friends, finally settling in her home in a triple-decker in Jamaica Plain in 1977. For 14 years, she served as the administrator at the Church of the Covenant in Boston. Subsequently, after teaching English in Cuba for a year, Irma began her full-time art career. In her later years the calendar and greeting cards with her prints of flowers, birds, trees and other subjects became her primary means of support. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 70.
Irma was predeceased by her sister Irene and by her brothers James and Edward. She is survived by her brothers Roy and his wife Doris; Arthur and his wife Lois Jean; her sisters-in-law Eleanore and Mary; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews and grand- and great-grand-nephews and nieces. She is also celebrated and beloved by a wide circle of friends.
A celebration of her life will be scheduled this summer in Jamaica Plain.