West View Benedictine Sister combines love of art and education

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Sister Donna Wojtyna knows firsthand that having a career as an artist isn’t easy. The Benedictine Sister and former school teacher has been working as a full-time artist since the early 1980s.

“For three years, I really struggled, but I’ve been very fortunate and it worked out,” she said.

As a Benedictine Sister, she received a master’s degree from Kent State University in art education with a minor in fine arts and sculpture.

“After I finished at Kent State, I asked if I could open a studio and I was told yes, that if I could bring in as much money as I did with teaching, I could do it,” Sister Donna said

She sells handmade baskets and wood carvings and teaches classes at St. Athanasius Community Center in West View. Her baskets also are featured at Old Economy Village in Ambridge.

“The baskets are beautiful and unique,” said Sarah Buffington, curator for Old Economy Village. “We had her make reproductions of some of the baskets that are in our original collection to feature in our shop.” 

Sister Donna created smaller versions of baskets that the original Harmonists who lived in the village had made for utilitarian uses. The 7- to 8-inch baskets are sold for $35 at the shop.

“We want to stock items in the store that represent the Harmonists’ lives, and Sister Donna’s baskets are a wonderful example of this,” Ms. Buffington said.

Making and selling her artwork and teaching is a dream come true for Sister Donna. Just as she always knew she wanted to be a nun, Sister Donna said she always knew she wanted to be an artist.

“I’ve been very blessed with my artistic talents. Even in grade school, I would make the bulletin boards for the Sisters at school,” she said.

Sister Donna grew up in the Perrysville section of Ross and attended St. Teresa of Avila School, where she fell in love with the Benedictine Sisters.

“I think I knew from first grade up that I wanted to be a Sister. I was only 13 when I left home to go to the convent,” she said.

She attended La Roche College, where all of the Benedictine Sisters went for higher education. She majored in education but took art classes. She transferred and completed her degree in art education from Carlow College, now Carlow University, before receiving her master’s degree from Kent.

Combining her background in education with her love of art, Sister Donna began teaching art classes “of every kind.”

“I was teaching everything – drawing, painting, everything,” she said.

When she spotted an article in a magazine about basket making, it caught her eye.

“I ordered all of these materials and when they arrived, I just started teaching myself how to make them,” she said. When her students began to admire her work, she decided to teach them how to make baskets.

“They were my inspiration. They wanted to know more and more, and I had to learn it to teach them,” she said.

Sister Donna now teaches several basket-making classes and has her studio at the Community Center. In addition to the baskets at Old Economy, she sells her baskets online and at the Benedictine Sisters monastery in Richland.

“No. 1, Sister Donna is one of the most caring, nurturing people that I know and she makes everyone feel TLC, even when they are making baskets. And No. 2, she can teach anyone how to make a basket,” Patrice Mikec, director of the community center, said.

Sister Donna proved her teaching skills with Mrs. Mikec’s mother, Blanca Egan-Wyer, before Mrs. Mikec’s mother died. 

“My mother had had a stroke, and Sister taught her how to make baskets,” Mrs. Mikec said. “She is a wonderful, wonderful teacher.” 

Sister Donna also enjoys wood carving, but that art form isn’t in demand as much as her baskets and teaching.

“Wood carving is my deep love, but I knew that I couldn’t make a living. I still carve and teach carving classes once a month,” she said.

In addition to her classes, Sister Donna enjoys doing outreach programming with her baskets.

“I lead retreats and will also do presentations to groups such as garden clubs,” she said. Sister Donna also shows her collectible basket collection during her presentations.

As she has developed a following, Sister Donna is grateful for her students and customers.

“It has been a struggle, but so worth it,” she said. “I love to think I can bring the love of God to people through teaching and art. I am so blessed to do this.” 

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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