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Famed Sculptor Creates Saintly Dozen

Chicago Daily Herald September 24, 2001

By Lee Carpenter
Daily Herald Correspondent

In an art studio outside Washington, a sculptor takes up a lump of green clay and begins to fashion a hand. Lifted up in a gesture of urgency, it's the hand of John the Baptist, summoning his viewer to repentance. The statue is one of 12 that sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter is creating in his Gaithersburg, Md., studio for the St. Anne Catholic Community Church in Barrington.

"I love the physicality of sculpting," Carpenter says. "It can be subtle and it can be aggressive-there's tremendous variety in any given day."

With the life-size figure largely finished, Carpenter has only the statue's hands to complete. After being roughed out in green clay, they begin to take shape. The work captures the artist at his most creative. Just as the God of the Old Testament molded Adam from the clay of the Earth and breathed life into his nostrils, Carpenter shapes lumps of clay into human forms and refines them until they seem to take life.

When St. Anne's began to look for an artist to create 12 statues of saints and holy people for its new church building, "Jay was the clear winner," says Joe Kelsch, the community's director of campus development. "We looked at a number of sculptors and saw a certain sameness to their work.

"But with Jay's work, we had a great deal of confidence that he would be able to deliver variety. It's a talent a lot of good sculptors don't necessarily have."

Breaking the Mold

Say the word sculptor, and what springs to mind? An unkempt bohemian with a scraggly beard? Perhaps an incense-burning waif dressed in tie-dye?

Instead, think of a trim, well-mannered man with a boyish face. At 42, Carpenter looks more like an aging Michael J. Fox than someone whose life work is creating works of art from lumps of clay. But Carpenter's clean-cut exterior belies the creative energy bubbling inside him.

That energy has helped make Carpenter one of the country's few full-time sculptors. His work adorns cathedrals and museums, public monuments and parish churches, graveyards and the homes of the rich and famous. What puts his work in such demand?

Much of Carpenter's art finds its footing in classical forms. In an age when public sculpture is often more perplexing than beautiful, Carpenter creates figures with physical beauty and underlying significance. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Happel, dean of the School of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, where Carpenter studied, calls this hidden meaning an "implicit theology."

"The contemporary art world is a curious postmodern mix of abstract modernism, post-industrial crash-sites, and figural restorationism," Happel says. "I don't think Jay's work can find categories in that world."

Happel says Carpenter's work "emerges from the beaux-arts modeling of the late 19th century," but it clearly owes something to Rodin in its dramatic shaping and forming of postures. On the other hand, it has a different kind of tentativeness born of the 20th century-this yearning to go beyond."

Happel says the problem with figural public art is that it can become "sentimental or nostalgic. But Jay's work contains this 'religious inwardness.' It avoids nostalgia and sentimentality. It's as though the figures are struggling to go beyond their own skins. They have beauty, but they know their own transience, their transformation into the next phase of their lives."

The Young Artist

Carpenter discovered his artistic talent at an early phase of his own life through painting and drafting. But he says he found "at the age of 17 that sculpture best suited my fingers and my temperament."

It was at that age, when Carpenter had just completed his second year at St. Alban's, the National Cathedral School for Boys, in Washington, D.C., that he created his first sculpture. Carpenter had spent much of his free time in the stone carvers' shed on the grounds of the Episcopal Cathedral. Taking inspiration from the carvers' work, Carpenter took home a wad of green clay and created a gargoyle. The two-foot figure of a gremlin committing hara-kiri so impressed Roger Morigi, the Cathedral's master carver, that he had the piece carved into stone and placed on the building. And in doing so, Morigi launched a career that today is flourishing.

"That's all it took to get me hooked," Carpenter says. "Watching the stone carvers take blocks of limestone and create fantastic characters out of them-gargoyles and grotesques-was incredibly inspiring when I was in my teens. I think there's some core energy that sculpture has for me that the other arts don't."

Carpenter's first gargoyle also impressed Cathedral sculptor Frederick Hart, who would later create the statue of the three soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington. Hart offered Carpenter a summer job as his assistant and became a mentor to the talented teenager. Their professional relationship lasted for 14 years, and through it, Carpenter received his first commission.

A Career Unfolds

"I think my first big break," Carpenter said, "was to receive, through Rick Hart, a commission for St. John's Church, Lafayette Square."

Located across from the White House, the historic Episcopal church has been attended by every U.S. president since James Madison. The church commissioned Carpenter to create a four-and-a- half-foot angel carrying a child for the churchyard columbarium. Unlike his earlier works, which had all been carved in stone, this statue was cast in bronze.

"This was my first bronze commission," Carpenter says. "The sculpture was on the cover of a magazine, which led immediately to a similar commission for a church in Florida. I had a big head start because of the work the Cathedral gave me."

Other work soon followed. Because of his association with Washington Cathedral, churches became Carpenter's best customers. He created a figure of John the Baptist for one church, a Virgin Mary for another, and a St. Paul for a third.

Carpenter also continued to work for the Cathedral itself. He sculpted 11 more gargoyles, as well as 320 angels that crown the building's two west towers. Most of these sculptures stand in places high above the ground-barely visible to the visitors who dot the Cathedral grounds below. But Carpenter doesn't seem to mind. "It's sort of a romantic concept in a way, that you would create all this work just to the glory of God," he said.

Carpenter's latest commission is designed to glorify God on a grand scale.

A Goodly Fellowship

When the St. Anne Catholic Community in Barrington started designing its new church building four years ago, it had sculpture in mind.

"We wanted to surround the congregation with important saints from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures," said John Buscemi, the liturgical design consultant for the building project. So St. Anne's designed a neo-Gothic church with 12 main support beams that completely surround the parishioners during services. Each of these beams supports an architectural shelf, called a corbel, that holds an image of a saint.

"This structure is what holds the building together," Buscemi said. "In the same way, we see the witness of heroic people holding the community together."

"In the Catholic tradition, there has been from the earliest time an awareness of the communion of saints," Buscemi explained. "In the last 30 years, since the Second Vatican Council and the concerns about liturgical renewal, the emphasis on the saints has taken a different perspective. In fact, in some ways it's been neglected. We felt this gave us an opportunity to re-look at the tradition and in some ways revitalize it."

The communion of saints refers to the belief that all Christians, living and dead, are part of a fellowship that makes up the body of Christ, the Catholic Church. Buscemi explained that surrounding the faithful with images of these holy people helps "increase the awareness that whenever any Christian community gathers in prayer, they are surrounded by the witness of all the faithful who have gone before them-what St. Paul calls a "cloud of witnesses."

"It's an unusual project," Carpenter said, "in that it's an opportunity to make an enormous sculptural statement in one space. Typically, a religious artist will do a single shrine or crucifix, or some single statue. But here is a series of statues that surrounds the congregation during worship. Each figure can convey a different tone and a different energy, so that each individual figure will add up to a more complete experience."

Choosing Favorites

Deciding which figures to include was no small task for St. Anne's. The saints of the Catholic Church are manifold-more than 5,000 at last count. With so many to choose from, how do you narrow the list to 12? Simple-you hold an election.

"We had a box out, and for three or four months people had a chance to write down their favorite saint," Buscemi says. The congregation chose a cross-section of a dozen holy people ranging from Abraham and Sarah-who are recognized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims-to Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who was America's first female saint.

"All these saints represent some facet of ministry or belief," Buscemi said. "Learning about the lives of these people would give one an idea of the broad range of faithful witness through the centuries."

Buscemi adds that the church is preparing biography cards for the saints to give to the congregation.

"The purpose of all the arts used in worship is to help stimulate the sensory awareness of prayer," Buscemi said, "but they also have a teaching function."

"The ones I'm most proud of were the statues of Abraham and Sarah, which flank the east rose window, the window of the dawn and new light. It's a remembrance of these people being the grandparents of three of the great world religions-something you don't usually see in Catholic churches."

The series of 12, five-foot figures also includes a mournful Mary Magdalene, an almost brash St. Patrick, a contemplative St. Paul, and a triumphant Joan of Arc-the favored saint among the youth of the parish.

A Dozen Truths

Choosing a sculptor to create these sacred heroes was easier than choosing the saints themselves. Of the 35 artists who submitted portfolios, Carpenter seemed "best able to do 12 statues and give them all uniqueness and a variety of expression," Buscemi said. "We saw in his work the ability to pick up nuance and a wide range of expressive qualities."

Carpenter explained that these expressive qualities have stemmed naturally from the personalities he has sought to capture: "The saints were such individual characters with different personalities and histories that I just strove to bring out their individual truths."

Carpenter has endeavored to bring out these truths in sculptures that don't simply memorialize figures from a half-remembered past but that revitalize them, capturing the sense of spiritual urgency that shaped their character.

"On the one hand, the statues are palpably beautiful, personal embodiments of particular human beings," said Happel of Catholic University. "On the other hand, they are not yet finished, on their way to a goal they do not yet know."

Happel said Carpenter's saints have "both personal energy and an inner contemplation. There is a calm, inward directness of his forms. They seem to contain a mysterious psychological life of their own, unknown to the beholder, questioning the viewer's own world."

Modern religious artwork doesn't often confront the viewer in this way, Buscemi said. "A lot of the artwork in churches is non-confronting or non-reflective-it's the visual companion to elevator music," he says. "But here are 12 unique sculptures that you can't look at just once; there's more to them than that."

Order out of Chaos

How do you put King David, Joan of Arc, and 10 others in the same room and not have them compete for attention? Carpenter said that "one of the challenges was to take this seemingly random group of saints and to create a program of symbolism that would unify them-or give meaning to the whole."

The first part of the solution was "to give certain figures prominence and others a supportive role," Carpenter says. "For instance, Mary Magdalene is a very mournful figure; she's confronting the death of Christ as she approaches the tomb. This taken alone would be a very somber sculptural statement. But in the cycle of 12, she serves as the emotional anchor for the group."

The second step to unifying the 12 figures was to put them in areas of the church that would have symbolic meaning. For example, St. Paul, perhaps best known for writing part of the Christian scriptures, overlooks the lectern from which the Bible is proclaimed. John the Baptist stands near the baptismal font to herald Christ's coming. And above the music area is King David, who wrote the book of Psalms-the church's first hymnal.

The figures also are arranged in complementary groupings. John the Baptist stands across the worship space from Mary Magdalene, the only other witness to Christ's life of the 12.

"He represents the joyful beginning of Christ's ministry," Carpenter explains, "and she represents the end-Christ's death on the cross, entombment and resurrection."

In the same way, Abraham and Sarah are paired to symbolize the dawn of the covenant, and Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Patrick represent the missionary spirit of moving out to new places.

A Textbook Saint?

For this journey to new places, every saint needs an air of authenticity, and Carpenter is "not afraid to do the research" to make them accurate, Buscemi said. "Joan of Arc-what would her armor have looked like? He'll wonder," and then do the research to find out, Buscemi said.

Carpenter also looks to the work of earlier artists and considers how a figure has been depicted historically. "I look at the precedent," he said, "and decide whether to work within that visual tradition or in counterpoint to it."

Carpenter extends his scholarship to the smallest details. "One thing I'm very careful to research is shoes," he said. "I have several reference books on the subject. All of the sandals and boots depicted on the saints are actual documented styles from the appropriate time periods."

For one saint, Thomas More, who was chancellor to Henry VIII, "I had his garments re-created by a costume maker" and worn by the studio model, Carpenter said.

For Church and State

This penchant for authenticity extends to Carpenter's secular projects, as well. He's is currently working on a larger-than-life monument to Louis Goldstein, the former comptroller of Maryland. Before he began work on the statue, he learned everything he could about the well-liked man he would try to capture in clay.

"As is often the case with contemporary figures, I had a wealth of resources from which to cull information," Carpenter said. "I was able to work from family photos, press clippings and videotape. I also talked to people who knew Louis and got a sense of his personal warmth and outgoing nature."

The eight-foot sculpture of Goldstein is being cast in bronze and will stand in a courtyard adjacent to the state government's building named after him in Annapolis, Md.

An hour's drive away, in College Park, the campus of the University of Maryland awaits another Carpenter sculpture, this one of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. The sculpture shows Henson, one of the university's most famous alumni, enjoying a lighthearted moment with his chief creation, Kermit the Frog. In researching the famous amphibian and his maker, Carpenter visited the archives of the Henson Legacy Project, which maintains the objects and information pertinent to Henson's life.

"I was able to visit the archives in New York and get a hands-on appreciation of Kermit," Carpenter said. "I worked with two different Kermit puppet models and had the pleasure of putting them on and getting a feel for what a Muppeteer experiences."

Today, Carpenter spends about a third of his time on secular work. But all his work, "in one way or another," Carpenter said, "has a personal spiritual base. It doesn't have to be about saints and angels to come from deep within."

A Plaster Pantheon

Back in Carpenter's home studio, a plaster model of his first sculpture, the gargoyle committing hara-kiri, stands among many of the artist's other creations. These figures-Muppets, angels, saints and many others besides-are Carpenter's chief companions as he goes about his work.

A former bishop of Washington gives the studio his episcopal oversight from one shelf, a classical female figure in a flowing robe casts her ethereal gaze from another. A triumphant St. Patrick-destined for St. Anne's-blesses the scene from a far corner.

As these spectators look silently on, Carpenter sculpts in the final details of the hands of John the Baptist and pauses to reflect on his work.

"I approach sculpture the way Howard Pyle approached painting," Carpenter said. "I throw my heart into a work of art and climb in after it."

(Lee Carpenter is Senior Copy Editor for Telecommunications Reports in Washington and is Jay Hall Carpenter's brother.)

When the Saints Go Marchin' In

St. Anne's of Barrington commissioned the sculpting of 12 saints to decorate their new church. The statues are installed as they arrive from the sculptor, Jay Hall Carpenter. Here's a list of the 12 saints that will eventually be in the church. Nine have arrived already; the other three are marked with an asterisk.


Joan of Arc*

John the Baptist

King David*

Mary Magdalene

Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas More


Saint Patrick

Saint Paul

Saint Teresa*