When working on a specific project for more than a year it tends to take on its own personality. That's what happened to local artists Gregory Mendez and Neil Wiffill as they collaborated to create “The Blessed Mother” sculpture for St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Decatur.
“It became such a part of our daily lives,” said Mendez, “that it took on its own persona and was upper-most in our minds from when we were asked to create it to when it was transported to Decatur and installed in the church's new Mary Garden."
It was dedicated Sept. 8 and depicts Mary's bodily assumption into heaven.
“We made seven models before choosing the one that best captured the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Long, animated discussions between us focused on whether she should have a traditional or more modern appearance, the drape of her robe, her hair, color of her dress, the angle of her arms and position of her hands.
“We wanted to represent Mary as a woman who was alive and real, not just an inanimate, robed figure. Our Mary is shapely and somewhat modern in appearance. It's not symmetrical and definitely not typical. We were determined to set the scene of the ascension as though she was being lifted up while still connected to us. We also wanted to depict a joyous and peaceful moment.”
The Blessed Mother sculpture, which is the focal point of the church's Mary Garden, is one of a kind because the artists decided to finish it by using traditional scagliola instead of cement. Scagliola would not normally be used for outdoor sculpture because it involves pigmented plaster with animal glue applied in a manner that mimics natural marble.
Combining Mendez's steel sculpting skills (he made the support structure) with Wiffill's scagliola knowledge allowed them to make scagliola into sculpture form. Once the pigment and plaster were mixed the two of them had to apply it quickly because it would dry out. Wiffill, a master scagliola craftsman, and Mendez spent hours rubbing the work with fine sandpaper to achieve the intended faux marble texture. Three angels are cleverly concealed in Mary's robes. Four coats of a clear sealer protect the sculpture from the weather.
Three metal roses lie at Mary's feet, in what Mendez says is an invitation for parishioners to bring flowers. It's also a symbolic remembrance of his mother and Wiffill's mother and stepmother.
Good friend Elton Bishop, a structural engineer/artist, designed and built the platform and “modern-day grotto” that blends with the church's architecture of the church and directs attention and directs visitors to the sculpture without being intrusive.
According to Wiffill, moving the 700-pound sculpture from his Cherry Street studio to Decatur was “really nerve wracking. “We were relieved and happy once it was finally bolted in place and even more pleased at the response it received at the dedication. We've been back several times to see it in different light conditions and to view it at night when it's lit. As far as we're concerned, this piece, which is our second collaboration, is definitely up there as our best work.”
“'The Blessed Mother" sculpture required the most intense planning we had ever experienced,” said Mendez. ”We learned to strip everything down to basics which made the whole process more meditative. We had to become a team to complete this piece. We now know that public art is where we want to focus our efforts in the future.”
Mendez, who grew up in Decatur, attended St. Joseph Elementary School, graduated from Bellmont High School and was a member of St. Mary, was pleased when the church's Mary Garden committee asked him to produce the sculpture. He's a graduate of the University of Saint Francis with a bachelor's degree in fine art. He was instrumental in setting up the Decatur Sculpture Tour and serves as its chairman. In addition, he has five pieces on display, including two that he and Wiffill collaborated on.
A native of England, Wiffill trained under David Hayles, who is considered the world's top scagliola expert, and came to the United States 15 years ago to perform restoration work on the scagliola in the Allen County Courthouse. The naturalized U.S. citizen has also done scagliola restoration in Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
Bishop, a Fort Wayne native, earned a bachelor's degree in structural design at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and has designed buildings ranging from box stores to 25-story structures, He has also done free-form structural steel sculptures.