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Old Wood, New Art

By Kyra Lipetzky

The Verostko Gallery is not the only place to find art in Saint Vincent’s new library. The Dupre-side entryway now houses a large wooden sculpture. The structure, which consists of nine tall wooden planks carved into figurines, was erected in March.

Br. Mark Floreanini, O.S.B., associate professor of art, is the sculpture’s creator. Floreanini usually works in other media, notably stained glass.

“I used to have a stained glass studio before I came to the monastery. I have my MFA in painting, and I hardly do any painting, but I know how to paint. I like fibers a lot, I do spinning and weaving and knitting and crocheting, and all that kind of stuff—I pretty much like most everything,” he said.

This time, at the suggestion of Kelly King, director of Service Learning and Outreach, he wanted to create something with a civil-rights theme for display in the library. At first he thought of drawing large-scale figures and having students paint them in. But then he found photographs of wooden sculptures that consisted only of small heads on unformed bodies, a concept he liked better. And he discovered old, unused chestnut planks while cleaning out the Press Building, the perfect material to realize his mental image.

“This is actually old chestnut from before the blight. And these were all twisted and knotted and stuff, so they never were able to use this as real lumber. But I thought it was perfect for what I wanted to do, so I just started cutting little heads out and carving in,” Floreanini said.

The planks are affixed into wooden stands. The bodies are not carved; only the heads. All except one are unpainted. Floreanini chose an array of men and women from a broad span of cultures: Mother Theresa, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vincent de Paul, Frederick Douglass, and, towering above the others, Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic top hat. The figures bend and sway with the twists of the chestnut planks. That did make them harder to carve, though.

“Since I didn’t know how chestnut was, I didn’t know it would crack easily, so that was a little bit of a trick. But I like learning different materials anyway, so this was kind of a fun learning experience,” Floreanini said.

Lincoln’s hat nearly came off, he added.

“His hat kind of chipped off, so I had to dig in deeper and redo it some. It’s a learning experience,” he said.

The final theme was more “peace and justice” than civil rights specifically, Floreanini explained. That’s why he chose subjects from so many different backgrounds. But the slavery era inspired his choice of a primitive style.

“I was thinking of the slavery era, the 1800s, and how maybe a slave would put a little marker on his wife’s grave or something, and he didn’t have any money, so he’d probably use scrap wood from some house or something, and he would do the best job he could whittling into it a name or a date or something. I’m thinking of a very primitive memorial for each person, using very simple kinds of things,” Floreanini said.

In keeping with the primitive theme, he left every figure unpainted, except Mother Theresa, who features simple blue and white stripes to designate her habit. He wanted to make the identification clear.

“People were saying it looks like Mary. I’m thinking, if she has a blue and white stripe, people say Mother Theresa as soon as they see it,” Floreanini said.

Floreanini used chisels and a small powered Dremel tool to carve the faces. He enjoyed the experience so much that he plans to keep working with wood, hopefully alongside his students.

“Since we have so much old wood over there, and I’m teaching Materials and Processes, I’m thinking of making birdhouses. They’re simple, but you can make them unique and interesting with old wood that’s been painted,” he said.

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