October 22, 2014

Behold a Miracle in Progress

sculpt.jpgMárton Váró, who is sculpting an enormous marble relief in the town of Ave Maria, isn’t hard to find. Park at the town center, walk down the academic mall, and look for flying dust. That’s what Michael Windfeldt, the sculptor’s right-hand man and executive director of the Ave Maria Foundation for the Arts, tells me when we set up the interview. 

But before you see the dust, or the sculptor, you see the head of the Virgin Mary emerging two feet from a block of white marble. Her face is smooth, her hair veiled. She’s humongous—seven feet from head to elbow. This is only her top third. She’ll be 20 feet tall when finished. One of the biggest—if not the biggest—Marys in bas-relief in the world, according to Ave Maria officials. 

The block containing Mary is the most complex of the 15 Váró will carve to depict the Annunciation, the event in Christian faith when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus. The completed sculpture will be 35 feet high, 31 feet wide and weigh more than 50 tons. It will go onto the façade of the Oratory, a modern steel, stone and glass structure that reaches a hundred feet into the sky and serves as the centerpiece and symbol of the town and university. 

Váró sits on a raised deck and leans over Mary’s forearm, carving her sleeve with an angle grinder. She looks past him with pupil-free eyes, having just gotten the news. Her hand is at her heart, her fingers touch her chest, and her wrist is curved, jutting from the stone by a yard. A fine mist of white dust drifts westward, pushed by a warm breeze. 
Váró is enclosed in cyclone fencing. Five people watch him silently from rows of metal benches. A placard on the fence reads, “Please do not disturb the artist while he is working.” Another sign informs visitors that they can buy a marble chip at Beckner Jewelry & Repairs on La Piazza next to the visitor’s center. These are signed by the artist and cost between $20 and $40. 

Váró wears a headset with an antenna pointed skyward. He tells me later that he’s listening to AM radio. Classic rock. Not his first choice (he’s a classical music fan), but it’s the best this receiver can get out here, miles from anywhere, near Big Cypress Swamp.

Art and Engineering 

Váró has blue eyes and unruly gray-white hair. A fleck of marble clings to his cheek, and dust defines the creases in his dry lips. He doesn’t wear a mask when he works. He says they don’t help. 

“I wanted to be a sculptor since I was six years old, and I saw Geppetto carving Pinocchio’s eyes out of wood,” he says. 

After seeing that cartoon, he begged his parents for a pocketknife. At first, they said no, fearing he would cut his finger. But Váró insisted, and his parents relented. And he promptly cut himself while carving wood. He shows me the 60-year-old scar on the first knuckle of his index finger. 

Váró was born in Székelyudvarhely, Transylvania (now Romania). In high school, he was good at history, literature, physics and math. So good, in fact, that when he entered art school in Romania, the dean saw his straight As and asked, “Why aren’t you studying something practical like medicine or law?” Váró’s answer: He loved art. 

He was chosen for the Ave Maria job in part because he proposed marble, says Windfeldt, who was in charge of going after the commission on Váró’s behalf. Nearly all of the competing artists proposed bronze, which Windfeldt says requires maintenance, poses patina issues and could have stained the colored stone on the oratory. 

“Plus, the tradition of marble goes back to the beginnings of the church,” Windfeldt says, adding that the committee had confidence that Váró could do the job after seeing the two 48-foot limestone angels he sculpted for the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, a work that got him a lot of attention. 

Creating a large outdoor public sculpture demands, among other things, a knowledge of sun, rain and wind. For instance, Váró wants sunlight on Gabriel’s upturned palm for a part of each afternoon, and, later in the day, light on his down-turned face. He created Mary’s arm in such a way that rain won’t pool in the web between her finger and thumb. Instead, droplets will roll down the back of her hand and off her sleeve. 

Then, of course, there’s the wind. 

“We need this wind,” he says. It sweeps away the dust. And it’s why he chose to work on the major parts here in Ave Maria as opposed to Italy, where the marble comes from. He will work in Italy this summer. His first task there is to secure the remaining marble. 

Carrara, Italy 

If Italy wears a boot, the city of Carrara is embedded in the country’s kneecap, five miles inland. Carrara is in Tuscany at the foot of the Apuan Alps, world-famous for white marble. The ancient Romans excavated it. Michelangelo used it for many of his works, including David and Pietà. And the Marble Arch in London began life in these quarries. 

A casual viewer looking at the mountains could mistake the white marble for snow. But there aren’t many casual viewers in Carrara. The city is devoted to mining. Windfeldt says diesel trucks loaded with marble roll thunderously through town from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. on their way to the port or the marble yards. Windfeldt went to Carrara with Váró to purchase the first marble, a solid block weighing 80 metric tons. He didn’t disclose the cost but said it was six figures. 

The marble Váró needs is at Cave (“kah-vay”) Michelangelo, where the original block came from. Váró has had to wait for the workers to return to the part of the quarry where that marble was extracted, so that the material matches. 

The open-air quarry looks like an amphitheater for giants. The workers remove the marble in rows, cutting out massive rectangular chunks with a huge chainsaw contraption that rolls along a track. The blocks are loaded onto a truck, which snakes its way down switchbacks to the marble yard, where the stone will be cut into rough blocks. After that, it will go to another company to be cut to the tolerance Váró requires for this job. 

When the 15 blocks are installed on the oratory, they must be aligned precisely one centimeter apart on all edges and perfectly straight. To achieve this, the cutters must hold a very tight tolerance. Otherwise, the whole sculpture will look wrong. 

“We’re talking millimeters,” Windfeldt tells me. “If the measurements are off, it won’t go on the wall.” 

Moments of Truth 

Over spaghetti and meatballs in the student cafeteria, Váró tells Windfeldt and me that it’s the installation process he worries most about: mounting the pieces onto the Oratory. That’s the first time he will see the entire sculpture assembled. All sorts of problems can occur. Breaking a corner of a tile, messing up the spacing between them, making the whole thing stick to the wall. 

“Wait. Is there really a danger that it would fall off of the Oratory?” I ask. Windfeldt smirks and shakes his head. Engineers will embed steel plates in the wall and secure each marble block to its own plate. No block will rest on any other. These particular engineers are people Váró and Windfeldt trust. They did the Bass Performance Hall angels. 

The installation is a year and a half away—in November 2010. The sculpture is scheduled for unveiling the following spring at the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. That day has special significance for Ave Maria’s founder, Tom Monaghan, not only because he is a devout Catholic but because it is his birthday. 

Váró has been working seven days a week, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. “I gave up even on fishing,” he says. “I was crazy about fishing.” 

So what motivates him? 

“I’m working with the best marble in the world. It’s a good subject. This is a receptive community,” he says. “Of course, all of that creates tremendous pressure.” This seems to haunt him, the pressure. He brings it up three times. 

Most of all, Váró says, the Annunciation is a perfect moment in time. He wants to capture it. And he wants people who look at the sculpture to feel that they’re sharing in the moment. 

But what moment is that, exactly? Mary goes through many emotional stages during Gabriel’s visit. The Bible tells us she was surprised at first, and troubled. Then she reflected on the purpose of Gabriel’s visit. Then she questioned him. (“How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”) Then she accepted the news. 

“A sculpture isn’t like a freeze frame from a movie,” Váró says. “It’s a concentrated truth. You try to indicate what came before and what came after, so the viewer will see Mary transform. 

“She is a young woman, facing maternity. And, beyond that, she is facing much more. In that moment, she has accepted, and she is realizing all that is happening to her.” 

Windfeldt says he was inspired to take on this project because he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself. 

“I think it will be a 21st century masterpiece, and people will come from all over the world to Ave Maria to see it. When I looked at the blank canvas [on the Oratory] … that was a pretty tantalizing motivation.” 

Váró first created a one-fifth scale model of the entire Annunciation, carving it from the same marble he would use for the actual sculpture. This model stands on the lawn beside his work platform. 

In it, you see the concentrated moment Váró is aiming for. It is clear that Gabriel delivered the news to Mary just seconds ago. No longer a messenger, he bows to the Virgin, soft curls fringing his face. Mary has just brought her hand to her heart and looked up with recognition. 

Breaking Free 

Váró subscribes to the school of thought that a sculpture is contained in the stone already—that a sculptor’s job is to free the image by cutting everything else away. He does this with two Bosch angle grinders, a die grinder, a mallet, wedges and chisels. The large grinder, he calls his “big horse.” It holds a 9-inch circular blade rimmed with electroplated diamonds. It clears large chunks of stone quickly. 

“Michelangelo would have loved this,” Váró says. “If he had had these tools, there wouldn’t be any left-over, half-finished blocks.” 

Váró has a smaller grinder (“a very skillful little donkey”) that holds a 4.5-inch blade. He tilts the blade to show me the diamonds around the edge. 

“See? Like sugar crystals on a martini glass,” he says. 

For fine work like eyelids, nostrils and curls, he uses the die grinder, which holds a variety of diamond mounted points. 

Váró fires up the skillful donkey and grabs the side handle, which looks exactly like a handlebar grip on a dirt bike. This is how he guides the blade in the direction he wants it to go. The disc bites the marble with a shrill, keening sound. He slants the grinder sideways and makes a shallow, shaving motion along a fold of drapery near Mary’s elbow. A strip of marble comes off, and he tosses it into the pile of discarded strips behind the stage. Over the whirring of the grinder, he says, “I feel pain for every piece of marble I chip away.” 

A short distance away, Windfeldt looks at the block of Mary and then over at the small model. He tells Váró that the fingers of Mary’s outstretched hand on the model are too skinny. “You need to do a model of that hand before you start the lower block.” 

“Yes,” Váró says. “I was rethinking the whole concept. With a puffy, younger face, it cannot be a very bony, mature woman’s hand.” 

But he won’t rework it until he returns from Italy in November. “I need fresh eyes,” he says. He points to Mary’s arm and says, “I will do that corner a little bit more. Then I leave the rest here for now, as it is.”

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