by Darby Lee Patterson
Why does a fully-lapsed Catholic, having been kicked out of Catholic school three times before the age of twelve, dedicate herself to the most challenging artistic endeavor ever: a near-life-sized bronze bust of Pope Francis?
It took me three years and several thousand dollars to accomplish the task. I’ve been asked by several people why I spent the energy, time, and money. I’m still asking myself the same question.
I wasn’t looking for forgiveness, and as a full-time writer who’d just brought out a new novel (“The Song of Jackass Creek”), I certainly didn’t need a hobby.
It happened like this: I was sitting at a picnic table under a cedar tree in a national forest. In front of me, I had a lump of plasticine clay – the kind of clay that never dries and is favored by sculptors who cast in bronze. The weather was perfect. A crow swooped from a treetop and flew overhead. I heard the slow rush of its wings flapping, making a whooshing sound that was music in the forest. It landed on a branch of a nearby tree and settled in. It was then that an image of Pope Francis entered my mind.
I saw him smiling, softly, and compassionately. I thought of how much I liked him – far more than any of the popes I’d experienced in my lifetime. Unlike the others, he seemed to be a man from the streets of human experience. Down to earth. He did not seem caught up in the pomp and prestige of the papacy or driven by its centuries-long political structure in which so many popes became quasi-monarchs managed by a powerful and ambitious court. Francis was stepping out on his own terms. Maybe it was the first time I could relate to someone anointed with (or burdened by) the title, Holy Father.
Without reason or a plan, I started sculpting. By the end of the afternoon, my pope’s head looked very much like a neanderthal – which is where many of us started out anyway. The work progressed, and little by little, Francis, successor to the essentially bureaucratic Benedict XVI, began to emerge from the clay. And as the sculpture grew in size and importance, I started to again wonder why I was there pouring my efforts into a Catholic piece of art when my own religious experience drove me away from the church long ago.
Through the months of sculpting, building the mold, pouring, and working on the wax figure, thoughts floated in and out of my mind. Finally, as I drove the finished work to the foundry and sent him forward to emerge in bronze, I decided to really think through my investment of time and money. But it was not until I had the 235 pounds of bronze pope finished and home with me that I got it.
Pope Francis, for me, transcends Catholicism or any other named religion. He embodies virtues so many of us value most in humanity – kindness, compassion, joy, and courage - qualities I tried to capture in his likeness.
He speaks out, sometimes in opposition to firmly held dictates of the Vatican, and offers hope to those left behind by the church – the LBGTQ community, for example. He honors women, and, I believe, were it up to him, Catholic nuns would achieve their rightful place as church celebrants. People who transgressed the dictate against divorce would not be denied the experience of Catholic rites, and other limiting traditions imprisoned in the immutable structure of the church would be abolished. But he is a practical man who does the most good he can do in the circumstances afforded.
Little did I know, as a young teenage girl stomping loudly out of a Cathedral during a mass, that I would one day, late in life, discover my small gift for sculpting and express my Catholic upbringing in this way. It’s been a journey of work and creativity and reflection. It makes me feel good to think that, despite my ardent deflection from the church of my childhood, Pope Francis would still approve of the person I’ve become.
Let me know if you have a suggestion for a public home where my sculpture may be enjoyed. Again, thanks for reading DownDarbyLane and for your feedback - it keeps me creative to know that you are with me.
AND! We did a FREE promotion for a copy of "The Song of Jackass Creek" my highly rated cozy mystery -