By Christopher M. Riggs Rip Caswell had dual journeys as he drove from Troutdale, Ore., to Wichita late last month. Two statues – Jesus crucified and Mary and Joseph – were on a trailer behind his diesel-powered pickup as he wound his way over the Rocky Mountains to the plains of the Midwest to deliver the art to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Caswell’s spiritual journey with the statues also came to an end. It began about a year ago when he was chosen to sculpt the statues. It was then that he began to immerse himself into the project. “Whatever I do, I try to learn as much as I can. I try to study it. I try to be in its surroundings,” he said. The surroundings he chose was Mount Angel Abbey, a monastery, seminary, and retreat house located 51 miles from his studio in St. Benedict, Ore.
“They gave me a wonderful space there – it was the potter’s studio – and I first began sculpting Mary and Joseph.” He began sculpting the statue in September and completed it around Christmas. “It was just a real celebration following the homilies (at the abbey), going to vespers each day. I just really immersed myself in this wonderful time of their lives.” Caswell said he enjoyed meeting and getting to know the seminarians and monks who would stop by the studio and check on the progress of his work. “As each one would come in – each monk or each priest – I would ask them to make a stone and contribute to the artwork,” he said. “So they would say a blessing as they sculpted the stone and then set it into the base of Mary and Joseph.” Caswell said that there are over 100 sculpted stones in the base of the Mary and Joseph statue over which a blessing was said so that the artwork would inspire those who look upon it and that God’s message would be revealed through the work. Sculpting the crucifixion during Lent and Easter was especially meaningful, he added. “It became an exercise of worship for me where I was able to just think about it every day and contemplate all the mysteries and wonder,” he said. “As the pieces became more involved…so did my understanding of the message and it just really became a personal journey for myself.” No project of such complexity is without its challenges, though, Caswell said. Locating a model to pose as Mary was one of them. “She had to embody the spirit that I was looking for, the openness, the loving feeling that I imagine of Mary, the innocence and all of those attributes that I was looking for.” A Jewish woman from Eugene, Ore., served as his model of Mary. Models were also located for Joseph and Jesus, but another challenge Caswell had was finding a model for Jesus’ body. He used one slim man’s body to study muscles and tendons. The artist also recruited a seminarian he saw working out in a gym. “I actually built a cross and I ‘hung’ him on the cross to see how that weight would pull against his arms,” Caswell said. “I noticed how his torso elongated (while on the cross).” Caswell added that throughout the project, he worked to challenge himself, to grow as an artist and to pursue perfection, despite knowing he will never achieve it. He hopes to return to Wichita when the work in the Cathedral is blessed, hopefully in December. “I’m anxious to watch the interaction between people and how they respond to the art,” Caswell said. “I hope that it brings them joy and an understanding and an appreciation for the story how it’s really revealed to them in a personal way as it was to me.”
Details about the Cathedral’s new statues The image of Mary is 7-feet, 3-inches. Joseph is 7-feet, 6-inches. The statue of Mary and Joseph weighs about 900 pounds. The statue of Jesus is 7-feet, 6-inches tall and weighs 500 pounds. The cross is about 13 1/2 by 9 feet. The statue of Mary and Joseph is located in the west transept of the Cathedral. Joseph is looking down on Mary as Mary – with her left hand on her abdomen and her right extended out in surrender to the will of God – looks across the Cathedral to the east transept and across time where her Son hangs on a cross. Behind the crucifixion scene is a painting depicting an opening to heaven. The front of the cross for the crucifixion scene is made of wood shipped from Israel. The back of the cross is fiberglass formed to make it look as if the cross where a rough-cut log. Artist Rip Caswell said among the stones at the base of the cross are 12 stones shipped from Israel to represent the 12 tribes, 12 apostles, and other Biblical images. Two steel beams in the form of a cross are in the middle of the fiberglass and wood to support the bronze corpus of Jesus.
About the trip from Oregon to Wichita Rip Caswell said he received lots of “thumbs up” from passers-by as he drove from Eugene, Ore., to Wichita with the uncovered statue of Mary and Joseph bolted down to the trailer he was pulling. Travelers would follow him – and the statues – into rest stops where they were able to get a better look at the artwork and ask questions. The statue of Jesus crucified was covered and on the floor of the trailer. Several onlookers told him they hoped to get to Wichita to be able to see both of the pieces.