By HOLLY GATLING
COLUMBIA — On each carved cross the hanging corpus evokes disturbing images of agony.
Christ’s deadweight, tormented body sags forward, his fists clenched against the spikes through his palms. His arms stretch upward to their excruciating anatomical limits. His knees splay and his impaled feet droop in a gesture of utter helplessness. It is the way artist Maurice Duncan imagines the crucified human body must react.
When Duncan’s pastor, Father Jim LeBlanc, contemplates the artist’s crucifix, he says, “I feel connected with Jesus as a man suffering and I feel a sense of identity with Jesus’s agony.” The choice of detail — the posture and facial expression — “shows Jesus in anguish — in the extreme of anguish.”
Four versions of Duncan’s work hang on the back wall of his parish church, St. Martin de Porres. All are for sale. He is donating the proceeds to St. Martin’s Education Endowment Fund to sponsor the payment of tuition for needy children who attend St. Martin’s School. Prices ranges from $35 to $120. Also for sale is a carved relief of the face of St. Martin de Porres. As patrons purchase a crucifix, Duncan replaces it with a new carving. No two are identical.
Duncan lives alone and works out of his home, a small duplex apartment where he has converted the second bedroom into an art studio. His own paintings, drawings and carvings adorn the residence. The carving of a harpooned whale is the stunning, yet distressing, focal point of his collection. In the living room area, an intricately carved trunk complements the carved end tables that anchor his couch. He displays two ribbons he won in the state fair, including second place for a doll house with exquisitely carved miniature furniture he made for a niece.
Completely self-taught, Duncan began whittling as a child.
“When I was young, I was terribly shy,” he said. “We lived near the woods and when somebody would come in (to the house), I’d head for the woods. I lived in the woods.”
His pocket knife, twigs and sticks provided hours of entertainment. Duncan’s serious early work, however, was drawing. He grew frustrated with drawing because “I couldn’t bring out the beauty I wanted, so I started fooling around with wax.” Wax, he said, is an easy medium for correcting mistakes. His three-dimensional images were more to his liking, but wax is fragile and melts. He began working with wood about 25 years ago and has stayed with it as his principal medium of artistic expression.
Born on Christmas Day, 1948, the second of six children and a cradle Catholic, Duncan attended St. Peter’s School and Cardinal Newman High School. Although his family moved frequently, he settled as a young adult in Columbia. But keeping a job was impossible because he has uncontrollable epileptic seizures.
Before qualifying for government disability, Duncan said, “I lost every job I ever had.” At one time he opened his own woodworking business, but lost his lease when the landlord decided Duncan’s epileptic disorder created a risk to the property. Duncan then moved to another location on Taylor Street, but a serious accident forced him to close the business. While atop a ladder, he had a seizure and fell to the floor. “I broke my body all to pieces,” he says with a slight smile. His fractured skull and pelvis, as well as many other injuries, required a long convalescence. He did not reopen the shop.
Now he spends his time carving, drawing and writing and illustrating children’s books for which he needs a publisher. His interest in religious carving developed only recently. Last February, he carved his first crucifix as a birthday gift for his mother, Mary Catoe, who also lives in Columbia and attends St. Martin de Porres. She is a nurse who checks on her son daily, drives him to the Saturday Vigil Mass and helps him shop for wood when he needs it.
“I couldn’t think of anything to get her,” he said. “I wanted to do something special for her. I wanted something she would be pleased with, that she would be happy with. Something she would talk about.”
To get some feeling for the crucified body, Duncan grabbed an overhead bar and let his body sag deadweight. He noticed how his arms stretched upward rather than outward as the weight of his body pulled forcefully down from his hands and wrists. The hanging body, he discovered, leans slightly forward. With his feet touching the floor but not bearing his weight, Duncan observed that the knees naturally splay.
“I try to put Christ on the cross as he truly was,” Duncan says.
He begins each carving by sketching the corpus on paper and then onto the wood he will carve. Using an Xacto knife, he crafts and details the corpus and then attaches it to the cross. A variety of inks, stains, and even shoe polish achieve the colors he wants. The larger crucifixes usually take more than 40 hours to complete.
Duncan gave his mother her birthday gift in Father LeBlanc’s presence. The catch, Duncan says with a twinkle, was that she could not have the present herself. The crucifix was to hang at St. Martin’s in honor of Mrs. Catoe. She “reached out to take the crucifix,” Duncan recalled, “but I said, ‘I’m giving it to Father Jim for the church.’ Father put it in the confessional.”
The original corpus still hangs in the confessional, but Duncan has replaced the original cross with a larger one suitable for Veneration on Good Friday. The original cross with the inscription to Mrs. Catoe and a replacement corpus will hang in St. Martin’s School’s cafeteria.
St. Martin parishioner David Tiede Hottinger purchased one of the larger crucifixes for his first child, which he and his wife Kathryn are expecting in November. When he looks at the crucifix Hottinger says he feels “the agony, the contortion of the body. His hands are up as if he really were a criminal on the cross.”
“Maurice seems to have a great sympathy with Jesus’s suffering,” Father LeBlanc commented, “and that comes out in his carving.”
Holly Gatling, a former reporter with The State newspaper, is executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life.