By PAUL A. BARRA
SENECA — It took months, but Eric Johnson’s Mary finally became the Mary of the people of St. Paul the Apostle. As a signature sculpture, this Mary might not have been the choice of every parish in the Diocese of Charleston. If it seems a comfortable and appropriate fit at St. Paul, not all parishioners thought so at first.
“Some had trouble with it in the beginning,” said longtime parishioner Thomas L. Kennedy. “After all, it didn’t have a blue cape and it didn’t have a face. But now it’s growing on them.”
The statue, which sits just to the right of the main entrance of the stunning church of St. Paul, has been carved from a chunk of Colorado Yule marble that weighed 4,640 pounds. It’s larger than life in more ways than one, because there are subtleties to this artwork: The rim around the top allows light to penetrate, forming a halo; a slight bulge on the sloping breast of the Madonna is her heart; a carved line where Mary’s face would end, what the artist calls a shadow, makes some observers think that she is facing downward; her robe flows, but it is smooth marble without a ripple in it.
“Sculpture is three dimensional art that’s meant to be touched. That’s how you communicate with it,” said the artist, Eric B. Johnson of North Bend, Ore. “Mary is there; you should reach up and touch her heart.”
Johnson said that early Christian art was representational because most worshippers were illiterate and they learned the stories of their faith through images that corresponded with Scripture readings and prayers. Today, he said, our society is so visual that art like his is more appropriate.
“I think it’s important that people be able to stop, look, feel and ponder its meaning,” Johnson said.
Parishioners of St. Paul polished the sculpture with diamond pads before Johnson sealed it, symbolically taking ownership of the commissioned piece. Part of that ownership has come about because the artist had become a spokesman for his work, answering questions and explaining from his open-air studio in front of the church building. Everyone who came down from the raised parking lots to visit the church passed by the artist at work.
“Each person who sees this will have a different vision, an entirely different concept in mind. The sculptor has been so open with us that he has brought out our ideas and thoughts,” said parishioner Ellen Rochford.
Ted DiBlasi, another parishioner since St. Paul’s opened as an independent entity in 1994, agreed that the artist has had much to do with the general acceptance of his art: “Eric has had some effect on people here. He spends all the time you need to explain things. He’s impressive and his faith is incredible.”
Johnson, a non-Catholic who admitted that he is leaning toward conversion, was every bit as impressed with the foothills parish as the parishioners were with him. He and his wife, Sherry, lived in the home of Joe and Mary Chickvarra in Keowee Key, an upscale gated community on Lake Keowee for five months, and Johnson cited that as an example of the hospitality shown to them in Seneca.
“I’ve found a home here, a spiritual home especially in this place,” the artist said inside the church proper. “The people of St. Paul have shown us generosity, kindness and acceptance.”
Paulist Father Bernard J. Campbell, pastor, knew that his parishioners would probably like the work of Johnson because of the precedence set by Cecile L. K. Martin. Martin is the painter, and an art professor at nearby Clemson University, whose renderings of the Stations of the Cross in the worship space dazzle the eye and provoke reflection. Like Johnson’s Mary, they are nontraditional and powerful.
Father Campbell saw an example of Eric Johnson’s work while visiting his sister in Carbondale, Colo. The 71-year-old Johnson, meanwhile, was battling bladder cancer and was anticipating the results of an exploratory procedure. When he received a good prognosis, he had a little talk with God.
“I made a commitment with him and asked him what he wanted me to do in return. Four days later I got an e-mail from Father Campbell. I didn’t have any trouble hearing that message,” he said.
In May he had another check-up in South Carolina and remains tumor-free. He said that he was never attracted to organized religion before his sojourn to Seneca, but that his experience with the people of St. Paul and with Mary have changed his perspective: “They got Mary, but I think I may have come out ahead — I got faith.”
The parish of St. Paul the Apostle got Mary in statuary that displays her strength and spirit of obedience at the same time. The brilliant white marble is from the mountains rising from the Crystal River Valley near Redstone, Colo. It is veined and weathers well, Johnson said. This Mary, for all its presence, is sure to generate as much discussion in northwestern South Carolina as Catholic reverence for the Virgin does. That may be another reason it has become the Mary of the people of St. Paul.