Meet Joseph Giansiracusa and his cast of thousands
14 Mar 2018
If Joseph Giansiracusa can convince the right people in the Catholic community, we have a chance to preserve this ‘living art’ and inspire our future generations to prayer and contemplation.
“These are objectified prayers, a feeling we have about our Lady or Jesus that becomes an image. It portrays to us a recognition. We recognise… yes that’s Saint Joseph and all of a sudden our minds are transported to the real Saint Joseph even though nobody knows what he looks like. These are all expressions from different artists. These are icons. They’re not art for art’s sake, but traditionally they have always been used to transport people to a different dimension, to bring you close to the divinity, so to speak. I do feel very strongly about that aspect of religious art and church statuary.”
Joseph is what you might call an artist and sculptor who is devoted to his craft. He spends most days at Sacred Art Studios, a family business he started in 1976, and for at least 45 years he has skillfully and lovingly breathed new life into Mary the Immaculate, Saint Joseph, Our Lady of Fatima, Saint Patrick, and Christ carrying the cross. He’s brought back to life so many others. He is passionate about what is very likely to become a dying industry if it isn’t already on its last legs. He carries on even at 72 years of age, restoring all types of statuary, religious art, and icons.
“…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
“Painting is done in stages,” he explains. “Each layer has got to dry, and as you do each layer you shade it. There’s a lot of work in finishing off a statue. It’s not as easy as it looks because actually the statue has to look as if it’s not painted at all. The paint has to look as if it’s part of the actual statue, so the brush strokes and any texture the paint creates should not be seen. It’s all an illusion.”
Joseph studied fine arts at RMIT as a painter, and did a bit of sculpture as well. It was during those years that he met the Mattei brothers.
“They used to be great Italian statue makers who worked in Melbourne since the 1920s. Their whole family had come to Australia in the 1920s, and they created a workshop and used to make religious figures as well as mannequins and decorative figures. They were elderly men when I was at RMIT. One day I happened to meet one of the brothers, and I pestered him to show me how the statues were done. Eventually he consented and I used to go and see him at lunch times when I was a teacher. I asked him what he was going to do with all of his stuff. He had four little houses in Fitzroy, plus a church at the corner, plus all of the block belonged to them, and these houses were filled completely with statues and moulds and everything.”
People had asked to buy moulds and pieces from one of the brothers who refused to sell them individually, because he couldn’t bear to separate them. He wanted to give them all to someone who would look after them.
“I told him to sell them to me. I told him I’d preserve them. And so he gave them away, to me. My intention was always to preserve them so they would play the leading role in my ideal dream which was to create a museum for them. A museum to preserve them as part of our history of what we used to do. These were the images that would inspire us. They still inspire us. But here I am after 45 years, still with a dream that is unfulfilled.”
Among the old statues, there are many for repair but some form part of Joseph’s collection.
“Unfortunately, in Australia real estate is so expensive. It’s very hard to find an area that would be given to you to create this. I hope eventually some priests will listen to me, even an old school would be ideal, an old building.”
He recalls the decades following the 1970s as a time when these images were made fun of.
“And with that our beliefs were a bit demeaned as well, because we didn’t protect our images. Okay, maybe they’re not all suitable for a modern age, but let’s not destroy them. Let’s put them aside and study them. In the US some of the universities have studied the psychology of religious icons, the design of them, how they influence us, and people have looked at their positive aspects. A lot of these are very good examples of art in that they were created by very artistically knowledgeable people.”
The volume of cheaply, mass produced figurines comes to mind and Joseph acknowledges the flood of kitsch and sentimentality in the market today.
“There are lots of images which are really awful and they put people off rather than attract them. But the old ones, the ones I’m trying to preserve are beautifully classically designed, and I personally think they are art works on their own. To me this is a collective art, a collective expression of what you believe and how you feel. We recognise them. Even little children recognise them. You can always tell the difference between good art, and art that is just there for design. You can’t be religious towards an aesthetic, the work has to be something that expresses feelings. It cannot only be about design and balance and texture. No, it’s got to have emotion. And these even though they are very simple, stark and classical, they are very expressive.”
Joseph has worked on restoration projects for a lot of churches across the country and offers many stories from his working life.
“I remember one day, I was given something from a convent to repair. The nuns brought me a statue of Saint Joseph, but it was just a box of rubble. Of course, it was supposed stand in a chapel as a matching statue to our Lady, so it was to be a very stylised but beautifully designed statue. With patience, and as though it were a jigsaw puzzle I glued all the pieces together. Now, this particular statue had glass eyes, and the eyes in Saint Joseph are brown. There was a real problem because I couldn’t get any brown glass eyes at that stage, so I put blue eyes on it.”
He delights in reminiscing and bursts into laughter. “When it was finished it turned out really well, and the sisters all loved it because Saint Joseph had these beautiful piercing blue eyes! I can’t forget that…”
While most restoration is born of old age and accidents, there are also projects that arise from senseless vandalism. St. Paul’s Church in Coburg has seen vandals break statues a few times, and sometimes they target the same statues.
“More than once they had been pushed from the altar and smashed onto the floor. I remember doing the sacred art and The Immaculate statue there.’
Some statues suffer wear and tear over time. They are created with oil paints and sometimes placed in a position where there is a lot of sunshine or humidity. They’re made of plaster that absorbs humidity and slowly pushes the paint out, making the surface begin a process of cracking and peeling. The repair requires gently scraping the flaking paint and even more gently sanding it down without sanding off the details.
“Once you’ve sanded, then they are repainted from scratch. You give them the undercoat and then you build up the coats of paint. As you build each coat you shade it. It’s not just a matter of one layer of paint, there are many layers. Sometimes there are five or six layers, and they blend into one another as they dry and they create a perfect surface. It’s got to look as if it’s part of the statue, rather than a superimposed colour.”
Joseph tells stories about statues that have been stolen from the church, or that have been so venerated they require work. The feet of Our Lady are especially vulnerable to acts of devotion.
“Like the bronze statue of St. Peter in Rome, his poor foot is almost worn away because every pilgrim that has visited Rome for the last 1500 years or so has rubbed it.”
Large religious pieces can be the work of months of restoration. The slow process means building the texture of paint to create something with realistic detail, and with many thin layers of paint you increase the shading. No colour can be one flat colour. It’s got to have different tones in it, like we have in our ordinary skin. You need to build it up gently, otherwise it looks like your statue is wearing makeup.”
Our lady of Walsingham is a special piece that Joseph created. As a member of St. Mary’s, Joseph always loans statues to the society for religious days and processions. He helped bring an ecumenical procession to life between St. Patrick’s and St. Paul’s Cathedrals. The statue has endured 25 years of annual processions.
“It’s very much loved by everyone. When we come out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral we just put it there at the front for all to enjoy. We have some school boys from St. Patrick’s in Ballarat who carry our Lady in the procession each year. All the people flock around it, some touch the rosary. Even the Anglican parish love it very much, so it’s going to be used for as long as we have the procession.”
Among his favourites are The Immaculate statue of Our Lady with her welcoming hands, and the pilgrim statues of Our Lady of Fatima.
Joseph advises all in the church to be considerate of their statuary, to care for it and protect it. Some of the old churches have beautiful antique statues and they must be maintained well.
“Because there is nothing worse than a statue which is chipped, paint peeling off, dirty. They should be kept in good condition. Even in a modern setting, classical statuary like this could be very welcome. It’s the way you present them, it’s the way you show them to people. If you push them in a corner it doesn’t do the statues or anyone anything useful. The statues look junky. The best thing is not to wash them or use any detergents at all because the detergents bleach the paint. Use a soft brush and just brush the dust off, and wipe them gently with a cloth, don’t do anything else otherwise you have to send them to a person like myself who does proper cleaning and restorations.”
Graham Porter is CCI’s segment lead who represents parishes and religious orders. He advises organisations to actively develop risk management solutions to protect assets.
“It’s also important to remember that risk management helps to protect the health and safety of all of those associated with the work you do as well. We have a range of services to support the church community and includes risk assessment and profiling, workshops, online learning and regular reviews of risk management plans. I may not know how to preserve religious statuary, but I know that having current information from an expert restoration artist will help me to implement the best practice protocols. It’s the same with developing a risk management solution. It makes sense to have the support of regular updates from an insurer who can build on a client’s good intentions with their own expertise of emerging risks and changing laws. Building a risk averse position relies very much on the strength of partnerships.”
Joseph has seen how amateurs with good intentions can accidentally destroy images. “They will say to the parish priest oh Father, I’ll repaint it for you. When it comes back it’s a monster!" he laughs. And I’ve come across a lot of those statues and it’s sad because not knowing how they should be painted you actually destroy everything, as it no longer has that quality that was initially meant to be. For example sometimes the eyes are just a black dot in the middle. You’ve got to paint an eye properly to give it the right expression.”
Occasionally pieces are broken while being moved around, causing a spike in requests for nativity pieces in the run up to Christmas. And then there are those who can’t resist temptation and pieces go missing.
“It’s happened quite a few times. That cute baby Jesus is one of the most common items for me to have to get before Christmas, either because it’s mysteriously disappeared or because it’s broken. A lot of people don’t know these are plaster items and therefore very fragile. As delicate as can be, they treat them as if they were made of iron,” he laughs.
Joseph ensures his work is transported with lots of care and uses wooden crates, but he still feels reticent when sending statues interstate.
“These days the statues are made in fibre glass so they are much stronger. They’re not as delicate as the old plaster ones are. But it’s amazing that they are still in good condition. The good thing about plaster is that it can be repaired very well.”
The statues in the Melbourne studio date from 1850 to 1950, and were created during a period when all countries that were developed after the Industrial Revolution accepted a lot of migration. In Australia, at least 1,000 churches were built during this time and all had to be decorated with stained glass, statues, and brassware. Joseph recalls the many industries that grew up around this building boom of churches.
“There it was, a demand, and the plasterwork makers…most of them came from Tuscany. The Mattei brothers and the Pellegrini family came to Australia from as early as the 1880s and they helped to build little industries around this boom in church building. They used to make statues for all of Melbourne’s churches.”
Lamenting a declining interest for church statuary, Joseph wants to create awareness for these historically valuable pieces. They are important as social documentation and reflect a history of the way people express their faith.
The average life-sized plaster statue ranges between $5,000 to $10,000 to create. A wood carving can cost up to $20,000.
“In the old days plaster was not an expensive medium, and at a time when so much was needed and not all churches could afford expensive marble or bronze statues, or wood carvings for that matter, people opted for plaster.”
Some icons take on additional value because of their identity. A Madonna statue from a prominent cathedral will definitely carry great historical importance.
“In Europe, they have an over-abundance of artwork, but the time will come when these will become valuable as the statues of an era. They will be preserved for historical reasons. The Pellegrini family who came to Australia in the 1880s made statues that would date back to those years, but I expect a lot of their statues were made in between the two world wars. You see, there was very little communication between Australia and Italy about statues being sent over from Europe during the wars, and that’s why the Pellegrini firm sprang up here. Then the Mattei brothers were busy from the 1950s until the 1970s until I bought them out. The Pellegrini family stopped making statues after that, and there used to be a few others that shut down,” he explains.
“They shut down or turned to garden statuary.”