Rooted in Carmel

April 28, 2012 |

What most of us simply would have seen as a dead pine tree that needed to be removed, Anthony Santella saw as an opportunity. The thirty-something artist, computer science PhD and longtime parishioner at St. Anastasia’s parish in Teaneck NJ noticed the tree on the parish grounds and approached pastor Fr. Dan O’Neill, O. Carm. about doing something with it. In the following interview Santella talks about the inspiration behind his sculpture of the blessed mother carved out of the tree’s trunk as well as how he balances his own eclectic background as an artist, computer graphics PhD and Catholic.

Q. How did you come to create this sculpture?

A. This piece came about largely by chance. My work uses reclaimed wood that I collect mostly off the street; so I’m always on the look out for interesting pieces of wood or trees about to come down. Coming in and out of church I’d noticed that this pine tree next to the rectory had died over the winter. Over a couple weeks of looking at it I started to think that it would be a great chance to create a larger than usual piece. It also seemed like an opportunity to turn the death of tree on the church property into a special piece of art for the parish I grew up and was married in. I contacted the pastor, Fr. Dan about the idea of volunteering to do something with the tree. He had been planning to call the tree service to remove it the next week. When they came and took the rest down, they left the bottom 8 feet of the tree for me to work with.

Q. What’s the inspiration behind it?

A. The piece takes a lot from traditional images of Mary. Here I’ve simplified the shapes a bit reducing the inessential, like drapery to very simple forms to try and keep focus on the essentials, the details of the face and hands clasped in prayer. After carving it over the summer, the piece has been sitting exposed over the winter developing a weathered gray finish. This supports the organic aesthetic I’m pursuing in the whole project. Using pieces of trees downed in several recent storms I’m currently planning to build a shelter over the piece, which will help preserve it somewhat from the elements while keeping it outdoors and allowing it to develop a weathered historical look. I’ve been strongly impressed by the sense of age and power in old weathered wooden images of the virgin I’ve seen in museums, some of which sat in niches exposed to the elements for 50, 100 years. I wanted to create a piece that captured some of that feeling of endurance.

Q. How long did it take? Were there any particular challenges around making it?

“I’ve been strongly impressed by the sense of age and power in old weathered wooden images of the virgin I’ve seen in museums, some of which sat in niches exposed to the elements for 50, 100 years. I wanted to create a piece that captured some of that feeling of endurance.”
A. The main carving I worked on over a number weekends during the summer. There are about 10 days worth of carving in it. I’m still in the process of building a shelter over the piece, so its not done yet. The carving itself, though pretty much done, is still a work in progress in that its final appearance is somewhat in God’s hands. I imagined the piece from the beginning having a weathered gray finish, and it’s about halfway through the process of acquiring that. The day I finished the carving itself, I finished it with relatively little idea how it would ultimately look. My process on this piece was a little unusual in that on large pieces I often do a lot of roughing work with power tools, but beyond the first day when I trimmed the trunk with a chainsaw this project has been entirely done with hand tools, which is slower and physically more challenging, but also a more meditative process.

Q. What have people’s reactions been? Anyone not “get it?”

A. Overall the parish’s response has been very positive, I haven’t gotten any complaints yet. Something that I find interesting is that people are somewhat split. Some view the piece primarily as a work of art, and bring to conversations whatever sculptural reference points they have, from memories of their own art school days to a really impressive topiary sculpture they saw once. Others see the piece more as a devotional object that I’m donating to the church. Both are legitimate perspectives, I like that both groups get to see not just the finished object but also the process of its creation.

Q. Tell us about your background as an artist.

A. I have a somewhat unusual background as an artist in that I have an academic background in computer science, particularly computer graphics. However, in woodcarving I’m entirely self-taught. I come from a family of mechanical tinkerers, and as long as I can remember I’ve been making something else out of anything that fell into my hands. Somewhere I have my first woodcarving made at age 8 with my first Swiss army knife. It’s something I’ve just kept at, trying to make the wood do what I wanted.

Q. It sounds as though you have an eclectic set of passions that might not immediately make sense to outsiders at first glance.

“Images of women are pretty central in my art. A lot of the ideas I’m trying to convey have something to do with fortitude and the beauty of resistance in the face of suffering and adversity.”
A. I definitely have my feet in a lot of different worlds. I am an artist, a Catholic, an environmentalist, I’m trained as a computer scientist, but I work with developmental biologists. That can make for an uncomfortable experience at times. Each of these worlds works with a rather different set of assumptions and are not always very welcoming to having other assumptions intrude into business as usual. I think this discomfort is important however. We all need all of these perspectives, the humility of honest faith, the poetic intuition of the arts, the analytic skills and practical perspectives that come from science and engineering. Keeping one’s foot in each of these worlds helps keep perspective not only in conflicts between these areas, but in facing challenges within any one area. Certainly the religious perspective has shaped the way I see the purpose and process of creating my art, and the way I try and process its conflicts with my other obligations. Similarly, the same analytical perspective underlies my work as a computer scientist, the practical engineering-oriented aspects of my sculpture, and the emphasis on logic rather than sentiment in my religious perspective.

Q. What is the interest in sculpting women?

A. Images of women are pretty central in my art. Part of the reason I think is that a lot of my work is symbolic on some level, trying to convey some idea or scenario through the figure. A lot of the ideas I’m trying to convey have something to do with fortitude and the beauty of resistance in the face of suffering and adversity. Perhaps influenced by the tradition of depictions of Mary, as well as by growing up in an Italian family where there’s something of a tradition of women being the ‘adult’ of the family, images of women seem a more effective subject for conveying those ideas.

Q. Does the Blessed mother play a special role in your spirituality?

A. It’s hard to explicitly dissect ones own spirituality; the advantage of art is the ability to hint without using words. But I grew up in the same house as my grandparents, surrounded by images of the virgin, and I’ve done a number of paintings of her, though this strangely enough is the first time I’ve carved her. I think I’m drawn to her image for a lot of the traditional reasons. On some level her example of acceptance and strength corresponds in a more easily understood way with our daily small experiences of suffering and confusion than the larger elements of the Christian mystery.

Q. Is there any tension between being an artist and being a practicing Catholic? What about tension or misunderstanding from other artists?

“I sometimes feel like a bit of a closet Catholic in my dealings with other artists. Like in the professional scientific world, one tends to talk about faith if someone else brings it up, but etiquette sort of dictates you don’t bring it up. Some of my work is overtly faith based, or like this piece exists in a religious context.
A. There’s definitely a tension between being Catholic and an artist, a tension that is strange particularly because it feels like it shouldn’t be there. The history of art and religion are totally intertwined until quite recently. Obviously most famous pieces of western art were sponsored by the church. Partly there is a misty sense that (modern) art or artists are immoral in some way. But much more real for me is the tension not between religion and art, but between American Catholic popular culture and the artist. Here there’s a very real tension between the primacy of working at a real (i.e. well paying) job and providing for your family, and the personal (and by implication selfish) desire to work at a very economically marginal activity, art. I feel that I need to do this, because I believe I can create objects that, though inherently valueless themselves, can help me, and hopefully others, understand our lives, our relationships with others, with God. I’m not sure that there is any resolution to this tension. As a culture, both religious and secular, we’re fixated on other kinds of commodities and other ways of finding meaning and I think art is going to remain economically marginal except in the rare cases where fashion makes it a form of investment. I hope in my work to at least draw what connections I can between art and finding meaning in life, something which if not profitable, at least most people could agree is important.

I sometimes feel like a bit of a closet Catholic in my dealings with other artists. Like in the professional scientific world, one tends to talk about faith if someone else brings it up, but etiquette sort of dictates you don’t bring it up. Some of my work is overtly faith based, or like this piece exists in a religious context. Frequently however, my faith isn’t directly obvious in my work. I think this creates an interesting opportunity for communication. People of all kinds of beliefs can be moved by a work, relate it to their own work, and feel a spiritual message in it that they necessarily see through their own lens. I’ve certainly had conversations about art and my work with people who are surprised late in the conversation to learn I’m Catholic, having assumed I was a New Ager or a Neo Pagan, times like that are a beautiful opportunity to combat stereotypes.

Q. Do you see any connections between your work and Carmelite spirituality?

A. I’ll admit that before having the question posed to me, I’d never thought about there being such a thing as Carmelite spirituality. I’ve lived most of my life in a Carmelite parish, had first communion, confirmation and was married at St Anastasia the parish in which I created this carving, I don’t know however that I’ve ever thought about the topic explicitly. I know that there’s a tradition of special devotion to Mary, and a tradition of contemplative prayer. There is at least a slight connection between the way an artist looses themselves while working and the contemplative tradition. I’ve also read and enjoyed St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, and been deeply impressed by the life of Edith Stein.

See a slideshow of the sculpture below.

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Anthony Santella
Anthony Santella is an artist and computer science PhD. His reclaimed wood sculptures explore world traditions of ritual woodcarving in a modern context (the sculpture on his blog graphic is a self portrait). His computer science research explores problems in image analysis, visualization and computational biology. He is a near lifelong parishioner of the Carmelite parish, St. Anastasia’s in Teaneck, NJ.
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