April 23, 2017
New statue at cathedral ‘a labor of love, time and prayer’
By Caroline B. Mooney
LAFAYETTE — In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, parishioner Rachel Witt created a mosaic statue of Mary as a gift for the parish.
“It’s a beautiful expression of faith, and wonderful to have come from such a talented parishioner. I am very grateful for Rachel and her work,” said Father Jeff Martin, pastor of the cathedral parish. He named the statue “Mary, Mother of Mercy, Advocate of Joy.”
“It was a true labor of love, time and prayer,” he said. “I think it’s amazing how Rachel connected different aspects of Mary — from the knots in her rope to the materials used. I like the sense that the statue exemplifies mercy and joy together. It resonated with me when I saw it. I think children can find it very appealing, so it’s great to have it here with a parish school.”
While plans were under way for the parish anniversary celebrations last August, Witt was asked to create an art project.
“I really felt strongly that it needed to be a life-size statue of Mary, although it was initially daunting to take it on,” she said. “Devotion to Mary is something I have struggled with. This is more a gift to me than to the parish. I grew a lot in my faith in the process of making her and that was beautiful for me.
“My husband, Michael, and our six kids make sacrifices every time I take on a large project like this. Nothing happens without their support, encouragement and, sometimes, heavy lifting.”
In planning the project, Witt flooded herself myself with images of Mary so that no single image stood out.
“I looked at about 700 Mary images from all around the world in all different mediums,” she said. “I kept finding myself drawn back to a mature, motherly Mary that I could connect with. It’s been interesting because parishioners have told me they also connect with her, and that makes me feel good.
“I have been working with mosaic for 23 years and always find it to be a peaceful, meditative process. This project was especially so as I was able to blend prayer into the creative process in a way I haven’t done before,” she said.
Witt typically listens to loud 1980s music while working, but this project found her praying many rosaries.
“I’m so grateful for the time in silence and prayer. Every time it seemed I hit a creative hurdle, a solution came,” she said.
Unable to find a fiberglass or resin base to mosaic, Witt decided to create her own, using a wire frame which she weighted and “stuffed.” Empty spaces were filled with expanding foam as a stabilizer and the first carving was done.
“Mosaic is a very slow, meditative, meticulous process,” Witt said. “I placed each piece on there by hand. There are ways to do it faster, but that’s the way I do it. The smallest piece is ¼ inch by about 1/8 inch.”
The statue is a mature and maternal Blessed Mother in a peaceful, prayerful pose.
“Her back is my favorite part,” Witt said. “She is intentionally broad shouldered, like all mothers, carrying burdens and offering protecton.”
Mary is covered in glass “tesserae” — or tiles — of various types.
White roses for purity are at her feet. To make the roses, Witt cut “penny rounds” – tile pieces about the size of a penny.
“In mosaic you’re going to cut yourself,” she said. “I was cut more working on the roses than on any piece I have ever done.”
Mary’s halo is made from a type of glass called “smalti” that contains gold and is trimmed from larger pieces in the manufacturing process.
“It is called ‘gold nails’ and, for me, represents loving sacrifice,” Witt said. “Her skin color was actually tricky for me. I ended up abandoning every color option that I purchased.”
She went to her stash of stained glass, pulling out eight different flesh tones and four different textures.
“Rather than make her one color, I made her every color,” Witt said. “Mary is mother to everyone so it makes sense that she is all colors. Skin color isn’t a relevant factor in her loving us.”
Mary is holding a rope that is knotted on one side and un-knotted on the other.
“This goes with that maternal feeling of Mary caring for us and helping us with our problems; carrying our worldly weight,” Witt said. “The knots wrap around her hands and are unknotted on the other side.”
When making a particularly difficult design decision, she attended Mass at St. Patrick Church, Kokomo.
“I walked in and saw green fleur de lis and I just knew I need to use a fleur de lis,” she said. “St. Patrick’s beautiful worship space, with a color scheme so unlike St. Mary’s, helped me to see the problem a different way.”
The project was designed as an exterior statue but is on display in the cathedral’s gathering space until a permanent space is chosen outside.
It was finished in August and brought into the gathering space in December. In the meantime, fellow parishioner Paul Harshman crafted a wooden base for the statue.
“I felt really honored to be asked to make the base,” Harshman said. “I really think the statue is a beautiful piece and a nice addition to the cathedral. Rachel’s art really shines, and it’s a very special piece.”
“The part I didn’t expect is the people who have come to me and been so open about saying they love her and thanked me for making her,” Witt said. “I needed to make her, I wanted to make here, and I loved making her. And I didn’t need anyone to thank me, but they did and I find it really embarrassing. I’m excited that she can be here. This is my family’s parish and I am really grateful to have her here.”
Witt expressed her gratitude for the support of beloved sisters in Christ who gave encouragement and prayers throughout the project; to Father Martin, Harshman, and members of the parish’s 150th anniversary committee — particularly Carolyn Kamp and Andy Eubank.
“I have made a lot of mosaics, and she is the coolest thing I have ever made,” she said. “I am consistently in awe and humbled by all who contribute such a wide range of beautiful God given talents to the St. Mary’s community. It is truly a blessing to be able to contribute from mine.”