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Thomas Marsh credits Mary with his conversion to the faith — and faith for giving his artwork meaning.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Thomas Marsh is a noted sculptor of religious
themes as well as secular ones. He studied both realistic painting and
figurative sculpture, the latter with Kenneth Glenn, who apprenticed with
internationally known Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrovic, often thought to be the
greatest sculptor of religious art since the Renaissance.
works include bigger-than-life-size figures, from the bronze 7-foot seated St.
Joseph Patron of the Unborn, to bas reliefs of St. Joseph’s Seven Sorrows and
Joys at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Santa Cruz, Calif., to the bronze statue of
John the Baptist at Mission San Juan Bautista, Calif. He spoke about his work,
his conversion, and religious art from his home in Orange, Va.
works and faith intertwine as you grew up?
grew up in western Iowa, raised as a Lutheran. My mother was a faithful
had a good upbringing with conservative values. That was coincident with doing
serious artwork from 8 years old using my older sister’s artist modeling clay.
These first sculptures were small portrait busts — personality types. I loved
to do sculpture, drawing and paintings more than anything else. Then, in 1966,
I declared myself an atheist.
Yet you saw
the hand of divine Providence even then.
graduate school, I discovered the California State University-Long Beach
sculpture department that Kenneth Glenn had established. Divine Providence came
upon graduation in 1977.
got a call from [film director] George Lucas in June after Star Wars
opened. I got a job offer from them, and, at the same time, received an offer
to apprentice in Rome. I chose Italy.
St. Peter’s numerous times and being very familiar with great historical works
of Catholic art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, I was immersed in
that world from the artistic view. God was working on me in a very thorough way
from the bottom up.
of your fondest memories of God’s presence in your life at that time?
was giving a workshop on portrait and sculpture at a Catholic retreat center. A
nun, Sister Janet, said, “We have a little sculpture job; a statue of the
Blessed Mother was vandalized and needed repair.” I gave a bid of $320, an odd
figure. Next day she said, “We can do the job because an elderly woman called
and wanted to donate $320 to us.”
didn’t know about any bid. I thought: an interesting coincidence. I still
considered myself an atheist. Later, I came to realize it was no coincidence at
all. It was the hand of God.
day] I was working on a reredos for a Lutheran church. I was totally focused on
Mary, and they were Lutheran. I got half way through a 7-foot-by-9-foot drawing, and they said, “No.” It was during the
time finishing these drawings that focused so much on Mary that I was able to
say, “Yes, I do believe in God.”
why I credit Mary so much in my conversion.
a doubt, my mother prayed for me daily during my 20 years as an atheist. Those
were the factors I am certain that brought me back to God — Our Mother and my
took a few more years to say, “I am a Christian.” I felt when I was ripe, the
Holy Spirit just blew on me and I fell over!
didn’t know much about Catholicism, but I did believe holy Communion was the
body and blood of Christ.
wife and I both converted together. In Easter of 1999, we made our profession
How do you
view your art and faith after your conversion experience?
did religious work even when I was an atheist. [I had] no problem restoring the
hands of Mary or doing scenes from the birth of Christ. With all the Italian
Renaissance studies in my life, religious themes are ingrained in me. But now I
can do religious work and have my heart in it.
gave me a gift that is very rare, and it’s my obligation to use it. Otherwise,
we’re falling into the trap of burying the talents.
Where do some
of your ideas for religious art also come from?
Paul II’s Letter to Artists and Pope Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy. From my understanding, works of art serve two broad functions in the
Church. One is the heart of the liturgy, and the other is in decorative
elements in Church environment, which are teaching and evangelism tools.
their best, the art works have the capacity to transform the viewers, to open
their eyes to deeper truths of the faith.
Do you have
any favorite works?
like asking which your favorite child is. Perhaps the one with great personal
meaning and the most complex of the works because it involved architecture is
St. Joseph Patron of the Unborn. And because we were able to participate in the
shrine after it was completed. We were able to add a stone to the wall. (See “St. Joseph’s Gentle Strength” in the Register’s
March 15 issue.)
In the struggle to fight the
abortion forces, I hope this can be my contribution to that battle.
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.