National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Blessed Mother Brings Sculptor Home

Thomas Marsh Takes the Classic Approach


April 12-18, 2009 Issue | Posted 4/3/09 at 1:12 PM


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.

Marsh’s 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.

Did your works and faith intertwine as you grew up?

I grew up in western Iowa, raised as a Lutheran. My mother was a faithful Christian.

I 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.

For graduate school, I discovered the California State University-Long Beach sculpture department that Kenneth Glenn had established. Divine Providence came upon graduation in 1977.

Glenn 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.

Visiting 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.

What’s one of your fondest memories of God’s presence in your life at that time?

I 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.”

She 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.

[One 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.”

That’s why I credit Mary so much in my conversion.

Without 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 mother, Florence.

It 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!

I didn’t know much about Catholicism, but I did believe holy Communion was the body and blood of Christ.

My wife and I both converted together. In Easter of 1999, we made our profession of faith.

How do you view your art and faith after your conversion experience?

I 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.

God 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?

John 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.

At 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?

That’s 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.

Staff writer

Joseph Pronechen

is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.