Baton Rouge artist brings faith to MBS school through her sculptures

By Rachele Smith

The Catholic Commentator

It started as a simple request.

Michael deGraauw, a junior at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, was looking for an Eagle Scout project.

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Darrell Jones, far right, works on getting one of the newly constructed crosses readyto hold the weight of a bronze relief sculpture as, from left, Mathew Aquillard, Mark Conger, Michael Conger and Michael deGraauw watch. Photo provided by James deGraauw

 

Hoping to earn the highest rank in Boy Scouting, deGraauw went to his former elementary school and sought ideas from David Planche, director of Christian formation at Most Blessed Sacrament Church and School in Baton Rouge.

The result? A project that not only forged together the talents of a variety of people, including a Baton Rouge professional artist, but one that also left a powerful faith-filled presence at MBS school.

“I wasn’t expecting Mr. David to ask me to help replace the Stations of the Cross, but I’m glad he did,” said deGraauw.

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As his wife Deborah Luke remotely controls a balance weight, Barry Luke guides hot molten bronze into the hollow cast of what will become “The Resurrection,” or the 15th Station of the Cross. Photo by Rachele Smith | The Catholic Commentator

 

Planche explained the school’s old Stations of the Cross were simple wooden crosses made of fence board materials. They were set up every year during Lent along the garden pathway at the school so all students could pray the Stations of the Cross.

But exposed to the unpredictable spring weather patterns in South Louisiana, the modest crosses needed to be replaced every so many years, and Planche said he envisioned something more.

“I always had this hope, this desire that we could replace these temporary crosses with something permanent because it is such a part of our Catholic identity as a Catholic school,” he said.

With deGraauw’s interest and permission from Father Phil Spano, pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, Planche reached out to a local artist he had long admired, Deborah Luke.

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Once the ceramic shell is separated, details of “The Resurrection” are revealed in this photo. The 15th Station of the Cross is scheduled to be installed and dedicated once the garden courtyard at MBS School is renovated. Photo by Rachele Smith | The Catholic Commentator

 

“She created the sculpture of Bishop (Stanley J.) Ott in the Catholic Life Center,” he said. “I have always been so moved by that.”

Luke, a noted liturgical sculptor, is frequently commissioned to create pieces throughout the country. She has another work on display in Baton Rouge, this one at St. Aloysius Church. Called “Gentle Hands,” a bronze angel sculpture, that honors and remembers the lives of children lost to miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.

Luke, in addition to sculpturing, is also a talented two-dimensional artist and was recently the only artist selected to illustrate an original prayer composed by Pope Francis called “O Cross of Christ.” She said when she was asked to consider creating Stations of the Cross for MBS, she began looking for a design so the wooden cross and a bronze relief could work together for each station. Luke described a relief as a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to the bronze background.

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David Planche, director of Christian formation at Most Blessed Sacrament Church and School in Baton Rouge, pauses to reflect at one of the Stations of the Cross recently installed in the school’s lush garden. Photo by Rachele Smith | The Catholic Commentator

 

But more than anything she allowed her faith to inspire her, something she has been doing since a trip to Rome in 1996.

Luke, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge, said as a youth she was always interested in drawing and sculpturing. Eventually, she studied art in college under the tutorage of noted Louisiana sculptor Angela Gregory, who studied under Antoine Bourdelle, considered one of the most accomplished students of Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor highly regarded for his influence on modern art.

However, during her visit to Rome, Luke said the beauty of sacred images began to stir her soul, and she returned home with an intense desire to emulate the Italian masters, ultimately giving way to her own personal expression of Scripture.

“In a very direct way, most of my work comes from the Word,” she said, adding that she finds both comfort and inspiration in Scripture.

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Right, each sculpture’s exquisite design and attention to detail is captured in this photo. Photo by Rachele Smith | The Catholic Commentator

 

“Art can be a lonely pursuit, but the beauty of creating sacred art is you are never alone because Scripture is always with you,” she said.

After Luke’s original clay designs for the Stations of the Cross at MBS were accepted, she and her husband, Barry, began the multi-step process of turning clay into bronze, which included creating a so-called “mother mold” for each piece, using a centuries-old lost-wax process that ultimately allowed the molten bronze liquid to be poured and finally breaking the cast so the final image could be finished.

With work on the bronze relief sculptures proceeding, Darrell Jones, a former school parent with experience in woodworking, stepped in to help with the wood for the crosses.

Planche said they chose a Spanish cedar since it is hardier than American cedar.

“It’s also the same wood used in construction of the main doors to MBS Church,” he added, noting that Jones also assisted in supervising deGraauw and other scouts from Boy Scout Troop 888 in building the crosses. Jones and Dennis Bourgeois, maintenance supervisor at MBS, who created the in-ground fleur-de-lis iron supports for the crosses, were also on hand to help with installing the crosses, which took place before the start of Lent.

deGraauw, who recently completed his final Board of Review and is now an Eagle Scout, said the project will also have a 15th station.

Planche said this additional station is called “The Resurrection” and will honor any student, past or present and from either the school or the church’s catechism program, who died too soon.

“We want to remember these young people who now share new life in heaven with our Father,” he said, adding the final station will be installed and dedicated after the school’s courtyard is renovated over the summer.

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While Deborah Luke smiles with anticipation, Barry Luke cautiously breaks the ceramic shell away from the bronze metal. “It’s like Christmas morning every time we do this part,” Deborah Luke said. Photo by Rachele Smith | The Catholic Commentator

 

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This illustration from the book “O Cross of Christ,” recently published by Liturgical Press, shows not only the extended talent of local artist Deborah Luke, but also her Louisiana roots. The scene, a reference to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which also features 11 crosses to remember those who died in the explosion and sinking of the oil rig, was used to illustrate a stanza of Pope Francis’ prayer which reflected on the “selfishness” of those who “ruin the future of coming generations.” The pope recited his original prayer for the first time last year after presiding over the Stations of the Cross in the Coliseum in Rome. Luke was the only artist chosen to illustrate the 29-page prayer book. In addition, Luke was one of three artists selected nationwide to illustrate the 2018 Living Liturgy series published by Liturgical Press.