Im­age, vis­i­ble. God, in­vis­i­ble.

Sculp­ture from Spain com­mis­sioned for Siloam Springs church.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - LAURINDA JOENKS

Mem­bers of St. Mary Catholic Church in Siloam Springs might feel just a lit­tle bit closer to their Christ next week. The church un­veils three sculp­tures that will be dear to the hearts of mem­bers.

Life-size like­nesses of the Vir­gin Mary, St. Joseph and Je­sus as an in­fant were com­mis­sioned by the church with An­gel Pan­toja of Spain. A Mass for re­veal­ing and bless­ing the pieces starts at 6:30 p.m. Tues­day, to be fol­lowed by a re­cep­tion.

The day is spe­cial for the con­gre­ga­tion. That day, Catholics cel­e­brate the As­sump­tion of the Vir­gin Mary (into heaven), and it also is the 33rd an­niver­sary of the lo­cal church, said Me­lanie Mal­don­ado, a church mem­ber who served as an in­ter­preter for Pan­toja. Je­sus died when he was 33, and that num­ber also has be­come im­por­tant to the Catholic faith­ful, Mal­don­ado said.

“This project came about on the in­ter­est of some peo­ple from our church who saw some pic­tures of re­li­gious art that I per­son­ally took in Spain,” said the Rev. Sal­vador Mar­quez-Munoz. The project was an­nounced about two years ago, and money to pay for it was raised in just three weeks, he said.

The sculp­tures will stand on per­ma­nent dis­play in the church sanc­tu­ary, re­plac­ing cur­rent stat­ues. “The present re­li­gious stat­ues would go in our cry room un­til we are able to raise enough money to build a larger church,” Mar­quez-Munoz said.

The art can “en­hance the de­vo­tional di­men­sion” of one’s Chris­tian faith, Mar­quez-Munoz said. Mem­bers might stop by the sculp­tures and pray.

Catholics re­late to the saints in an af­fec­tion­ate way, Mal­don­ado said, and touch­ing holy items — such as the sculp­tures once they have been blessed — can be an in­ter­ces­sion. “If you be­lieve in the saints, you be­lieve they are more alive than we are be­cause they have eter­nal life,” she ex­plained. “If you are sick, you ask the saints to pray for you be­cause they are closer to Je­sus.”

“Faith as God is in­vis­i­ble,” Pan­toja said. “A way to be­lieve in God is touch­ing the ob­jects to be­lieve he is touch­ing you, not just watch­ing.

“In a way, it’s peo­ple pay­ing their re­spects,” he con­tin­ued. “I think they are go­ing to get peace­ful­ness in­side, a quiet­ness.”

DREAM COMES TRUE

Af­ter see­ing Pan­toja’s work in Spain, Mar­quez-Munoz con­tacted the artist via Face­book. “He liked the re­al­is­tic way I made the stat­ues,” Pan­toja said.

The com­mis­sion is a “dream come true,” Pan­toja said. Prior to the Siloam Springs pieces, all of Pan­toja’s work re­mained in Spain. He did get re­quests for pric­ing from other places, but St. Mary’s was the first to give him “a go-ahead,” he said.

It also is a dream to travel to the United States to see the work he cre­ated and signed be un­veiled, he said.

The bulk of Pan­toja’s work — which he com­pletes with his wife, Ana Rey, who also is a sculp­tor — is re­li­gious art, he ex­plained.

Mem­bers of broth­er­hood and sis­ter­hood re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions in Spain carry his work through the streets and on floats to cel­e­brate the Pas­sion of Christ dur­ing Holy Week.

Pan­toja be­gan his craft in kinder­garten with chil­dren’s dough for mod­el­ing. His fa­ther — who paints as a hobby — gave him a sheet of clay for Christ­mas when he was 10. He got his first job for a wood carv­ing of the Madonna when he was 20,

said the now-38-year-old. He holds a fine arts de­gree from the Univer­sity of Seville.

For any piece, Pan­toja starts by mak­ing a plas­ter model, of­ten for the ap­proval of his client. Then he uses a chisel to cut the wood. Next, he sands the piece and ap­plies a plas­ter be­cause the wood is por­ous. He paints the features in oils and ap­plies a piece of an­i­mal skin to elim­i­nate brush strokes.

While other artists use pre­made crys­tals for the eyes of their fig­ures, Pan­toja in­sists on paint­ing them, to draw in the viewer. He adds sparkling points with var­nish, as if one could see a re­flec­tion in the eyes of the fig­ure. He ex­plained the faces — es­pe­cially the eyes — are most im­por­tant on a sculp­ture as a way to trans­mit faith.

The fig­ures to be un­veiled Tues­day will be

dressed in real gar­ments made by other artists. The Vir­gin’s crown and Joseph’s staff also were made by oth­ers.

Pan­toja ex­plained he uses no mod­els for his sculp­tures. “It’s not an earthly face. You will not find any­body who looks like that.”

“Ev­ery piece is unique, one of a kind, and will never be re­peated,” said Mar­quez-Munoz, who fol­lows Pan­toja’s work. “He does not use a par­tic­u­lar model. It comes from his imag­i­na­tion and from his heart.”

CON­NEC­TION

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of her role as in­ter­preter, Mal­don­ado got a peek of her church’s art on Pan­toja’s cell phone Wed­nes­day evening. She greeted each im­age with happy ex­cla­ma­tions, and re­acted to the baby Je­sus as one might at see­ing a cute picture

of a beloved child. She said she is ex­cited about the project for her five chil­dren.

Mal­don­ado ex­plained that the fam­ily moved to Siloam Springs three years ago af­ter at­tend­ing the or­nate and his­toric St. Ed­ward Catholic Church in Lit­tle Rock. “The kids view this church as kind of ‘plain,’” she said. “It’s very ex­cit­ing to bring a lot of beauty to the church and, I hope, spir­i­tual con­nec­tion. Ev­ery week, my 5-year-old points out, ‘There’s Mary. And there’s the baby Je­sus.’ They make the faith come alive.”

“I feel very, very lucky do­ing my job,” Pan­toja said. “Me and my fam­ily are Catholic, so I am lucky do­ing this.” He knows his work can lead oth­ers to God, and they might pray on the like­nesses.

Pan­toja ex­plained he has a cousin, who is not

“re­li­gious.” The cousin had seen the artist at work and thought of it merely as, “OK, you have a cool job,’” Pan­toja re­lated.

Then, the cousin chanced into a chapel with some of Pan­toja’s work and was so im­pressed to see young peo­ple, an older lady with a cane, come to pray and look into the eyes of Mary.

“He said, ‘Those are your sculp­tures, the ones I saw you carv­ing.’ He couldn’t be­lieve it works like magic.”

Pan­toja said he tries to make his pieces very re­al­is­tic, “so it is very easy for peo­ple to feel in their heart, their faith and the call of their faith.”

“We used to say in Spain, ‘Im­age, vis­i­ble. God, in­vis­i­ble,’” he said through Mal­don­ado.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

This sculp­ture of the Vir­gin Mary is an ex­am­ple of the work of An­gel Pan­toja of El Puerto de Santa Maria in the An­dalu­cian area of Spain. Pan­toja was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate three works — St. Joseph, Mary and an in­fant Je­sus — for St. Mary Catholic Church in Siloam Springs. The art will be un­veiled and blessed dur­ing a Mass on Tues­day.

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