During my doctoral work in religion and art in the late 1970s, at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, in Berkeley, CA, I met Stephen DeStabler. We discussed his work while we stomped around, or we stood and contemplated, what he called his “boneyard.”
His boneyard was the heaps of broken, rejected or half-finished hunks of clay sculpture which littered his backyard. DeStabler worked in huge scale, so the broken and rejected and half-finished hunks sometimes measured several feet on a side.
Nothing delicate was there in the boneyard except—startlingly—now and then there was a broken clay face, half buried among and rising from the shards.
My doctoral program sought two things from its aspirants.
Each of us was charged to produce one piece of art of sufficient excellence and integrity to pass a professional test—that is, to be professionally performed, exhibited, published, etc.
Each of us was charged to write a thesis which bridged the gap between religion and art—using the academic languages of each—focused on the particular art piece we had created.
DeStabler was thirteen years my senior. When he was at the stage in his own life to be a doctoral student, I believe no academic programs such as ours existed. Had there been one, DeStabler might have applied. He would have been a perfect candidate.
(I was the single student who sat on our program’s Admissions Committee; I would have voted yes to his candidature!)
I enjoyed DeStabler’s personality and intellect, and we met several times. Because of the needs of my thesis, I was keenly excited to know how artists who are Christians (not Christians who happened secondarily to be artists) develop an iconography which communicates Christian thought or aspiration to their audiences, and draws the same back out from them.
One day Stephen showed me pictures of his early paintings before he focused on sculpture. I noticed that he used cruciform patterns sometimes although the overall pictures were not religious in image. I asked about this.
(Although the following is from memory, many of its sentences are verbatim.)
‘Was this deliberate, when you were young?’
‘Deliberate, yes, in terms of the way the element works for the design.’ He laughed. ‘But it wasn’t theological.’
‘You really want to know why those cross elements appeared, at first?’
‘I was young when I began to draw, and our family had my grandmother’s farm we could go to for school vacations. There was a big barn. Its rafters were exposed—huge big old pieces of heavy timbers that had been up there under the roof for years. I used to go sketch in the barn. The rafter timbers repeated themselves, one crossed set after the other, down the whole length of the barn’s high loft. I was excited about the way they looked, and I drew them again and again.’
He looked at me and grinned.
I grinned back. ‘Only that?’
‘You’d be surprised how often this happens to us. Nothing religious. Just, I liked the way the rafters looked, crossed. First it was just the image—you know?—the image of the crossed timbers.’
‘Critics have commented on your cruciform imagery as being Christian.’
‘Yes. But that’s after I began to use it, not just to have it there.’
So that’s how it happens, I thought. Funny! One in the eye for over-serious critics! Just a bunch of old barn rafters! Marvelous!
So here’s what I learned from Stephen. Images come in all the time. They are reflected then in any artist’s creations—in their painted or sculpted work, in their music, in their writing, in their dance or theatrical performances.
Christian artists receive from anywhere, too, just as secular artists do. But Christian artists create out of their soul-deep awareness of their world as one suffused by the redemption and truth of the Christian supernatural.
Their receipt is unconscious. Their use of it—their crafting of it—is conscious.
Stephen’s Crucifix was completed in 1968. The corpus is life-sized. (In research for this piece, I have not learned its exact height, but I remember it vividly. It seemed taller than me, with its surrounding base making it even more imposing. And it’s hung quite high, its bottom perhaps ten feet above the floor.) It’s made of high fired clay.
It’s attached, deliberately off-center, to the concrete wall of the sanctuary of Newman Hall’s Holy Spirit Chapel on the University of California’s campus in Berkeley. While still wet, the cement was pressed with upright planks, later ripped away, which have left the impression of wood grain behind.
DeStabler also created other pieces for the sanctuary, an altar, tabernacle, lectern, and presider’s chair. The overall architectural design is by Mario Ciampi.
I love the Crucifix.
I hate the sanctuary.
I love the Crucifix. This is not the historical Jesus. In contemporary Christian art, Jesus is often pictured as though he were a Hollywood hipster, our culture’s effort to make him familiar, pretty, safe.
No. This Jesus with his expressionless face is not safe.
Instead, as Newman Hall’s brochure from the 1970s says, “This is a Christ at the point of breaking through the agony toward resurrection.”
This is God incarnate emerging in resurrection from death, transmuting, about to ascend.
But the impact of the sanctuary as a whole is off-putting. There is nothing about it that speaks sanctuary.
Yes, it has the necessary pieces of furniture—and they have interest because they were fashioned by DeStabler—but they, and the space around them, do not in any way mirror the power of the Crucifix.
It is as though they are a not-well-executed stage set, kind of random, on which, nevertheless, in the far upper distance, a miracle is occurring.
But--wait—maybe that’s the way it really was!
Wish I could go back and ask Stephen.
Among everything else, was he deliberate to craft the intensity of my love/hate reaction? And resolve it with his Crucifix?
If so, now that’s art!