Stations of the Cross sculptures come to fruition at Notre Dame Prep from unlikely partnership
Jan 24, 2019
In their physical forms, the stations are typically represented by a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ, each corresponding to a particular incident in his sorrowful journey.
Stations have become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "a devotion carried out by passing from station to station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn."
For members of the Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy community, the completion of a new science, art and technology wing brought an additional bonus as the courtyard adjacent to the wing now includes stunning representations of those Stations of the Cross, which were installed in early November after a nearly yearlong fabrication effort by Detroit artist Scott Berels.
"I had just finished with this other giant metal rebar project, so it seemed very fitting and the timing was right when I met with Mark and Sandy over at the school," recalled Berels, whose metalwork art has won numerous awards over the years, including from the Detroit Artists Market and the Grand Rapids-based ArtPrize.
"Sandy" is Notre Dame art department chair Sandy LewAllen, and "Mark" is longtime NDPMA middle-division religion teacher Mark McGreevy, who provided the original inspiration for the project.
"All three of us really hit it off," Berels said. "And I think we all were sort of on the same mental track as far as what the product would look like. Mark, Sandy and I just really got along well through the concept stage and as we were figuring out how we were going to convey each step of the story. We knew we wanted to do it differently than how it was ever done before — but still make it understandable, too."
This unlikely team of a decidedly nonreligious sculptor and two Catholic schoolteachers had its beginnings even before the bricks and mortar were first laid on the new wing's foundation. That's when McGreevy first approached school administrators about his idea to install the stations near the new facility.
After NDPMA corporate president Fr. Leon Olszamowski, SM, and school head Andy Guest both agreed to explore the project, McGreevy put together a number of sketches to help define what his vision was for each of the Stations. Olszamowski and Guest immediately signed off and the project was begun.
From concept to completion
But first they needed to find someone to make those sketches a reality.
"I originally reached out to a group of metal artists I was aware of based in Detroit," LewAllen said. "Scott Berels was highly recommended, so we met with him and knew immediately that he was the right person. His previous work in metal was not only creative, it was inspiring."
For Berels, he said that in the beginning, after receiving the green light for the project, he basically told McGreevy he was initially going to be in listen-only mode.
"I said to Mark that he's more of the conceptual expert on this project, although I'm also going to do my own homework and chime in where appropriate," he said. "But you know, at the end of the day, I told him that he was going to be the guy who says yes or no during the entirety of the project."
Berels said he started with McGreevy's basic compositional images and then elaborated on them — or simplified them in some cases. He cited the eighth Station where Jesus greets the women of Jerusalem as a good example of this.
"Mark and I had a really, really interesting time with that one as we went back and forth with at least four or five different iterations. Mark's original sketch showed these numerous delicate hands almost touching the face of Jesus. But we totally changed that composition to be more minimal and yet more impactful."
McGreevy agreed that that particular piece presented some additional challenges.
"It looked really nice on paper, but the reality of doing it in steel posed a huge problem," he said. "I suggested only one hand versus many reaching and embracing Christ’s face and Scott did a great job interpreting that idea. He also added strands of hair that ran through the hand giving it that extra touch."
Berels' "extra touch" has been evident on many projects over the course of a career that began during his last year of high school at Birmingham Seaholm — which is where "this whole art thing first started," he said.
He would go on to earn degrees from Oakland Community College and Wayne State University, where he studied photography and sculpture. Today, happily ensconced in a studio/workshop near Corktown in Detroit, Berels specializes in sculpture, especially metalwork sculpture, and fabrication and CNC applications. He has earned numerous accolades and scholarships, and has held solo and group exhibitions at Detroit's 555 Gallery, the College for Creative Studies, MOCAD Detroit, Wayne State University and the Cass Cafe, among many others.
His work and reputation also have led to many commissions, including a special metalworked sign for the front of Jack White's Third Man Records store that opened in 2015 in Detroit's Cass Corridor.
Berels' sculptural style has been compared to "graffiti using recycled metal" and one of his go-to materials is rebar, or reinforced steel bars, which typically are used to help reinforce concrete roads, bridges and building structures.
Trip to Israel
According to McGreevy, it was Berels' familiarity with welding and metal pieces like rebar that helped turn the stations project into such a success.
"My initial reaction after we started on the project back in January was that it was going to take a lot longer than I thought," McGreevy said. "Some of the stations were way too complex and we knew some of them needed to be redefined. It's a very complicated medium to work with. At the same time, however, I was very excited to see everything get going."
McGreevy noted that in the case of the station that depicts Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, a trip he took to Israel this year was instrumental in a redefining of its design.
"I actually learned there that Veronica was not the actual name of the woman, so it placed a bit of a different value on the cloth part of my original sketch," he said. "That is how we ended up with the final piece, which most people I have talked to like the most. It puts emphasis on the cloth itself rather than the woman. It's also a good example of how things were changed throughout this process because of the complexity of the original design vs. the materials Scott was using. However, I think those redesigns are extremely successful."
Also successful, according to McGreevy, was the rather unique relationship he established with the artist.
"Scott was so easy to work with," he said. "I think at first he was skeptical and held back a little. He does not have a strong Catholic background, but I actually viewed that as an asset, not a hindrance."
McGreevy said Berels was like a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, when it came to religion, which, he said, allowed for a unique perspective of Catholic history.
"From the start I told him that he is the artist and I will rely on his judgment and creativity," McGreevy said. "I think he felt comfortable with that idea as we built trust in each other."
It's a process McGreevy is very familiar with due to his early years as a practicing architect.
"Back then, I often had to develop relationships with the tradesman," he said. "It is a strange sort of thing because each job I was required to show that I knew what I was talking about yet at the same time I was not a threat to them. I think Scott was a little like that in the beginning; 'Who is this old guy and he’s probably not going to listen to me at all.' I think in the end the product speaks for itself. It was a great collaboration and I would do it again the very same way."
For Berels, he, too, was very happy with the working relationship with McGreevy.
"I think he really kind of broke out of his mold a little bit with me," he said. "It was funny, when people would observe us working together they would say things like 'wow, you guys really are an awesome team.' And we both would look at each other and laugh. But it's true, we really were an awesome team."
Berels noted that despite their obvious differences, there never was an issue.
"We just kept in really good contact along the way and during every meeting we had," he said. "Mark was so enthusiastic. I was constantly surprised by his reactions every time he came down here to my studio, which was at least five or six times during the project."
Now, as the Stations of the Cross are gathering a more pronounced oxidized "patina" — all by design, according to both McGreevy and Berels — Notre Dame's Sandy LewAllen weighs in with her overall assessment of their collaboration, which she can easily see just outside her new art room.
"The medium of metal itself has many limitations, but Mark and Scott's way of using it as a way to tell the story of Christ’s Passion is nothing short of remarkable," she said. "The abstract designs draw us in and encourages us to meditate on the shapes and forms that depict each special station of the cross. They are gorgeous and occupy a perfect setting for our students and staff to draw nearer to Christ by contemplating and meditating on each station."
Story by Mike Kelly, marketing director for Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy in Pontiac, first published on NDPMA’s website, ndpma.org.