A Melbourne artist's labour of love

A Melbourne artist's labour of love

Michael Gilchrist

A retired art teacher, Joseph Giansiracusa, has worked tirelessly, almost single-handedly, to raise the profile of sacred art in Australia and to "bring Christ back into Christmas" through his Nativity displays. It has all obviously been a labour of love for him, his helpers and his supporters.

As a member of the worldwide Friends of the Christmas Crib Association, which is dedicated to promoting the Nativity as the representation of Christmas, Mr Giansiracusa first launched his Nativity displays for members of the Italian community and many of them have been organised for hospitals, shopping centres and social clubs. If anyone asks, he can set up a Nativity scene.

His current ambition is to present his major Nativity play in English at the end of this year. He is particularly concerned at the disappearance of a religious presence from the public arena, with displays in major shops like Myers showing little sign of the true meaning of Christmas.

Collection

Joseph Giansiracusa arrived in Australia from Italy aged 12 in 1957. He recalls always loving religious objects ("one of the great loves of my life") and used to make his own out of clay or plasticene. He brought some with him from Italy and has been collecting sacred objects ever since, so that he now owns a magnificent collection. The collection has continued to be built up by attending auctions - "I bought half the statues from the Good Shepherd Convent, Abbotsford."

It was in the course of "rescuing" religious statues that he met one of the Mattei Brothers who had produced most of the statues to be found in Catholic churches throughout Australia since the 1920s. The Mattei brothers had come from Lucca, an area in Italy famous for its religious art works. He recalls: "I pestered Mattei to teach me his skills and methods. I had done a painting course and knew how to paint - but needed to know the methods with statues. We became friends and he basically gave me the business for nothing. He knew I was interested and that I would carry it on - and he didn't want to split it up."

Having been an art teacher for 16 years in Catholic schools - leaving this profession ten years ago - Mr Giansiracusa had pursued his fascination for sacred objects part-time. About seven years ago, he decided to go into business full-time, setting up a shop of religious supplies which is now at its third location in the Melbourne suburb of Preston.

He makes statues to order, which can involve up to six months' work for a life-size statue, and retail prices ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. The usual favourites remain in demand: Our Lord, Our Lady, St Joseph, St Teresa, St Patrick, St Anthony, etc. To make a statue from scratch, without an existing mould, means creating a model in clay and producing a mould from that in fibre glass - which is immensely time-consuming.

Some of his collection is on display at his Preston shop and any of these can be replicated on request. Vandalism, he says, has never been a problem, although cars have been known to stop in the street at the sight of a large statue in the window.

The bulk of Mr Giansiracusa's work involves restoration of statues, some of which have been poorly painted over, while others have been badly damaged. The correct painting of statues is, he says, "demanding work," as the colour must "look part of the statue, not as if it is painted on." Moreover, the colours need to be toned down to look natural. As far as he knows, there are very few people of his age currently working on the restoration of religious statues in Australia.

"Any statue in any condition can be restored," he says. But it is important to get the job done properly. A metre high statue can cost around $200 to restore to its original condition, including gilding in 23 carat gold. He also has good overseas contacts and can import a wide range of religious art objects on request.

In passing, Mr Giansiracusa regrets the manner in which some churches have been allowed to become sterile, with statues removed but replaced by nothing else. Some churches, he observes, now look "no different from picture theatres." Some sacred art works - modern or traditional - are needed to "inspire you." Too often, he finds churches filled with "scribbles by kids." He adds: "Not that I've got anything against them, but they can make a church look very tatty."

Nativity plays

Any parish priest seeking to enhance the interior of his church could well benefit from Mr Giansiracusa's advice on the subject: "Any statue would look well in almost any church, depending on how it is presented. I can judge what looks good and what looks bad."

Finally, Mr Giansiracusa is anxious to find people willing to act in his Nativity plays - which, he adds, is "a spiritual experience as well." About 30-40 people of all ages are needed for his first major English-language Nativity play: "We had a real infant play the baby Jesus last year." The play is based on the Scriptures and "the content is Catholic."

If this project is to be a success, Mr Giansiracusa needs "numbers" in attendance as well as a sponsor or sponsors to help cover the considerable outlay involved, including advertising. A longer-term ambition that sponsorship could help would be a substantial prize for a Nativity theme art competition, so as to attract "artists of good quality." Overall, the fostering of good quality religious art is the priority.

Mr Giansiracusa can be contacted at his Sacred Art Studio, 548 Bell Street, Preston, Victoria, (03) 9495 1109, or at home on (03) 9497 4459.

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