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A welcoming presence

When Detroit Lakes artist Hans Gilsdorf began looking last spring for just the right model to create his bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, he discovered he didn't have to look very far.

Gilsdorf, who was commissioned in August 2005 to do a six-foot sculpture for the newly-rebuilt St. Mary of the Lakes Church in rural Detroit Lakes, found his inspiration at the home of his wife's brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Betsy Norby -- in the form of his 17- (now 18) year-old niece, Nichole.

"Nichole was the perfect height (5 feet, 10 inches), looks, everything," he said. "She's got a very natural beauty about her."

So one day in early June, after months of sketches and preliminary design work, Gilsdorf brought Nichole into his studio near Lake Melissa to do a "live cast" of her feet, hands and head. It was the first step in what would be a six-month process of bringing his original design to three-dimensional life.

"I was commissioned by Cheryl Sandeen and John Barry (of the Barry Foundation) to do the piece in memory of his parents, Richard and Louise Barry," Gilsdorf said. "They contacted me and described what they wanted."

Gilsdorf accepted the challenge -- on the condition that the sculpture would be a one-of-a-kind piece of statuary, never to be duplicated.

"Once it was finished, the molds would be destroyed," Gilsdorf explained.

On the day that Gilsdorf did the live cast, he was assisted in the studio by his daughter, Kendra, and local dentist John Jordan -- who was an expert in the application of the alginate that Gilsdorf wanted to use to make the cast.

Alginate, Jordan explained, is a quick-setting, rubbery substance that could be used to make dental molds. "It's traditionally used in dental applications," he added with a smile.

But Gilsdorf had used the substance before, to create some of the special effects for his past work in movies such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." The quick-setting properties were particularly helpful for the cast of Nichole's head, he noted, so she wouldn't have to have the molding material on her face for an unbearably long period of time while waiting for it to set.

First, however, Nichole's hair was covered with a bald cap that was glued into place; then, her face, brows and eyelashes were coated with Vaseline so that the alginate mold could be removed from her face more easily.

"It's really cold," Norby said of how the alginate felt when first applied to her skin.

"We have to be careful not to cover her nostrils," Gilsdorf said, explaining that she would have to breath through her nose instead of her mouth while the mold was setting.

Once the alginate had been carefully smoothed over Nichole's face, a series of plaster bandages were wetted and applied over it in layers, in order to hold the malleable substance in place until it had hardened into the necessary contours for the plaster cast mold.

The feet and hands were a little easier; rather than applying the alginate directly, Norby was asked to stand with her feet placed inside a pair of plastic tubs. The alginate was then poured around her feet and allowed to set, and the process was repeated for her hands.

"I live just down the road, and I've always been fascinated by what Hans is doing -- I wanted to be a part of it," Jordan said, discussing why he signed on to assist Gilsdorf with the project.

Meanwhile, Gilsdorf had been constructing a stainless steel armature and mounting base, covered with pieces of foam that were cut to represent the basic proportions and stance of Nichole's body. Once the armature was done, it was draped with resin-soaked fabric that would harden to form the folds of Mary's robes.

Though Nichole's features were used as the basic model for the sculpture, Gilsdorf also purchased a book on the different faces of the Virgin Mary as depicted in artwork through the centuries.

"I wanted to make her more as she really was... barefoot, wearing simple robes," he said. "She was not a wealthy woman."

Once the molds were finished, Gilsdorf filled them with plaster that had been mixed with fiberglass -- "to make it less brittle," he explained.

The plaster casts and steel armature formed the base of the sculpture; Gilsdorf then covered all the pieces with clay, which he used to sculpt the model that would be used for the metal molds. Because Nichole's eyes and mouth were closed during the alginate molding process, Gilsdorf had to re-sculpt the facial features to give Mary's face a "welcoming smile," Gilsdorf said.

"My uncle took a lot of different close-ups (photographs) of my face at different angles," Nichole said. He also brought her back into the studio one day to model for him so he could put the finishing touches on Mary's face, she added.

Once the clay model had been made, Gilsdorf brought it down to Casting Creations in Howard Lake, Minn., which had a foundry large enough to accommodate the six-foot bronze sculpture.

First, the sculpture was separated into 15 pieces that would be cast separately, then welded together and polished to erase the welding seams.

The halo over Mary's head was cast in a combination of bronze and stainless steel that, once completed, would be sent to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts to be gilded in 23 (yes, 23) carat gold.

"The gold will never tarnish," Gilsdorf explained. "It will always stay pure."

Once the bronze statue was finished, it was treated with a chemical, or patina, that would artificially age the bronze and "make her (Mary) look as though she had been there for hundreds of years," Gilsdorf said.

Once completed, the statue weighed approximately 470 pounds. Because it was so heavy, a crane was needed to lift it up into the alcove that had been specially constructed on the south exterior wall of the church to serve as the statue's new home. The ledge that formed the base of the alcove was approximately six feet off the ground.

Brad and Jay Malstrom of Malstrom Electric donated the crane and labor hours to lift the statue into place. Because it was so heavy, it had to be set into place on the steel mounting base as precisely as possible; also, the statue was to sit a mere couple of inches from the wall behind it, so any miscalculation could cause it to bounce off the wall and damage the bronze.

The installation was done on Saturday, Dec. 23 -- just in time for Christmas.

"She went in there without any problem," Gilsdorf said, adding, "there were no mishaps. It was fun (to watch)."

As for the statue's model, she and her family got to see the finished product when they went to services at the church last Sunday.

"It was pretty cool," Norby said of seeing herself immortalized in bronze for the first time. "It was really unbelievable to see how it turned out -- my family was pretty impressed. They saw the clay model, but we really didn't know what it would look like when it was finished."

Though she's not too sure of how much her metallic altar ego really looks like her, Norby says, some of her family and friends have said that it does.

"I'm very happy with how she (Mary) came out -- it's one of my better pieces, I think," Gilsdorf said, adding that because the alcove is lit up at night, the statue can be viewed at any time of the day or night.

"I was very honored that they asked me to do this project," he concluded. "I grew up on Pelican Lake (near the church), so when they asked me... it meant a lot."

Spring dedication planned

The statue will be dedicated at a formal ceremony to be held in the spring, according to Father Joe DeCrans, pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes.

"We will have a special blessing and honor the family members for whom it was donated," he said.

The statue dedication will be the final phase of a two-year rebuilding project at the church, which began in the fall of 2005 and was completed in time for Memorial Day weekend.

The main reason for rebuilding, DeCrans noted, was that the 200-seat capacity of the church's sanctuary was not really big enough to handle the large influx of summer residents that the church experiences each summer.

Even with the enlarged sanctuary, which will now seat 500 people, "We still need to have three masses every Sunday in the summer."

The new church has also welcomed a few new year-round members since the rebuilding project was completed, DeCrans noted.

As for the statue of Mary that now stands on the south wall of the church, making it quite visible to motorists traveling along the highway, DeCrans said, "It looks great."

"It's a one-of-a-kind statue," he added. "There's not another one like it in the world."

The concept behind the statue, DeCrans continued, was to invite both visitors and year-round residents of the lakes area into the church.

"We were trying to figure out how we could set church off and make it look as appealing and welcoming and hospitable from the outside as it does from the inside," he said.

"The way the statue is made, one of her hands is out, welcoming people in, while the other has two fingers pointing toward the entrance," DeCrans said. At the same time, he added, her expression is one of "a welcoming smile."

"It kind of finishes off the concept," he concluded.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454