Q & A Fridays: Installing Heavy Sculptures

How on earth are you going to get that two-and-a-half ton marble sculpture into the church?

Reprinted from October 25, 2006.

Very carefully, my friends! First, you call on your pals at Canal Street Studios.

How many people does it take to move a two-ton sculpture of the Blessed Virgin out of the studio, into a truck, sixty-five miles down the road and into a niche in a church? We had quite a crew out there! I arrived at the studio of Malcolm Harlow in the Shenandoah Valley at ten in the morning. Malcolm was there with the Cambodian sculptor who had helped carve the piece, Chantou Oeur. The two of them were building a ramp to move the sculpture laterally out of the studio. They “got all Egyptian on us,” as the Australian sculpture mover mentioned, and put wooden rollers beneath the base of the sculpture. They rigged a chain and cable to a giant old tree with a wrenching system. JC, the woodworker who did the doorhandles in the Harlow’s home, was there operating the wrench. He’d adjust the chain and the sculpture would move forward a few inches along the wooden rollers


Then Chantou and Malcolm had to attach straps to the sculpture to lift it ever so slightly in order to move the rollers to the front as they rolled out the back.
Somehow I got in charge of operating the pulley system to lift the sculpture. “Pull up, Sarah!” It is amazing that a woman of my stature was able to lift such a heavy object using physics. (To all you kids out there- pay attention in science class, you’ll need it!) Then the folks from Canal Street Studios, Andrew and his brother Chris visiting from Australia, arrived with the crane and a truck. So how many people does it take? One stonecarver, a Cambodian artist, a woodworker, a sculptor (that’s me!), another artist, two Australian sculpture movers, a photographer and a small audience.

Once we got the sculpture on the truck, the movers wrapped her in a blanket and strapped down the marble. We were on our way! We had a caravan of trucks and I was in the lead. When we approached the toll booth for the Dulles Toll Road, the two Australians with the Virgin Mary got in the wrong lane and were sent to the airport. We were able to tell them where to get back on. We were so nervous, would they find the church? The Dulles Toll Road is so confusing. So, we pulled off to the side of the road to call them. “Where are you?” I asked. All the sudden, the Virgin Mary went whizzing by! We were able to get back on the highway and pass them, leading them all the way to the church.

When we got the church, there was no problem using the crane to lower the Virgin onto a dolly designed especially for extra heavy objects. (Again with the physics!) They got the Virgin into the church with no problem, but we had to erect a pulley system able to lift the object and place her in to the niche. The sun set as fatigue overwhelmed our crew. So, we decided to get some rest and resume work in the morning. I am headed back down there in the next hour or so.

The Next Day…

We met back at the church after the Mass in the morning. Logistical problems abound. “Hey, isn’t this statue suposed to go on the other side of the church?” I was asked a thousand times. The Virgin is always on the right side of Christ. Christ faces the congregation in this church, so Mary has to be on our left to be on His right. Feels strange for people. All the churches in Italy…

Anyhow, the crew has to go to New Jersey to fetch some larger equipment. The major problem with the site is the doors are too short to get any major piece of equipment heavy-duty enough to hoist a two-ton Virgin Mary in place. Andrew, of Canal Street Studios, says that he may have just the thing to do the job, but the job will have to wait until Monday. So, Mary waits beneath a blanket somewhere in the church.

Then I lost my voice. I still had to teach a drawing class in the evening. My voice was hanging on by a thread by the end of class and this morning the only way to communicate with me is via e-mail. I am not answering the telephone today. *hello?*

And Then…

From yesterday, “We are in the last phase of installation today. Apparently there has been some concern that Mary needs to go on the other side of the church. Several people that Jack has spoken with say that she needs to go on the right side of the church. Well, I did much research before embarking on the project and determined that she does indeed need to go on the right, but on the right hand of Christ, which would be the parishioner’s left. This is where we have planned to place her. Nonetheless, some people feel uncomfortable with this placement. She and St. Joseph were designed with this in mind and the composition is such that it works with Mary to Christ’s right and St. Joseph to His left. Switching that will change the design. Of course, the sculpture does now belong to the church. What do you think we ought to do about this matter?” -Sarah

The consensus was to go with the original design and plan. Word didn’t get to Andrew, the sculpture rigger, and crew until I got to the church and they were setting up on the right (wrong!) side of the church. “Stop!” I whispered. “She needs to go on the other side.” Apparently, the pre-consensus word to put her on the right (wrong!) side got to them, but the post-consensus word did not. Andrew was a little irked at the change of plans, “I knew you’d be pissed. Don’t *@^$ with the artist’s design, I always say.” So, they had to drag the two ton sculpture, fork lift and pieces of plywood to the other side of the church. Again.

Once we got everything in place, Andrew was able to lift the sculpture with the forklift and place it onto the niche. Sounds easy enough. Nothing is easy in sculpture, I always say. We placed two-by-fours in between the base of the sculpture and the top of the niche in order to get the forks out. Once the forks were free, we raised them above the sculpture and attached straps around the piece. Lifting from below we couldn’t get the sculpture far enough back in the niche, but we needed the lift to ease her up that high. With the straps securely in place we lifted her only inches above the marble niche. We were able to remove the two-by-fours and gently set her down. Next task: get the straps out from underneath. Andrew used a gorilla bar, brute force and fun with physics to lift the edges of the sculpture just high enough that we could pull out the straps. Plus, he was able to “row” the sculpture back flush against the wall using the same gorilla crowbar.

Meanwhile…Yesterday at the church I met a man who came in to see the sculpture. I told him that I was the artist and he grabbed me and hugged me! “God bless you!” I said that I had laryngitis and couldn’t talk much. He grabbed me by both shoulders and asked God for healing. He made the Sign of the Cross over me. I could really feel God’s spirit flowing through me! I got a little teary-eyed. I asked him who he was. He laughed because everyone knows him; he is a deacon at the church. I love how bold this man was. He didn’t just offer me “I hope you feel better” or a pat on the arm. He called out to the Almighty for healing. Anyhow, by the end of the night my voice had returned! Not in full force, but I can make sounds now! After five days of silence I am at last audible. In a way I feel like Zacharias, husband of Elizabeth, who was silenced until the birth of John the Baptist. I was silenced when I last left the church last Wednesday and my voice returned yesterday evening.

We placed the two vases on the plinth and stood back to see the work that we had accomplished. It isn’t just my sculpture. Sure, I designed it, but without the help of several models, Pat, the mould-maker and enlarger, Malcolm the stonecarver and his crew and Andrew and Chris of Canal Street Studios, and not to mention the generous donor who has been gracious enough to give such a lasting gift to the church- none of this would have happened.

There are still a few things to accomplish before the official unveiling, but she is there in place, at home.

After we cleaned up I took everyone for a round of drinks. “To Mary, to a successful installation! Cheers!”

Several months later…

A very long awaited day has finally come! St. Joseph was installed at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Parish on May 24th, just in time for Pentecost. Andrew Logan of Canal Street Studios and his assistant, Katie, were great. They picked up the marble sculpture and plaster carver’s model from the US Customs inspection office in New York, trucked it down to Potomac, placed the stone and finished the job by dinner time. These big events tend to build in your mind and then they happen. Just like that, they happen on an ordinary day. A Thursday, for example.

I haven’t been feeling well lately. Mostly likely a wicked combination of stress and allergies with a dose a headache on top. I didn’t leave the house yesterday until much later than I had planned. I felt awful and was anxious about the day.

When I arrived, Andrew Logan and his assistant Katie were already there. They had de-crated St. Joseph and lowered him onto a pallet where they could get a forklift beneath him.

Once the forks where in place, Andrew drove him over to the niche and slowly lifted and lowered. A little to the left, back just a pinch. Stop, reassess. The forklift couldn’t quite hold all that weight, so in addition to the 600 pounds of bagged concrete Andrew added to the back, two mainenance men jumped on the back of the lift to balance out the weight.

Every step was carefully measured, but since Andrew had already worked out many of the problems with the installation of the Blessed Virgin, this one was much more straight-forward. They were done before the end of the day. Just like that, the long-awaited sculpture was in place. No pomp or drama. Just another sunny Thursday. Just like that.

(Sarah and Andrew pose in front of the installed sculpture at the end of a long, hard day.)

Do you have any questions about how things work in the studio?


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.