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Saturday, February 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religion

Vision of Mary for Chapel of St. Ignatius sculpture 'a struggle'

Seattle Times religion reporter

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Steve Heilmer's children ate a lot of Cheerios before his vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus, came into focus.

Morning after morning, Heilmer would study the milk as it poured from the carton into his daughters' bowls, trying to figure out how to make marble look like that.

After four years and a series of personal trials worthy of a biblical hero, Heilmer finally got it right.

This week Heilmer began crating the eight-foot sculpture he was commissioned to do, to send it to Seattle University, where it will serve as a focal point for the Chapel of St. Ignatius.

It will stand beside the altar - a non-traditional vision of Mary that emerges, shrouded in religious and personal symbolism, from a marble torrent of milk that falls from a golden vessel to wash over rough stone.

"It was a struggle, and I didn't like the work for a long time," Heilmer says. "But now that it's done, it's grown on me. It's a turbulent surface, and that reminds me of what Mary means to people. Many people think of her as leading a turbulent life. It certainly wasn't a serene life."

Heilmer might seem an odd choice to create a religious icon for a Catholic university. He grew up Baptist and is an art professor at Greenville College, a small Methodist school in Illinois with a strong evangelical emphasis.

Before now, he'd never attempted to sculpt a large piece to adorn such a prestigious place. St. Ignatius' architect, Steve Holl, won a design award from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. A scale model of the chapel is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Heilmer's Mary will fill a place of honor that has been empty since the chapel opened in 1997. It is scheduled to arrive in Seattle March 2 and will be dedicated April 26.

Heilmer's first attempts to articulate his creation to Seattle U. administrators provoked some fear among Jesuit scholars that the work would be reminiscent of religious apparitions and visions.

"But I don't see an apparition. I see a natural phenomenon, a silhouette that would be subtle but would pop out as people recognized Mary in it,'' he said. "It's meant to be accessible, to engage people in times of crisis or need. It's a public work, and by and large it will be seen by a non-art audience, not a highly educated art audience."

The piece has taken its toll on the artist.

He spent more than a year locating a piece of marble that would retain the polished translucence of milk and yet display the gritty earth colors of stone left the way God made it. The first piece shipped to him proved unacceptable - too gray for milk. He found what he was looking for in Carrara, Italy, where Michelangelo got his raw materials.

When Heilmer finally began carving two years ago, things began going seriously wrong. The marble broke and he had to carve further into it than he'd planned. He underestimated costs and ended up spending $18,000 of his own money (Seattle U. reimbursed him for most of the cost overrun).

His marriage was falling apart and he developed a heart arrhythmia, which he attributes to stress. At one point he felt so overwhelmed by the scope of the project and the problems he was encountering that he hired St. Louis artist Paul Bayer to help.

In the end, Heilmer says, the statue netted him $4,000 for four years of work.

"I don't even consider it my best work," he says now. "It's too compromised, as any public art is from the beginning. You have to do what the people who are hiring you want done. It doesn't come out of my need, as art should. But in the last month or so I became happier with the result. I can look at it now without being depressed by it."

If Heilmer's Mary carries too much baggage to suit him, she seems a vision of loveliness to many on campus who've admired the model they've been shown by the Rev. Jerry Cobb, Seattle U.'s chapel project manager.

"The piece captures a moment of insight, a definite epiphany, an individual experience when you connect to it," Cobb said. "When something is too obvious, there is no challenge."

"It's so powerful because it represents a traditional subject matter in a strikingly new way," said Bryan Miller, a junior. "It's so open to interpretation - there is the milk, obviously. It has connotations of love, caring - Mary's giving all she could to humanity."

To Rose Zbiegien, a secretary in the English Department, it's "something beautiful emerging from nothing."

Heilmer says he's finally at peace with his "tour de force."

"I have a better attitude now," he says. "When I pour the milk for my children now, I'm reminded of my faith. It's like faith is revealed in the smallest of acts. This has connected me to the stream of Christian art. I think when I'm 75 and I'm pouring milk, I'll still be reminded of that."

Sally Macdonald can be reached at 464-2248 or smacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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