A Nebraska connection, a love of religious art, a desire to inspire, and eight tons of brick and mortar are behind the newest addition to Marian University. While new construction on campus has become commonplace, there is nothing common about the installation of the 16’ by 16’ nativity scene brick mural which will adorn the exterior of Alumni Hall. Visible at the Cold Spring Road entrance, this sculpture will boldly and proudly announce Marian University’s Catholic and Franciscan identity to all who come to campus.
The nativity scene sculpture has been designed and created by a team of artists from Images in Brick of Denton, Nebraska. Company president and artist Jay Tschetter, along with locally hired masons, will devote the next few weeks to the installation process, but Tschetter credits Susan Horn for the design and Sten Eisentrager as the principal sculptor. He explained that this was a collaborative effort between the artists and Marian University that began a few years ago during the planning of the new Michael A. Evans Center for Health Sciences. But that was not the beginning of this story.
It was 1989 when President Daniel J. Elsener first saw Jay Tschetter at work. Tschetter was in a garage creating his first commissioned sculpture, and he was nervous—too nervous to notice visitors. But those nerves didn’t stop him from making a rewarding career out of his talent.
Meanwhile, President Elsener had not forgotten about the talented sculptor he’d briefly met through a friend in that garage in his home state. Twenty years later, while planning the interior design of the Michael A. Evans Center for Health Sciences, Marian University commissioned Tschetter for the St. Francis and the Leper mural, a 14’ by 22’ concrete sculpture. The architects requested concrete to better complement the limestone interior of the building. Tschetter said that was a simpler installation, but he was still nervous. John Finke, vice president of institutional advancement, clearly remembers a pacing, smoking Tschetter. President Elsener said that when he informed Tschetter that this was a smoke-free campus, the anxious Tschetter quipped it would be an art-free campus if he could not smoke.
Today, Tschetter claims to have stopped smoking but makes no promises, since he expects to be even more nervous this time around. The concrete sculpture installation was simpler, because there were fewer and larger pieces to assemble, and it was indoors. The nativity scene sculpture is 48 courses tall. A course is a straight row of 16 foot-long bricks. That’s 768 bricks. The sculpture was disassembled, brick by brick and then numbered for the drying and firing process. After reassembling the bricks to check for imperfections, they were disassembled again to be loaded onto special pallets, layered with protective cardboard, and then placed into custom-built crates for the ride to Indianapolis. This puzzle is no child’s play.
And to further complicate, this installation takes place outside, in temperatures forecasted closer to winter than spring. For protection from the elements and continuing with the collaboration theme, Marian University Office of Campus Operations, directed by Audra Blasdel, has constructed a scaffolding and tarp enclosure that will become Tschetter’s makeshift studio and “garage” away from home. Tschetter will train the other masons and carefully begin the final assembly of this puzzle. Brick by brick, the mural will be pieced together precisely—yet quickly—to stay ahead of the rapidly drying mortar, which must be blended carefully so the lines between bricks disappear as much as possible. “This sculpture is sixteen inches deep in places, so the challenge is to tool the joints flush with the changing contours, a delicate and laborious task,” explained the veteran mason. Watching other masons is always stressful for Tschetter, who will try to rely on prayers in place of cigarettes this time.
And that brings us back to where this story really began. In 1223, a deacon named Francis got the idea of recreating the scene of Jesus’ birth to help reveal the humble beginnings of Christ. With the permission of the sovereign pontiff, in a niche in a rock in mountainous Grecio, Italy, he prepared a manger and brought in hay and animals for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. And the rest is history, particularly the history behind Marian University founders, the Sisters St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana who have committed their lives to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.
Decades later, President Elsener has determined that the nativity scene is a fitting image for the front door of this campus, because the Holy Family serves as the perfect visual representation of the values that are the foundation of Marian University. "We are more like a family of community learners, focused on faith and service, and Alumni Hall—our campus family room—is a great place for reflection on how each of us can best answer God’s call,” explained Elsener. “This mural is not meant to preach or to exclude, but to be an example of the humility and love that may inspire all who gaze at its beauty.”
Tschetter believes that this will be the case. “We couldn’t help but be affected spiritually as we worked and as we noticed the impact it had on all who saw it. It made us think every day.” Tschetter and his team are pleased with the depth and richness of color and are especially excited about the outdoor location. "Being able to view this from a distance, with the right lighting, will provide a dramatic and powerful perspective,” said Tschetter, who is clearly as proud and humbled, as he is nervous.
The official unveiling and blessing of the nativity scene relief will take place on March 25, 2015 to coincide with the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the angel Gabriel’s first appearance to the Virgin Mary telling her she would become the mother of the Son of God. The 5:30 p.m. ceremony will follow a 4:30 p.m. Mass in Bishop Chartrand Memorial Chapel in Marian Hall. Photos by Taura Horn Photography.
A reception will follow in Alumni Hall. R.S.V.P. by March 18, 2015 to Candice Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.