SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Jesus returned to Holy Cross church on Cottage Road last week. Technically, he never left and it’s only an artistic depiction, but it’s still prompted a lot of chatter on Facebook by detractors and admirers of the piece alike. Now, the artist who created the perpetually talked-about work is having his say — again.
On Wednesday, a pine tree partially obscuring the 90-foot, ceramic-and-steel illustration of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension was cut down. The artwork’s lower portion, long-hidden behind the evergreen, depicts Jesus during the crucifixion. His bright, heaven-facing eyes are a main feature.
Some locals have dubbed the striking portrait the “Googley-Eyed Jesus.”
When word of the portrait’s return hit Facebook, many people expressed their opinions.
Riley Shryock called it “Our Lady of the Bad Acid Trip.”
“I’m so excited to go see him,” wrote Amy Simpson Tavano, “I’ve lived in this house long enough to see the tree planted, watch the tree grow, plot the tree’s death and see my wishes fulfilled. What a day.”
Maine artist John Laberge designed the mural in 1980. He drew it — in actual size — on 45, 2×7-foot panels. Laberge did it in an 8-foot room. It took four months to complete and replaced an earlier mural thought to be the world’s tallest mosaic when it was constructed in the 1950s. That artwork was falling apart and parishioners wanted something more durable.
Through the 1970s and into the 1990s, Laberge designed murals and stained glass windows for many Maine churches. His South Portland creation didn’t become controversial until 2000. Some parishioners decided the image was “creepy” and wanted to see it taken down. Others thought it was a realistic depiction of their savior’s pain and suffering.
Church officials have not said when or why the tree was planted. They’re also not talking about why it was cut down.
Laberge, 73, was happy to talk on the phone about his work this week. He still likes it and shrugs off all the nicknames he’s heard.
Q: Thanks for calling me back. I haven’t heard from the church. I guess they don’t want to talk about it anymore — I’m actually surprised you do.
A: Oh, I never get tired of talking about it. There’s been nice, long periods where there’s no talk but then, suddenly, like Christ rising out of the tomb, here it comes again. It’s all part of doing art, talking to people about what you’re doing, what your intentions were, what your hopes were.
Q: It’s really become a landmark piece of art, hasn’t it?
A: I spent a lot of time talking to the Holy Spirit while I was doing that project. It was such a challenge. I wanted the design to be very bold.
Q: I’ll get straight to the boldest part. What’s up with those eyes?
A: I wanted the face of the crucified Christ looking up and I decided to leave the eyes unshaded so they looked like light, coming out of the darkness. I wanted to give this feeling that the light of heaven, from its source, was coming all the way down to the Earth, and into Christ. That’s why his eyes are large. That’s why his eyes are white.
Q: Keep going. I think we all want to know more.
A: I was also trying to create a balance between pain and ecstasy as Christ was dying — his last moment. I hear people saying, “He’s so ugly.” Well, a person who has been beaten all night, and then forced to carry a very heavy cross up a hill, while he’s being jeered, and mocked, and spat at, is not going to look very pretty. Here he is, he’s on the verge of dying, on the verge of letting go — and he’s nailed on the cross. He’s in extreme pain. For people to think that should be a pretty Christ — they really [don’t get] the whole idea of crucifixion.
Q: You’re on a roll. Don’t stop.
A: My main idea was to get it from darkness to light. We live in the darkness. We don’t really know what’s going on. We have to look up to something higher to get some clue as to why we are here, why there’s so much suffering, why there’s so much pain. There is release from pain and it’s through death — and people can’t deal with that. People cannot accept their mortality. Because they can’t accept their mortality, they suffer from fear. We see it happening now, all around us. There’s extreme fear of death. I don’t know why the church cut down the tree but maybe because they thought this was the time to reveal this face again.
Q: Did you get any guidance from folks at Holy Cross as you designed it?
A: The committee I worked with said they did not want a pretty aesthete. They wanted a working-class Christ, a regular Joe. The original [committee] and myself were satisfied with the final product but I didn’t give it an A+ — but as it stands, and lasts longer and longer, my admiration for it grows. It has the power to make people respond and react. It’s really an interactive piece. You have the jeering crowds — just like the crowds that jeered Christ. Then, you have the people that admire it, that are touched by it in a positive way — Just like Christ had his followers and his enemies.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.