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Hallowed Be Their Art

L.A.'s new cathedral will showcase the works of diverse artists who count themselves among the spiritual, if not religious.

February 11, 2001|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If only this were the 12th century and the new cathedral were No^tre Dame in Paris, it would be obvious whom to call about the art. In the Middle Ages, sculptors, painters, stained-glass window makers all were plentiful and could support themselves on church commissions. It's not so easy in modern Los Angeles to find artists who can make images suitable for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which is rising at a frenetic pace next to the 101 freeway downtown.

Bridging the gap is Father Richard Vosko, who has been hired by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to create a master art plan for the new cathedral and to commission artists to create some of the church's fundamental liturgical elements. Such an unusual project requires very specialized credentials, and Vosko's are both eclectic and rare--he holds advanced degrees in art and architecture, divinity and adult education, and he runs a business as a designer and consultant for sacred spaces in Albany, N.Y., where he is also a diocesan priest.

Vosko is somewhat reserved and low-key. Stepping out from among a crowd of workers at the construction site, he barely stirs the dust. Dressed in a dark sweater and slacks, he introduces himself minus titles. The people he works with have all picked up on it, referring to him as "Richard" or "Vosko" more often than "Father."

But when he starts to talk about his master plan and the works-in-progress that fit into it, his vibrant energy is visible. Vosko is in the process of assembling an array of works, from bronze doors by Robert Graham, whose art for public spaces includes the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C., and sculptures for the Los Angeles Coliseum, to a waterfall and pool by Lita Albuquerque, an artist known for exploring spiritual themes, to a memorial to Native Americans by Johnny Bear Contreras. In a sign of how much times have changed since the early days of church architecture, one artist, John Nava, sends his designs for tapestries of the saints in e-mails from his L.A. studio to weavers in Belgium.

These artists were not selected for their connection with the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, most of the nine commissioned to date say that although they consider themselves to be religious, or spiritual, they are not church-going. Some were raised Catholic, but that was not a requirement for the job. Vosko guides them with Scripture passages and books to read and regularly provides encouragement in e-mail messages and phone calls, and he makes studio visits during monthly trips here.

In an interview, Vosko frequently refers to the master plan he created to integrate the art with the architecture; he made it after a visit with architect Jose Rafael Moneo, whose commission to design the cathedral complex was announced in 1996. Soon after Moneo was named, Vosko visited the architect at his home in Madrid. Moneo, who made international news in 1996 when he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, was already far along with his design for the massive, $163-million cathedral complex. "Professor Moneo and I both learned where the other was coming from," says Vosko of their week of discussions. Vosko returned home and built a storyboard around a central theme.

"The first idea is of a procession, a pilgrimage," he says. "It starts on the sidewalk outside the cathedral." It ends at the altar. All of the artworks a person passes along the way relate to that image.

"Father Vosko pushed strongly for the pilgrimage theme," says Father John Gallen, a professor of liturgy at the Jesuit seminary in New York who studies cathedrals. "The idea of men and women on a journey in search of fulfillment is very much part of modern life. People are looking for home base."

The cathedral's art component has not received much attention--yet. Even most people in the Los Angeles arts community don't know much about it. Vosko's bicoastal living and low-key style, along with the church's commitment to confidentiality has kept the project out of the spotlight. Not that people aren't interested.

"The style of the building speaks to our landscape, our history and tradition," says Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

That artists don't often have opportunities to work in religious contexts doesn't mean they don't want to. "There is a centuries-long tradition of remarkable art generated by commissions from the church," Barron says. "Religious art hasn't lost its potency."

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It was not initially on the agenda that the commissions go to local artists. To find the artists commissioned so far, Vosko spent about a year looking at hundreds of portfolios from everywhere. "It is remarkable that we've been able to stay within the Los Angeles basin," he says. "From the beginning, I was well aware of the very fine artists' community in this area."

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