Sep 20, 2022 - News

Salt Lake's Christian School art display in limbo after sculptor's death

A building facade has attached sculptures of a woman, a star of David and a barbershop quartet, alongside a painting of Jesus. A sign says "Christian School." a
A passerby examines writing on a window of the "Christian School," artist Ralphael Plescia's studio near 1300 South State St.

Anyone who's lost a senior loved one knows one of the most painful steps is deciding what to do with their decades' worth of belongings.

  • And when you've lost an artist, their artwork is a legacy of their passion. But you can't keep everything.

What's happening: That's Vonna Rae Plescia's dilemma as she mourns her husband, Ralphael, the prolific sculptor who created the "Christian School" art display on State Street.

  • The self-taught sculptor was a fixture in Salt Lake City's art community, finding inspiration in Gilgal Garden, which he watched artist Thomas Child create in the 1940s and 50s, when Plescia was just a boy.

Details: Ralphael, 84, died last month after a few weeks of illness — not enough time to make arrangements for his vast body of work at the Christian School site, Vonna Rae told Axios.

  • He leased the building, which his father had willed to the Shriners hospital.
  • Now the family has until Dec. 1 to find a new home for the artwork displayed there.

Why it matters: Ralphael's depictions of Bible stories and other religious themes earned him some renown, with his work featured in The Atlantic, the website Atlas Obscura and a short documentary.

  • Much of his work focuses on Biblical images of motherhood and the apocalyptic visions in Revelation, according to the art preservation group SPACES.

Catch up fast: Ralphael's sculptures began to fill his family's former auto-repair shop on State Street in 1970, when his father and daughter died in a car wreck on the drive to his sister's funeral in California, Vonna Rae said.

  • He had always been fascinated by theology and faith, she said; he grew up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints and later attended St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

What's next: Vonna Rae is unsure. An octogenarian herself, determining the fate of Ralphael's life's work is a physically and mentally daunting task, especially in the middle of grief.

  • Some of the work is affixed to the building and will probably go to the Shriners, she said.
  • As for the rest, "I don't know how we can even begin to [save everything]," she said. "There's just so much."
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