SOUTH PORTLAND — The lone tree rises about 25 feet from the ground, just tall enough to cover the face of what some have called googly-eyed Jesus.

Creative problem-solving or divine intervention?

The vertical mural that has defined the exterior of the Holy Cross Catholic Church on Cottage Road in South Portland once was subjected to its share of criticism but now has slipped into obscurity, thanks to the strategically placed conifer.

Some time ago (no one seems to know exactly when), someone (no one seems to know exactly who) planted a pine tree in front of the 90-foot-high mural. That tree is now the perfect size and shape to cover up the bottom part of the artwork – a giant face of Jesus with his eyes rolled far back that had been the source of the criticism.

Today, a strategically planted pine tree – "a pretty creative way to get rid" of what some considered an eyesore – shields the "googly-eyed Jesus" from view at the South Portland church. Changes to the artwork proposed during a renovation effort 15 years ago were quietly dropped.

Today, a strategically planted pine tree – “a pretty creative way to get rid” of what some considered an eyesore – shields the “googly-eyed Jesus” from view at the South Portland church. Changes to the artwork proposed during a renovation effort 15 years ago were quietly dropped.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, who oversees the parish that includes Holy Cross, said the tree’s planting predated him and no one on his staff knew how or when it got there.

“Parishioners don’t talk about it much,” he said. “And I never see the mural because I come in from the other side.”

When told that the tree now precisely covers Jesus’ face, Henchal said, “Oh. That’s interesting.”

The enamel mural, created by artist John Laberge and dedicated 35 years ago, first stirred controversy in 2001, when church officials were debating renovations to the building. It seemed not everyone was in love with the piece, which depicted Jesus during three moments: crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

“For many it was not a pleasant sight,” said Bob Morency of South Portland, who has belonged to the church for more than 25 years.

Laberge’s mural replaced the original facade of the church, which was made of some 250,000 Italian tiles and Venetian glass. But the tiles couldn’t withstand Maine’s harsh climate and kept popping off.

A pine tree planted long ago hides the lowest part of a controversial mural depicting a suffering Jesus at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

A pine tree planted long ago hides the lowest part of a controversial mural depicting a suffering Jesus at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

Laberge, at the time an artist at the stained-glass maker Phoenix Studio in Portland, was hired to come up with a sturdier replacement, which he fashioned on 44 porcelain steel plates bolted to the building. It was dedicated in 1981. He called the piece “Spirit of the Matter: A Christian Triptych.”

The response to the piece was mixed from the start, especially to the image of Jesus’ eyes, staring woefully heavenward in a pose suggestive of medieval religious art. Those eyes were central to the work.

“He was looking up, beyond that temporary pain and suffering to something higher,” Laberge said, describing his work recently.

• • • • •

People who passed by the mural at the busy intersection of Cottage Road and Broadway, across from the South Portland Public Library, fell into two camps: Those who saw the sad-eyed Jesus as a realistic image of pain and suffering, and those who saw it as creepy and scary.

When an opportunity came to replace the mural during a renovation campaign in 2001, church officials approached Laberge for written consent to allow some tweaks to the work, including replacing the googly-eyed face and swapping out a lily that some said looked like a uterus.

Laberge was insulted and refused to give his consent but also said he wouldn’t fight the changes, since he had been paid for his work.

“I bent over backwards to give them what they wanted,” he said. “And they liked it. They blessed it. It wasn’t until 20 years later that people started complaining.”

Paul Tully chaired the church’s renovation committee back in 2001 and was among those who advocated replacing the mural. He said it wasn’t necessarily offensive but it did scare some people and most church members thought it was time for a change.

“The thought was to find something a little more aesthetically pleasing,” said Tully, choosing his words carefully.

• • • • •

Public art (or art on private property visible to the public) can create quandaries, particularly if it’s controversial. The city of Portland, for instance, voted in 2010 to move a piece of public art in Boothby Square called “Tracing the Fore,” after local property owners complained that it was an eyesore and was hurting business.

Jane Croteau, who with her husband owns Phoenix Studio, Laberge’s onetime employer, said she was contacted by church officials a number of years ago and found their request offensive.

“They asked if we’d be willing to dismantle it,” she said. “As an artist, I would never do that to someone else’s work.”

Croteau said she thinks church officials overreacted to criticism from a handful of people.

"For many it was not a pleasant sight," said Bob Morency, a longtime parishioner at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

“For many it was not a pleasant sight,” said Bob Morency, a longtime parishioner at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Portland.

Laberge said he never considered his art sacrosanct. He would have been fine if his work was changed, but he said the church never allowed him to be a partner in any changes.

The changes were never made. When the cost of the 2001 renovation project ran over budget, the idea of spending money to change the mural was quietly dropped.

“We ran out of money and there were other priorities,” Tully said.

Somewhere along the way, though, someone came up with a simpler solution, and a strategically placed pine tree was planted to grow up over the lower portion of the mural, totally obscuring the view of Jesus and his suffering eyes.

“That turned out to be a pretty creative way to get rid of it,” Croteau said.

Tully agreed that the tree, which he thought was only meant to be a temporary solution, has “done its job.” Criticism has waned.

Mayor Tom Blake said in his nine years as an elected official, he’s never had a call or complaint about the mural.

Kevin Davis, director of the South Portland Public Library directly across Cottage Road from the church, has been looking at the mural from his office window for years. He said library patrons sometimes would comment on the face but not much in recent years, because they can’t see it. He said it would be hard to believe that the tree wasn’t planted specifically to block the lower part of the mural.

“Some people probably don’t even know what’s under there,” he said.

• • • • •

The obscured mural has now become something of a legend for some of the parish children.

“My brother told me about it. It is kind of scary but it is kind of not,” 8-year-old Casey Corcoran said after a recent Mass.

His mother, Deanne Corcoran, said she and her husband heard the story of the scary Jesus after joining the parish 2½ years ago and pointed it out to their children.

Parishioner Ed Foley said the mural never bothered him and that most people have forgotten the controversy.

“It’s been there for so long, now I don’t know what to think of it,” Foley said.

Allen Lowe, a jazz musician who lives in South Portland, also knows the mural well.

“I think I’ve passed it every day for the last 20 years,” he said. “My wife and I sometimes use it as a landmark when giving people directions. We’ve had a few people say, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”

Lowe even used the image on the cover of one of his CDs.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s definitely kitschy, but I would never want them to take it down.”

If the measure of art is the conversation it spurs long after its creation, Laberge said his piece has been a success.

As for the tree, the artist has a confession.

“I have often thought,” he said, “I’d love to come by at 3 in the morning with a chain saw and cut it down.”

Staff Writer Beth Quimby contributed to this report.

 


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