Christian SchoolRalphael Plescia (1937 - 2022)
1324 South State Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84115, United States
The Christian School will most likely be demolished now that Plescia has passed; however, a group of local advocates are hoping to remove as much of the artwork from the site as possible so it may be stored and displayed elsewhere.
About the Artist/Site
Born prematurely to a young mother who skittishly refused to deal with him, Ralphael was named and raised by his grandmother who, he says, kept the teeny baby on top of the coal stove in a shoebox. As a young boy he would play at the Gilgal Gardens and would watch Thomas Child build the sculptures that depicted his faith.
His father ran an auto parts store, and Ralph and his brother would help their father stock parts and occasionally help with simple repairs. His father, who had been wounded in World War II and worked from a wheel chair, wanted his sons to obtain a broader business understanding than they could gain from the auto parts store, so Ralph began working in a nearby mortuary. Later, he worked in a music store, and, inspired by a dream, developed a new type of bridge that radically enhances the tone of stringed instruments. He was granted a patent for it, but has never made any money on it, because there is little interest in making cheap instruments sound like they were expensive. By 1977 and locally known as a sculptor, he was commissioned by the state government to repair the weather damage to the 60-year-old cement lions that flanked the entrance to the state capitol building; his repairs lasted for some thirty years, until they were replaced by marble versions in 2008. He married and had four children.
On a rather unkempt block of one of Salt Lake City’s major streets, the section of the same storefront building that once housed the auto parts store has now been taken over by Plescia as a site for his multi-media artwork. While remnants of the auto parts shop remain on the sidelines, Plescia’s monumental concrete and steel sculptures, as well as paintings on walls, ceilings, and canvas, have taken precedence; they grow out of and attach to walls, ceilings, and floors, and have become fused with the building itself. Most of the work focuses on his interpretations of the New Testament passage of Revelations 12.
As the artist interprets this biblical passage, the queen of heaven – more voluptuous and buxom than usually depicted, and often referred to by the artist as Lady Wisdom – is about to give birth to the Christ child. The devil pursues her in order to devour the baby at the moment of birth, but the pair is hidden in the wilderness, interpreted by Plescia as a larger than full-scale lion sculpture that hides a smaller sculpture of mother and child within. The heavenly mother also reappears in a painting in the center section of the building, nude and very pregnant, fleeing up to the second story of the building, pursued by a dragon, of which she seems unaware.
Moving up the stairs next to this painting, one reaches the attic. Lit with natural light from a hexagonal skylight that the artist installed, this second story appears as a more orderly chapel with angelic ceiling paintings. It is ornamented with numerous hanging string instruments, the back of each painted with additional images of the queen of heaven. Other paintings with the same theme are framed and hung on the walls; images of his immediate family in a state of pre-existence also adorn the walls.
In contrast to the more heavenly narratives of the second story, the basement seems more akin to hell, with more intense colors and narrow walkways, some of which require visitors to squeeze through sideways. Plescia dug out this level himself, and the visitor enters through a concrete wall ornamented with bas-relief biblical passages in English and Hebrew, framed by a six-foot-high concrete modeled serpent’s mouth. A wooden gate of crosses provides access to another section of the basement; lit by eerie red lights, another dragon and lion, along with images of Eve reaching for the apple, mix the story of the fall from paradise and the hell that resulted from that event. He has also added a concrete and steel bridge over groundwater that appeared after he dug into the basement too deeply; this unexpected addition has led him to describe this section of his building as the “watery depths of hell.”
Plescia has been working on his mixed media pieces for more than forty years, and the site is constantly in flux. Yet while it is his workshop, at the same time it functions as a museum that reflects his deep spiritual beliefs, gathered from a variety of sources, including his dreams. He welcomes visitors mid-day, and is interested in their differences in opinion, perhaps a result of his own rather ecumenical approach to religion. He was raised Mormon, he says, but has studied both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostics, has sung in a Protestant church choir, and has participated in Catholic religious processions.
Plescia mounded all of the dirt that he excavated from the basement into his back yard, organically ornamented with wildflowers and a series of concrete retaining walls and steps that navigate the different levels. He prefers visitors that come midday, Monday through Friday; if the artist is not at home, some of the exterior ornaments are visible from the street.
~Jo Farb Hernández, 2016
Update: Raphael Plescia passed away on August 14, 2022. The Christian School will most likely be demolished now that Plescia has passed; however, a group of local advocates are hoping to remove as much of the artwork from the site as possible so it may be stored and displayed elsewhere.
Map & Site Information
1324 South State Street
Salt Lake City, Utah, 84115 us
Latitude/Longitude: 40.7410059 / -111.8885393
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah