This year, St. Michael’s College is hosting its first ever Artist-in-Residence: Farhad Nargol-O’Neill. Nargol-O’Neill is a Toronto-based sculptor who has worked on projects in different areas of the world, including Italy and Ireland.
He is currently working on sculptures for the north and south transept doors of St. Michael’s Cathedral. Each door will have 10 panels, each panel telling a different story. According to Nargol-O’Neill, “This is the first time that the rosary is being carved in its entirety.”
I walked into his studio and was greeted by eight large plaster blocks. Each block lay side-by-side on the table before me and had carvings of different figures in different settings. I looked at each panel one at a time, examining the intricate details and various depths-of-fields that they had. Awestruck, I asked him, “How does this all begin?”
“I’ve been working with the St. Michael’s Cathedral for three years… Father Michael Busch, the rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral… [gave me] two goals,” he said. His first goal was to follow the Gospel stories. The second was to find a way to make this art particularly special to St. Michael’s Cathedral. With this in mind, Nargol-O’Neill began planning the transept doors.
“The first step,” he said, “is the narrative — the Gospel story… This involves reading the stories, taking notes on each person — who they are, their relationships, what they feel. Father Michael Busch once told me to try to be present at the time of the story. Remember that they are normal people… with faults and vices.”
Nargol-O’Neill described using art to convey this: “The plaster is poured and left to dry, and then I begin carving directly into it… There’s no room for error!” He explained that the planning process is as meticulous as the carving itself. In one of his panels, for example, titled “The Third Glorious Mystery – The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” Nargol-O’Neill described the image by quoting the Bible: “‘Old men will dream and young men will prophesize’… I believe that, when they say elderly people are ‘fading,’ I question this. Are they fading? Or are they merely becoming closer to God? The figure on the bottom of my work illustrates this… It is an old man that is carved very shallow. The young man, however, appears more vivid.”
It’s this level of planning that goes into every single panel. “I do bas-relief, it’s a style of carving, carving out light and shadow,” he said. It involves imagining the position of each panel and understanding how it appears to the audience. Nargol-O’Neill noted that each panel appears differently every time one looks at it.
I gave it a try and saw exactly what he meant — each figure looked different. Some of them appeared flat while others appeared more three-dimensional. This changed perspective of the piece as a whole, helping to shift the focal point of each panel.
Finally, I asked, “How do these pieces relate to St. Michael’s Cathedral?” He showed me something I had not noticed upon my first glance. “These are Gospel stories that I’ve carved. Yet, I’ve allowed them to take place in the St. Michael’s Cathedral.” The first panel illustrates this, with the cathedral carved to accuracy — this includes the large stained glass windows and the pillars within.
Nargol-O’Neill added that of all the planning and sketching that goes in to this project, “faith is the ultimate tool.” He added, “I’m not saying this because I am being commissioned, but because I mean it.”