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Sandusky art show in Snite

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, September 6, 2005

As a young artist living and working in Florence, Italy in the 1970s, Saint Mary’s art department chair Bill Sandusky liked to frequent the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine and study its famed frescos.

“It was a great place,” Sandusky said. “You could go and sit tranquilly and look at it. I just liked to commune with [painter] Massacio.”

So inspired by the biblical depictions covering the chapel walls, Sandusky thought he might like to recreate the work himself one day.

Sandusky was also in Italy when he became a part-time Saint Mary’s professor, commuting regularly to the capital city to teach art classes to students studying abroad with the College’s Rome program.

Finding Saint Mary’s students intelligent and engaging, Sandusky applied for a full time position at the College in 1980 and moved to the United States for what he thought would be nothing more than a brief stay.

“My wife and I thought it would be cool to spend a year in South Bend … and 26 years later, we are still here,” Sandusky said.

Busy teaching painting and lithography and raising a family, Sandusky never seriously considered undertaking the massive project of re-interpreting the Chapel’s work. However, during a 2002 trip to Italy, Sandusky revisited the Brancacci Chapel, which had undergone major renovations.

“It was fantastic,” Sandusky said. “It blew me away.”

The professor let his long-kept secret slip to his son, who throughout the rest of the trip and in the following months back in the United States pestered and encouraged him to make it a reality.

Once he resolved to pursue the project, Sandusky did not stray far from the original frescos produced over a 60-year span by three major artists, Masaccio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi. He asked then senior Jennifer Trachy Hakes and 1998 alumna Jill Feller to work with him. Titling it “The Brancacci Project Phase One,” the trio applied for a SISTAR grant for funding.

“I thought it would be good to have three people because three people did the original,” Sandusky said.

He also applied for a faculty research grant from Saint Mary’s and arranged for Notre Dame’s Snite Musuem of Art to display the paintings after their completion.

Once their proposal was accepted, Sandusky, Hakes and Feller started to copy one cycle, or the upper register, of the two-tiered work. They built large canvases – 12 in all – to scale and then projected the original paintings onto them in order to mirror the figures’ size and positioning.

Sandusky then began searching for models to use in the re-interpretation of the work, which would feature modern American locals and modern American dress.

“It is an American depiction of an Italian depiction of biblical stories,” he said. “I was looking for a lot of bearded people because a lot of these people are bearded.”

Several neighbors and friends allowed Sandusky to photograph and depict them in the paintings. Most of the faces seen in the work, however, are those of recognizable Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame administrators and faculty. These include College President Carol Mooney, University President emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh and Saint Mary’s dean of faculty Pat White. Sandusky, his wife, his two sons, Hakes and Feller also appear in the paintings.

While the three artists worked on the painting at different times over a two-year period, they sometimes found themselves bumping elbows. Hakes, who spent eight weeks in the summer of 2003 on the project, recalled Sandusky coming into the studio in the evenings and repainting some of her work. The following day, she said, she would retouch some of his.

“It was kind of difficult, but it worked out in the end really well,” Hakes said.

Once, Hakes recalled, a heavy Midwestern storm hit South Bend when the studio windows had been left open. Winds punched a canvas straight through an easel, forcing them to repaint it.

Sandusky said he worked on the project up until the very day staff from the Snite came to pick it up this summer.

“I have done a number of large paintings, but nothing this large and nothing this time consuming,” Sandusky said.

Turnout and reaction at the exhibit opening on June 26 was outstanding, Sandusky said.

“Reaction has been incredible,” he said. “The opening was a great success. There were over 270 people in attendance. I’ve gotten no negative comment.”

The paintings will remain at the Snite until Sept. 16, Sandusky said, after which he hopes to find other venues to display them.

“I do want it to travel around nationally,” he said. “I am looking for some shows.”

Eventually he would like to sell the paintings, possibly to Notre Dame. But first he wants to paint the lower register, or what would be Phase Two, of the original Chapel.