GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ Deep in the basement of the Marywood motherhouse, tucked among water pipes and storage rooms, Sister Phyllis Mrozinski patiently chips away at a chunk of pink New Mexico alabaster. Mrozinski gently pounds a chisel, kicking up flying chips of stone and sprays of dust. Ping, ping, ping: The sound echoes through her cement-floored studio. To the gentle-spirited nun, it’s like music. She files the stone, then brushes off the dust with her father’s old shaving brush. Mrozinski works down here each day, her delicate hands creating graceful sculptures from hunks of stone. She works alone but feels a divine presence with each chisel-tap. “I’m never by myself when I do these things,” the Dominican sister says cheerfully. “In my studio, I have a lot of company. “I call it my sanctuary,” she says, laughing lightly, “where I meet God.” Mrozinski laughs often, smiles a lot, too. She seems to find great joy in life and in making stone come to life through her sculptures. As artist-in-residence at the Dominican Center at Marywood, her works line the halls and lobbies of the Dominicans’ stately headquarters. She has sculpted figures for her fellow sisters’ funerals and anniversaries in the order. Her bronze statue of a mother and child greets visitors in the lobby. Now comes one of her most ambitious and spiritually symbolic projects: a sculpture of St. Dominic de Guzman, who founded the worldwide Dominican order in 1216. The life-size sculpture stands in her basement studio, a staff in his hand and on his forehead, a star said to have shone at his baptism. Once funds are raised to make a bronzed statue of the clay figure, it will stand somewhere on Marywood’s rolling grounds _ a silent testament to the Dominican Order of Preachers. For Mrozinski, preaching is not always about words. “My preaching comes from my art,” says Mrozinski, 77. Her art preaches exceedingly well, says Ron Pederson, chairman of the art department at Aquinas College, who encouraged Mrozinski to major in sculpture when she enrolled at Aquinas at age 55. “She has that ability to imbue the sculpture with something of her spirit,” Pederson said. “If that spirit is attuned to God’s spirit, something of God comes through too in it. I think a lot of her work is that way.” Mrozinski does not doubt God works through her, calling him the “co-creator” of her sculptures. She believes each stone has a purpose: “The honor and glory of God, who created it.” She entered the Dominican order in 1951, a week before her 21st birthday, disappointing an Air Force airman to whom she was engaged. She never regretted it. She worked at a Catholic middle school for 24 years before coming to Marywood in 1974 to work in administration. She had taught art along with language arts and religion, and began turning out attractive designs for cards, brochures and books for the Dominicans. She enrolled at Aquinas to enhance her skills. Taking Pederson’s required sculpture class, she dutifully completed her first assignment: create three sculptures from a slab of wax. “He said I was a natural,” she recalls with a smile. She switched her major to sculpture and eventually became Pederson’s assistant. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) In her senior year, the college wanted a life-size statue of St. Thomas Aquinas to replace one that had been vandalized. She had never made anything that large but took it on, pasting together inch-thick slabs of Styrofoam 6 feet high and carving the model for the statue. She covered the figure with clay she made from car grease, motor oil and powdered clay. Then came the limestone from which she was to carve the statue _ 8,640 pounds of boulder on a flatbed truck. “I waited for that to arrive and I bonded with it just like that,” she says, slapping her hands. “It didn’t scare me at all.” It took her a year to sculpt the piece with chisels and power tools from a scaffold. “I still look at it and say, `I don’t know how I did it,’ ” she marvels. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) Inside her basement studio at Marywood, tools, a crown of thorns, paintings and photos hang on the walls, alongside piles of stone wait to be transformed in the dusty workshop. “Sometimes, I’ll look at a piece of stone, waiting to see which one I want to use next, and I can hear the stone say, `Take me, take me!’ ” she says with a laugh. She knew she would carve St. Dominic when the thought came to her in prayer. Realizing there was no statue of their founder on the grounds, she rushed to tell their prioress, Sister Nathalie Meyer. “She said, `I really think we need a Dominic!”’ Meyer recalls. “I said, `I do too. Go for it.”’ The Dominic statue has been a labor of love for Mrozinski. His arm holds a staff, and Mrozinski affixed a rosary to his sash. “I think he has such a pleasant face,” she says, patting it affectionately. Dominic will not see the light of day, however, until after he is sent to a foundry in Kalamazoo, Mich. There, a mold will be made and a bronze statue forged. The Dominicans have about $10,000 needed for a down payment, but it will cost about $30,000 for the whole project. Mrozinski waits patiently for the statue to be finished, as she does with all her sculptures. She is confident God guides the unpredictable process. “It’s the mystery of it all, and the final outcome is sometimes a surprise,” she says. “I look forward to that. “It’s not my design. God starts it all from the beginning. I just help it to unfold.”
(Charles Honey writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)
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