Wednesday, September 26, 2018


"Pieta" by Bob Scriver, still in plastilene here

This sculpture is formally called a "Pieta," belonging to a tradition of portrayals of Jesus newly taken down from the cross and Mary, his mother, grieving over his body.  It is one of a set of sculptures created around the death of Bob Scriver's daughter as a way of handling his grief.  The work is at the Montana Historical Society with the rest of his estate. 

The first sculpture in this cluster was a bust of Margaret in her last time before death.  She was told the name of it was "Prairie Daughter," but the real name was "To See Eternity".  The first version was shocking to others, because it was easier to see the emaciation and suffering in clay, so that he had to add revision.

The second was a corpus for a crucifix in the moments before Jesus' death, when he said, "Eloi Eloi lama Sabachthani" ("Father, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?")  It was a commission from a customer who was wrestling with a terminal disease.  She gave permission to share the crucifix with others.

The third and fourth were portrait busts of Maurice Chaillot, who posed as Jesus.  One was as Jesus on the cross and the other was Maurice himself, who was a professor and artist in Canada.

There is also a portrait bust of Helene Devicq herself, but it is not part of this little set.  Helene and Maurice were the siblings of Jeannette Caoette, Bob's second wife.  She is wearing a wide-brimmed summer hat.

Helene was very beautiful in a petite Elizabeth Taylor way, and quite conscious of it.  She married Stan DeVicq, a well-known hockey star, and many years later a wealthy man whose name I don't know.  She was used to being a star and once mused sadly,  "I just don't have any clout anymore!"  Bob Scriver loved her always and tried to paint her portrait, without success.  The sculpture went better.

First came Bob's desire to be closer to his daughter, who was born to his first wife, Alice, and who after divorce had custody of the girl.  Even over distance she was closely bonded to her father.  Next was the surprise request for the crucifix.  Then the busts of Maurice in preparation for the crucifix and then the developing idea of a Pieta.  Bob had not seen Helene since the divorce from her sister.  After his divorce from me, he brought her back to Browning a few times and stayed close to her emotionally.  There is video he shot of her posing by his prized black Cadillac.  

There was no possibility that a woman like Helene would ever agree to a life in a little rez town with a husband who lived for work, far away from cultural events and the wearing of gowns.  When "Bronze Inside and Out" was written, several covers were proposed by the University of Calgary Press artist.  One showed Bob at work in his conventional mess of a workshop and Helene objected vehemently to the photo on grounds that it was demeaning.

Later, when the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton was marking a show of Scriver bronzes loaned by the Montana Historical Society, they organized a memorial dinner.  I was invited to attend but couldn't.  Anyway, I'd been divorced for a long time.  But I suggested that they invite Helene, who lived there in Edmonton and was key to his career.  They knew she was, well, "old" but I don't think they expected a movie star in fur on the arm of a young man.  The entrance had been decorated with larger-than life photo of Scriver and when Helene confronted it, she could not help bursting into tears.

For a woman meticulous in her self-maintenance, it is ironic that her death came from a neglected wound on her foot which became infected, then progressed to gangrene.  She had worn high heels all her life until the backs of her ankles would not permit her feet to be flat.  The idea of life-saving amputation was simply inconceivable.

An incident I sometimes pondered was when Scriver still had a tourist shop in a log cabin he built in St. Marys, the rez tourist town just south of the Canadian border.  Helene and Jeannette, who had been assigned to clerk, found the traffic slow, so they had laid out fabric and patterns on the countertop and with their clever deft hands they were beginning a sewing project.  In came Scriver, as horrified as though they had driven away the customers, and expressed his displeasure.  One can take this several ways.  The girls were allied in defying him behind his back (they hadn't expected him), they rather enjoyed being so important and making him react so violently, or it was a little drama in the war between the sexes.  The two of them together did not resist the wrath.

Jeannette had no children but Helene did, so in Jeannette's last days it was Helene's son who took hold of the situation and stood by Jeannette through her last nursing home days.  Ever since Morinville, the little French-Canadian Catholic church town half-an-hour north of Edmonton, this family had been tightly united around the father's barbershop/pool hall.  When Maurice was born late -- what is sometimes called a "menopause baby"-- his sisters were auxiliary mothers, and all energy went into educating this fine boy.  He did succeed in being an outstanding international person in the arts, but he never turned away from his fiery sisters even when they were nonsensical.

Scriver was close to this family for a while during WWII when he was stationed with the American Army Band in Edmonton.  They took him in hand as much as he consorted with them.  They had a lot of big ideas and told a lot of French-Canadian jokes.  His mother would have been horrified, which pleased him.  (She had grown up very English in a small Quebec town, and saw the French as a servant class, like "Indians."  Indeed, Indians in her times occasionally pretended to be French.)

It takes a village to make a famous sculptor and Helene DeVicq was part of that, in ways she didn't even know existed.  But walking into a major public event as though on a red carpet runner was one of the more memorable ways.  I hope there were photos.

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