Growing up Catholic in Spokane, Vincent De Felice spent his altar-boy youth surrounded by religious imagery: statues … stained-glass windows … holy books.
So years later, when he decided to pursue a career in visual arts, it seemed natural for De Felice to imitate the realism exemplified by the great Renaissance and Baroque creators of Catholic iconography.
Last week, 28-year-old De Felice wrapped up preliminary work on his first major public sculpture, a “Memorial to the Unborn” commissioned by the Spokane diocesan cemeteries and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
The $30,000 bronze, which will be installed atop a 6-foot-high basalt pedestal at Holy Cross Cemetery in May, depicts three angels and a dove escorting a cloud-shrouded infant to heaven.
Its neoclassical style is a far cry from the work that helped De Felice earn an art degree - and 4.0 grade point average - while attending Eastern Washington University. “We used to have these sessions at Eastern,” De Felice recalls, “where professional artists would come in and, along with teachers, review our work.
“I brought in several pieces similar to what I do now - very realistic … a lot of emotion and pathos - and they had nothing good to say. They weren’t impressed at all.
“This happened two or three times,” De Felice says. “So before the next review, I whipped together a vase, turned it on its side and attached some legs. I called it ‘Pig Vase.’
“It took me less than an hour, but they acted like it was the greatest thing on Earth.”
After that, De Felice did what was necessary to earn good grades “and a piece of paper so I could say I was qualified.”
But he continued to pursue more representational projects on the side. One of those - a partial bust of Christ called “Salvator Mundi” (Latin for “Savior of the World”) - was on display at the diocese’s downtown Chancery when it caught the attention of the committee seeking proposals for the cemetery memorial.
To his surprise, De Felice was invited to participate, along with Ken Spiering, David Govedare, Deborah Copenhaver and several other prominent artists.
“At first, I felt honored just to be included among these people,” De Felice remembers.
Already working full time as an art director for North by Northwest Productions, De Felice had only three weeks to develop a concept for the memorial.
“The first thing that came to mind was a mother-and-child, Madonna-type thing,” he says. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t do that, since this was a memorial to all lost infants, including abortions. I couldn’t have a mother and child, since it’s generally the mother who decides to have the abortion.
“So the only way to represent the innocence of these children was with children. You can’t get much more innocent than that.”
De Felice spent 70 hours on evenings and weekends sculpting a model of his proposal.
He began by shattering a 25-pound brick of wax on the basement floor of his North Side home. He then softened the wax shards in a crock pot of warm water and patiently coaxed them into recognizable shapes: clouds, cherubs and a chubby infant in a fetal position.
“When I was done,” says De Felice, “I felt really proud. It wasn’t as good as what I had in my mind, but I still thought, ‘I’m going to knock their socks off.’ I really did.”
Since none of the artists submitted their proposals at the same time, De Felice didn’t know what he was up against. So after several weeks and still no word from the selection committee, De Felice sneaked into the room where the entries were stored to check out the competition.
“I’d tried to guess what other people were doing,” he says, “and in three out of five cases I was right. At that point, I’m thinking, ‘I actually have a chance to be a finalist!’
“But I was sure they’d go with Ken Spiering because of his name and because he does good work.”
Spiering was indeed among the finalists, but in the end the committee picked De Felice’s infant and cherubs over Spiering’s proposal of an older child sitting against a stone wall.
Dennis Fairbank, director of diocesan cemeteries and a member of the selection committee, says choosing a winner was very difficult.
De Felice’s concept of a bronze sculpture on a pedestal fit in with the theme of the other statuary at Holy Cross, says Fairbank, “but what it finally came down to was that Vincent’s idea was a little more universal than the others.
“What we’re trying to do is make a statement to the Catholic community that this memorial is not just to victims of abortion. It’s to all unborn children,” says Fairbank.
Once he got the go-ahead, De Felice labored four months turning 300 pounds of clay into a full-scale replica of his wax model. The final sculpture includes 36 elements, all of which have been sent to a foundry in Joseph, Ore.
The statue still must be cast, assembled and installed, but already De Felice is looking ahead to even bigger challenges. There’s a contest for a World War II memorial in Olympia.
And, if he can raise the money, De Felice wants to create a larger-than-life municipal sculpture of a Spokane Indian chief with upstretched arms.
Meanwhile, there are costs connected with the cemetery memorial that De Felice still has to cover, including the bill for casting.
Fellow artist Spiering is a veteran of public art and has the financial scars to prove it. Materials alone for his popular Red Wagon sculpture in Riverfront Park ended up costing Spiering $6,000 more than he was paid for the commission, and he earned nothing for the year’s worth of hours he devoted to the project.
If De Felice ends up spending $20,000 for casting, as he predicts, Spiering says he’ll be very lucky. But even if De Felice only breaks even for his effort, says Spiering, “This is a huge opportunity for a young artist. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to be more than you are.
“Every project like this is going to do two things: It gives him more visibility in the community and, more importantly, it gives him more confidence in himself.”
Asked whether he regrets not winning the cemetery memorial commission himself, Spiering chuckled good-naturedly, “No, I think it’s Vincent’s turn to give away a sculpture.”
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