Artist’s 21,000-piece image took nearly a year to complete
Bloomfield Hills — Things just got brighter at St. Owen Parish in Bloomfield Hills.
Parishioners and visitors alike will notice a large, 21,000-piece mosaic adoring the wall behind the baptismal font, the work of a local artist at the request of a pastor who wanted to brighten up the simply adorned church on Franklin Road.
“The interior of the church is rather drab; it’s just poured concrete,” St. Owen pastor Fr. James Cronk told The Michigan Catholic. “I thought it would be nice to have something to brighten the place up.”
Fr. Cronk turned to Berkley-based artist and Our Lady of Martyrs parishioner Mary Gilhuly to come up with a design that involved “water, fire and the Holy Spirit.”
Gilhuly surveyed the spot where Fr. Cronk wanted the mural to be placed, a curved wall broken into 10 sections with concrete beams sticking out.
“At first I told him, ‘no,’” Gilhuly said. “Whatever I was going to design had to be in 10 narrow panels. I had to think of a design that was 10-by-12-feet and look right with concrete strips running through it.”
Gilhuly and her husband, Steve Claper, came up with a design featuring a white dove diving from shades of red into a pool of blue.
“When I took the design to the finance council, everyone loved it,” Fr. Cronk said. “I didn’t want something designed by committee, but once people saw it, they loved it.”
Gilhuly went to work in the middle of the summer of 2016, laying out the design and procuring the 20,000 to 21,000 hand-cut pieces of glass of 30 different colors and shades – the white dove alone features seven different shades of white – and laying out the design in her workspace in Berkley.
“From the rendering, I had to transfer the layout on my living room floor,” Gilhuly said. “Working in a tiny home studio, I could only lay out six stripes at a time, and could never work on more than a couple of panels.”
Gilhuly divided each of the 10 stripes into two, working on two strips at a time in her studio, painting bold lines across the design to simulate the concrete beams.
“I never saw the piece in its entirety, because I couldn’t lay all of it out,” Gilhuly said. “I could only lay out a few panels on banquet tables in the basement. Mosaics change appearances, depending on how the light hits them.”
Gilhuly had back surgery in September, slowing the project, but after 80 to 90 works days, the mosaic was ready to be installed April 9, Palm Sunday.
“The mosaic went up in a day, right before Holy Week,” Fr. Cronk said. “The original idea was to have it covered up for the Easter Vigil, but once it went up, I didn’t want to cover it. “
Fr. Cronk said he’s pleased with how the mosaic turned out — it looks like the Holy Spirit is descending on the baptismal font, he said. As appropriate for the subject matter, the mosaic will be dedicated on Pentecost.
“When I create a piece for someone like this, it never feels like it’s mine,” Gilhuly said. “The whole time I was working on it, I asked God to guide my hands. It always felt like working for the people of St. Owen.”
Fr. Cronk says the reception to the mural has been positive, adding something to the parish’s look.
But Gilhuly, who says it’s a humbling experience to be invited to work on a worship space, said the best compliment she receives is how the mosaic meshes with the rest of the church.
“When someone says, ‘It looks like it grew there,’ that’s the ultimate compliment,” Gilhuly said. “I’ve done pieces in the narthex of the church and the foyer, but this is the first large piece that’s part of the worship space. As a Catholic, you know that’s not to be taken lightly.”