Artist Ralphael Plescia, who spent half a century filling a Salt Lake City building with his unique sculptures and paintings depicting passages from the Bible, has died.
Plescia died Aug. 14 in Salt Lake City, according to an obituary posted by Larkin Mortuary and family members. He was 84 years old. No cause of death was mentioned.
Plescia’s death leaves the fate of his most notable work – the two-story personal sculpture garden he called Christian School – in doubt.
At the Christian School, at 1324 S. State St. in Salt Lake City, Plescia created sculptures there for about fifty years, beginning in 1970, based on her interpretations of biblical passages.
“It’s like a museum,” Plescia said in a 2016 video produced by OHO Media, KUER’s 15 Bytes arts publication and VideoWest. “But it is a museum that is a school.”
The Atlas Obscura website, which chronicles offbeat monuments, notes that the building contains “enormous larger-than-life statues of Eve and the Serpent in the Garden, the Lion of Judah, dragons, the Heavenly Mother and ‘other characters’. [that] emerge from the ground itself.
Plescia’s art, continues the entry to Atlas Obscura, ranged from a brightly lit dome on the top floor of the building, with a Sistine Chapel-like painting of God on the ceiling, to a hand-dug hole in the basement, “deep enough to reach the water table”, which shows “concrete statues of desperate souls” trying to escape from the pit.
Plescia’s wife Rae said in the 2016 video that her husband started Christian school in 1970 – the same year his grandmother died. Within months, Rae said, her sister, her father and their youngest daughter, Maria, also died.
When another daughter, Tammy, died in 2009 of an aneurysm, Plescia was devastated, his wife said in the video. “The loss really made him think harder,” Rae said.
The art preservation website Spaces Archives wrote that its Christian school’s work was inspired by the 12th chapter of the book of Revelation. This chapter describes a pregnant woman confronted by a seven-headed dragon preparing to devour the woman’s child when it is born. The Plescia sculpture shows the boy, commonly interpreted as Jesus, and his mother – referred to as “The Lady of Wisdom” – escaping into the desert, specifically hiding in the mouth of a lion.
It was the lions that first brought Plescia recognition to the Utah art world. Plescia was hired by the State of Utah in 1976 to restore and repair the lion statues mounted at the side entrances to the Utah State Capitol.
The original lions, created by Gavin Jack in 1916, were made of cement and by the 1970s had been badly damaged by weather, said Stephanie Angelides, curator at the Capitol Preservation Board.
“Self-taught with no formal training in sculpture or restoration, he studied lions through books and observed them during visits to Hogle Zoo,” Angelides said. “He not only fixed them, but modified them to make them more anatomically correct.”
Plescia was honored with a resolution from the 1977 session of the Utah Legislature, which cited his efforts to “restore the prideful magnificence of the lions that adorn the east and west entrances of the State Capitol building of Utah”.
The Plescia lions lasted until 1998, when they also suffered weather damage. New lions, in marble, replaced the old ones during the renovation of the Capitol which took place from 2004 to 2008.
Ralphael Plescia was born on December 20, 1937 to Theodore Plescia and Hortense Beryl Blake. He married Vonne Rae Polad in 1956 and they raised four children.
As a child, according to Spaces Archive, Plescia played in the Gilgal Sculpture Garden and watched mason Thomas Child build the sculptures that represented aspects of his faith, such as Joseph Smith’s famous sphinx.
Gilgal Garden lay fallow for years, before being restored and reopened as a public park in 2000. The fate of Plescia Christian School is less clear with the artist’s death.
Kirk Huffaker, the former director of Preservation Utah, said Thursday he was involved in saving Gilgal, and noted that places like Allen Park (near Westminster College) and Plescia School are “the next step to save important and unformed works of art in Salt Lake City”. .”
“All these have important types of popular literary or religious life, [they’re] ordinary people’s interpretations of religion or art, and are important in terms of what they represent,” he said.
Plescia, with his Christian school, “really created a space in the building that fit the art he wanted to do, which is very unique and inseparable from where it is,” Huffaker said. . “Removing it from there wouldn’t have the same context and meaning as placing it elsewhere.”
Huffaker said Plescia jokingly called it a Christian school, but its goal was to educate people about its views and outlook on religion. “It was sort of his personal school on Christianity,” he said.
Rae Plescia said in the 2016 video that the Christian school building was going to Shriners Children’s Hospital after her death. The Plescias had leased it from the Shriners Hospital, which still owns the building, according to the Salt Lake County Assessor’s Office.
In the 2016 video, Huffaker — when he was still with Preservation Utah — said the building, due to its prime location on State Street, could be a target for redevelopment. Looking back, Huffaker said Thursday that the video was meant to “rally the support behind him to maybe buy the building.”
Huffaker, who now consults with preservation groups, said “even though [the building] is given to someone like a non-profit, the donation guidelines are such that they must monetize that donation with real estate, stock or whatever comes as quickly as possible.
In 2016, Plescia had doubts about whether Christian School would last beyond her lifetime. “The reason I don’t think he’ll survive,” he said in the video, “is because what I’m doing here isn’t something to make money. I don’t try to sell anything other than knowledge.
“When I died and left, whatever I did – if it’s swept under the rug – at least I tried to do what I thought was right in my lifetime,” Plescia said in the video. “And if it’s dead and gone, it’s not my fault.”
Plescia is survived by his wife, Rae; her daughter, Neena Plant-Henniger, and her husband, Martin; his son, Phillip Ralphael Plescia, and his wife Terry; son-in-law Russell Rolfson; 10 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Her siblings – Teddy, Sylvia and Rose – and her two daughters, Tammy and Maria, have previously died.
The funeral took place on Wednesday, August 24, according to Larkin Mortuary.