Artwork brings monk close to GodDecember 12, 2019
By ALLEN LAMAN
ST. MEINRAD — He feels it in the flick of his paintbrush. It’s there when he carves into the clay, and when he wraps his fingers around the bowls and the pots and molds them into all shapes and sizes.
The steps Br. Martin Erspamer takes to create his art are straightforward. The underlying process is not. Because when he brings his handmade pieces to life at the Saint Meinrad Archabbey, the Benedictine monk is not alone.
“To be too conscious of what you’re doing is bad, because you get tight,” he said in his cavernous and cluttered pottery studio. “But when you’re really into it, it really feels like it’s not you. It’s something else that is moving through you or inspiring you.”
“New Works: Slipware and Drawings,” an exhibit featuring Erspamer’s functional ceramic creations, can be viewed through Jan. 15 in the archabbey’s library gallery. The show features small-scale, mixed-media drawings and carved tiles.
Since 2005, Erspamer has used his talents to birth countless unique creations for the Spencer County monastic community as well as churches across the nation.
He’s painted stained glass windows, illustrated books, worked with architects to design blueprints for many houses of prayer, etched depictions of religious icons into slabs of clay and much more.
Erspamer is a man who has chosen a life without sons and daughters. But he is a father nonetheless.
His babies are bright and bold. Some are smooth and gentle, born from the fire of a kiln. Others are long and flowing, cut from paper or woven into tapestries.
They all burst with the glory of God.
“In a sense, to me, those are my children,” Erspamer said. “Because I’ll be gone, but those places or those objects will still be in place, and kind of bear witness to the fact that I was here.”
His days are devoted to them. Usually tackling 15 projects at a time, Erspamer designs and fashions artwork all day long in several spaces located on the sprawling Saint Meinrad grounds. His work is meditative, a careful process of reflection on imagery that teaches him about himself, about the world and about life.
Erspamer found art as a boy. He’d “pick up junk and draw on it,” he remembers. He sketched on paper. But his parents wanted him to forge a different path in life.
His grandparents, however, believed in his talents. They gave him paint and wood, and they told him to create. It revealed who he really was.
He learned that he could take a wad of dirt and turn it into something beautiful. He fell in love with that feeling. And he fell in love with sharing that feeling with God.
“That’s what I know about myself,” Erspamer said. “I want to make things. It’s probably a different experience for each person, but to create something, to me, is the closest experience I know to be like God.”
He found God in the Society of Mary. Erspamer never heard a literal call from Him, but when he joined nearly 50 years ago. He felt he was in a spiritually satisfying atmosphere, surrounded by people who “really were like saints,” he recalled. He feels that same sensation at Saint Meinrad.
Erspamer earned a masters degree in Fine Arts from Boston University in 1986, and completed his post-graduate studies at the Catholic Theological Union in the mid-1990s. His work has taken him throughout the United States and as far away as India.
Though he is a solitary person, Erspamer came to St. Meinrad for the community. Together with his brothers, he prays, sings and recites Psalms that continually inspire him. He also enjoys sharing his work and his time with visitors, a key tenet of the Benedictine ethos.
Erspamer glorifies God in all of his work. When he loses control of his body and pours his heart into his creations, he knows his creator is near.
“I’d be lying if I say I’m sitting down here saying prayers,” Erspamer said of his time in the studio. “But you’re in the presence of God. And I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m doing it in God’s presence.”
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