According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a reliquary is a “container or shrine in which sacred relics are kept.” A relic could be anything from a piece of a saint’s body—often, bones—to an object he or she possessed. The pious travel to churches, mosques and temples that house reliquaries seeking blessings from the spiritually great entities contained in these shrines.
“The closer people could get to the saint,” said MU metals professor Becky McDonah of Christian reliquaries, “The more powerful they were—that’s why there were sometimes windows in the casing.” McDonah used this feature in some of the pieces in her collection of personal reliquaries, Esteemed Objects, which is currently on display at the gallery in the Winter Center. She gave an artist’s talk on Jan. 29; the show will be up until Feb. 21.
In her artist statement, which is printed on the handout gallery-goers are given, McDonah says, “My intention is to initiate contemplation that elevates the ordinary. The container can draw attention to, place importance upon, and affect the perception of the simplest of objects.”
McDonah has been inspired by all kinds of shrines, including what are called “castle reliquaries:” ornate shrines that have stories pictured on them. The artist uses symbolism in the ornamentation of her sculptures to convey a narrative about the item that’s enshrined, which is often what appears to be just an ordinary object.
A similarity between the traditional religious reliquaries and McDonah’s shrine sculptures is that, as one audience member put it, McDonah seems to “universalize the personal,” elevating ordinary objects in her life to the status of the divine, and, as she said, allowing viewers to construct their own meanings from the pieces, to connect with them from wherever they are in life.
McDonah fessed up to being a bit of a hoarder of objects: “You know, I have a hard time,” she said. “I think, I might need this sometime! And I’m always calling and asking [people] for strange things.” The process of collecting objects for her pieces has been interesting. When she was collecting hearing-aid batteries for a piece, the artist said, she also ended up collecting the stories of how people had lost their hearing.
“Most all the objects I have are things that I collected, ordinary objects I chose very specifically,” said McDonah. She seems to build many of her ornate pieces from the ground up. A piece called Inspirational Ashes: A Reliquary for Campfire Remains and a Marshmallow, starts, at the bottom, with a hexagonal, glass-sided base with what appear to be rough silver stones lining it. The base contains tiny pieces of charcoal, which the viewer can see. Atop the pedestal is what looks like an old-fashioned fountain-pen holder that supports a lightly dimpled metal twig. The twig holds the base of a white, marshmallow-shaped box, whose top, which is pierced by the twig, sits beside the base of the sculpture. In the box at the top of the twig, inside a lively circle of flames sits the prize, a relic of McDonah’s cherished memory of a specific campfire. For McDonah, the piece is about celebrating good times when alive, rather than just when someone dies.
Terro Server starts with a base with six little recessed shelves, each holding a deceptively soft-looking Hershey’s kiss. A scalloped rim above this gives way to a pillar made of shining Twizzlers, above which six dangling ant medallions wiggle back and forth a bit when the viewer walks around the piece. Above this, what looks like a serving tray, holding in place a bottle of antique-looking “Ant Killer,” which is described on its packaging as “For Control of Sweet Eating Ants.” On one side of the bottle is a grassy tendril that ends in a hook. From the hook dangles a silver ball made of ants that appears to function as a container. On the other side, a tray supported by another tendril holds an ornate disk, which also functions as a container. This round box, half open, contains what seems to be an ant trap: in the box is a piece of paper on which the words “Place Ferro® Here” are printed.
McDonah sketches out her ideas before building them, partly to get the proportions and measurements right. She seems to build from memories and associations she makes with the object: “I’ll think, ‘Oh, I need some chocolate chips to ornament the licorice,’” she said.
The artist also enjoys playing with the grotesque element that’s sometimes present in shrines. Toenail Reliquary, a scaled-up replica of a big toe that’s realistic enough to be disturbing is propped up by what looks like the business end of equally scaled-up toenail clippers, like the kind you use to get the really thick, out-of-control monster toenails. The jewel-encrusted ornamentation on the chopped end of the toe looks almost architectural, or like a king’s crown. The nail opens from its base on a hinge; without the glass box protecting the piece, anyone who dared to open it could see the toenails of seven different people in the artist’s life.
For Calcium Pill Reliquary, McDonah built a broken sterling-silver bone. The bone, resting atop a purple velvet pillow studded with real pearls, cracks open on a hinge to reveal that it has a Pez dispenser-like mechanism inside it, with big, oval-shaped calcium pills ready to pop out instead of candy.
Esteemed Objects is a mesmerizing, beautifully crafted set of artworks that show an appreciation of a life that it’s easy to forget we only live once. But don’t take this writer’s word for it—see for yourself. The art gallery at the Winter Center is open Monday-Friday from 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.