BOSTON — On a summer morning of 1992, a white United Postal Service truck arrived at the church of St. Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury, Boston, where Father Ray Helmick, a Boston College professor and a Jesuit, was waiting in anticipation.
He rushed to the deliveryman to help him carry the heavy boxes to the cellar, where Helmick had made his studio. “What’s in the boxes?” said the deliveryman, curious as to what could ever make a grown man so exited.
Helmick opened one of them, revealing the multitude of shiny glass mosaic tiles that lay within. The deliveryman blew a long whistle and said: “Well…Some assembly needed.”
It had been difficult to find a company that sold mosaic tiles oversees. Not all mosaic tiles are the same. The kind Helmick wanted were the Venetian tiles, made entirely of colored molten glass.
He had found a specialty place in Venice, Mosaici di Angelo Vezzoni, which could ship them over to the United States. Now that they had finally arrived, he could get to work completing his mosaic project.
The project had begun when St. Theresa’s needed restorations in order to allow handicap access. The ramp was placed in a room at the side entrance and it had big windows on two of its walls. Helmick suggested that the remaining two walls would be a great place to have artwork and offered to make it himself.
Helmick began his project with enthusiasm even though he knew very little about how a mosaic actually works. He had done one mosaic before, a circular figure representing St. Theresa of Avila that hung from a wood-carved, gold-leafed crown.
It was quite small, about the diameter of a soccer ball, and nothing compared to the 15’ by 15’ wall that the Jesuit was about to tackle. He decided to divide the work into 70 panels, made of carton boards and then cemented onto the wall by the architects in charge of the restorations.
He began drawing the project onto paper in order to use it as an outline for the actual mosaic, but drawing figures did not come as naturally to him as architectural design. “Spatial things come very clearly to me,” Helmick would later say, while looking at his rendering of perspective approvingly.
He frowned with disappointment at what he considered his drawing mistakes and inaccuracies. The larger-than-life image of Jesus was a challenge in-and-of-itself.
It floats next to a “living scroll,” a twirling vine inhabited by all sorts of birds and small mammals, inspired by the churches of Saint Mary Major and Saint Clements in Rome. This was easier said than done, and Helmick soon began running out of animals, ornithology not being among his many talents.
The demilitarized zone in North Korea might not be the first place that comes to mind for artistic inspiration. Helmick traveled there with a select group of his students from his International Conflict Resolution class in 1998.
While riding on the back of a bus, he looked out of the window at the 160-mile long band that divides the Korean peninsula. The zone was, and still is, heavily mined and there was hardly any living creature in sight. Out of nowhere appeared a Korean Magpie, a native bird of the land, with long blue wings and white stripes on the side.
For Helmick it had always been essential to have something from his travels in his artwork. And this bird was the perfect addition.
He had devoted his life to traveling and aiding diplomatic relations. In the late 1960’s he was teaching in Jamaica, when the Rastafarians were still just a group of troublemakers and social pariahs. When one of the Rastafarian men called out to him “white man must go, blood must flow(!),” Helmick decided to sit down and have a chat.
This experience would later guide him when thousands of Rastafarians were exiled from Kingston in 1968.
He used the same technique in Ireland in 1972, when the members of the Independent Irish Army began to raise turmoil and later resort to violent means to sustain their beliefs for the independence of Northern Ireland. From there it was Mozambique, Angola, Israel and Palestine, Yugoslavia, East Timor and India following the trail of discord and conflict.
In time, Helmick had gathered inspiration form all over the world and after nine years he had completed his project.
The mosaic was in the Byzantine style, with large weightless figures surrounded by a gold background. Underneath the figure of Jesus there are pictures of the miracles done for the sick and wounded, visible to those using the ramp.
The windows in the room, allow for the light to hit the glass tiles, creating a colorful vibration not unlike ripples in a pool. Among the birds depicted in the mosaic are peacocks, cardinals, woodpeckers, doves, storks, swallows, owls, pelicans and countless other species that Helmick had seen during his voyages, including, of course, the Korean magpie.
Helmick had always loved making things from scratch. When he was a young Jesuit studying in New York in the 1950’s, he decided to make a harpsichord, an instrument resembling a piano.
His passion and understanding of the piano had driven him to try and achieve such a complex endeavor. He took woodworking classes in a professional shop and completed the instrument.
The harpsichord rested in his apartment next to the church, and Helmick would caress its smooth painted surface fondly when he passed by it. His hands were those of an artisan, big and rough, but firm like a surgeons’ hands when at work.
He lost the tip of of his right thumb while working on the woodwork for the tabernacle, the place where the bread and wine for communion are placed. Being “no stranger to woodwork,” as Helmick said, he decided to make the 12 feet tall wooden tabernacle himself as part of the restorations for the church. While passing the pieces of wood through a circular saw blade, the tip of his thumb was cut clean off.
Helmick was terrified of not being able to pursue his passions anymore, and went from one doctor to another desperately looking for someone who could offer him some optimism. “I play the piano seriously!” Helmick told the last doctor he visited in Wellesley. The doctor sowed the finger back on and gave him physiotherapy exercises.
Once Helmick could play the three Chopin preludes, that make the biggest demands on the thumb, he returned to his work on the mosaic.
After the wall piece was completed Helmick felt that he could do more. Soon he was planning something new, his mind imagining more designs and improvements on the church’s aesthetic. At the age of 82, having postponed the project due to a knee injury, he started working on a baptismal font that is the fixture used for baptisms.
His study had once again been stocked with all the material that is essential to make it into a studio again. A long corridor in the basement of the church property leads to a large room. When Helmick was working, you would be led there by the sound of classical music by composers Ludvig Van Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The room has little light and the only windows are small and placed up high. The walls are plain, except for a stripe around the room with a crayon motif, hinting that the place was used for community activities before becoming an art studio.
The entire space is cluttered with objects. A long gray table runs down its entire length, piled with books and glues and cement. There are old National Geographic magazines and pictures from the New York Times and Boston Globe newspapers, stacked high on top of each other. Pictures of pigs and all kinds of birds and trees, from Sycamores to Lebanon cedars, are casually scattered on the surface.
Everywhere you looked you would get a glimpse of Helmick’s creative process and inspirations. The South wall is covered with shelves of CD’s and cassettes. Most of the music is classical, but some have foreign names, purchased during some of his travels.
Before getting to work, Helmick would put on latex gloves, to avoid getting his fingers glued to the mosaic. Then he turned to the immense variety of colored mosaic tiles, placed in red boxes, color coded and labeled by their serial number. The tiles are smooth and shiny, about half an inch tall and wide.
The gold tiles that Helmick used for the background are different. An actual gold leaf is placed within two transparent glass squares. The gold mosaic that Helmick used is gold number 10 that has a particular polished shine.
Once he chose the colored tile, Helmick proceeded to cut it into the shape he needed. Sometimes this is not necessary but when needed the tile is placed on a sharp blade resting on a ceramic plate and smashed using a hammer.
Breaking the tiles can be very hard and sometimes Helmick would lose his patience and just smash it with the hammer on the table, hoping it would provide him with the shape he was looking for. “It creates an awful lot of dust.
There is a lot of cleaning up to do,” Helmick complained, brushing off the debris from the work place. But cutting the tiles is essential, especially in order to insert words, mostly scriptures and the psalms, into the mosaic.
Having traced the drawings onto the cardboard, Helmick proceeded to glue the tiles with cement onto the sheets. It’s a painstakingly long endeavor that requires an impressive amount of patience, which the Jesuit priest performed with the utmost reverence and calm. He looked for different tones and variations in color, to approach the highest level of perfection.
The room, which usually smells musty and rubbery, is filled with the chemical smell of cement at this point of the process. A sliver of sunlight shines through the windows onto Helmick’s temples and knuckles.
Passing a hand on the finished image, the surface is cold and bumpy. The mosaic glints brightly as the Sonata in G Major rings clear from the speakers, while the Jesuit professor bends over his work, placing one tile at the time.
It’s a long and ambitious work making a mosaic, and some people are surprised to know that Helmick offered all of his work for free to the church. The mosaic tiles cost $35 an ounce, amounting to a total of about $6,000 paid for by donors to the community.
But the labor put in by the Jesuit artisan was completely free. For him making artwork was a way of improving the church and giving something back to his community.
Helmick spent a varying amount of time in front of his work from half an hour to half a day. When he wasn’t working on one of his projects he was thinking about his classes at Boston College.
He dreamed of making a new mural next to the older one in the side entrance. It was meant to represent St. Theresa of Avila, the Churches’ saint, in order to remind people entering who she was and what she did in her lifetime.
Helmick looked at the blank wall the same way a composer might look at a music score, hearing the melody emerge from the dotted pages. His imagination allowed him to see possibilities, and for anyone listening to him to see them too.
“He is always imagining things, coming up with things,” said Helmick’s brother, Monsignor William Helmick, “you never now what he is going to come up with next.”
Father Ray Helmick died in April this year at the age of 84. His memory lives on in his works at St. Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury Church. The wall mosaic of St. Theresa was unfinished when he died.