Richard Heggen gets the same reaction pretty much anytime someone hears he likes to carve wooden saints as a hobby:
“Astonishment,” the Corvallis man said with a smile. “Why would a Mennonite be doing this? It’s certainly not our tradition.”
And how does he respond?
“I say, because I like to.”
Heggen wouldn’t have to have another reason, but as it turns out, he has several.
A retired civil engineer who is a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Heggen spent 22 years living in New Mexico and grew familiar with similar artwork in rural areas. He’s also worked, traveled and lectured in scores of countries.
By the early 1900s, most churches had moved away from wooden iconography, he said, but you can still see similar artwork, particularly in small villages.
“It’s just kind of a celebration of a South American tradition,” he said, nodding at his growing collection, which stands at beneficent attention on the shelves of his basement workshop.
“If someone gets something spiritual out of it, that’s fine,” he added. “You don’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate it.”
Most of Heggen’s saints are a foot to 18 inches high. He uses scrap wood to craft them: a 2-by-6, a few slabs of pine, anything someone might be throwing out or that he can pick up at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
He uses a mallet and chisel, or sometimes a rotary tool or an X-acto knife. He works from pictures of saints in statue form that he finds online. If the statues have been painted, Heggen paints his, too.
“I replicate it to the best of my ability,” he said, but added: “I’m a craftsperson. I’m not an artist. I don’t have that kind of training or even that kind of eye.”
The internet pictures are both model and inspiration, Heggen said: Does he like the way they look? Is there something eye-catching about the stance or the accompanying symbols? Are they within his skill set?
Some saints, he explained, by the time they get to statue form, look pretty much identical: just a guy standing there with a Bible or a cross.
He prefers something a little different: St. Jude, for instance, who is often depicted with a boat; or St. Peter, who carries the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven: or St. Francis of Assisi, who in his position as the patron saint of animals can be carved with any number of birds or beasts.
His most recent statue was chosen specifically for the lockdown prompted by the novel coronavirus: St. Corona, a little-known Christian martyr from around the year 160.
Legend has it Corona was trying to comfort a Roman soldier who was being tortured and was arrested and tortured to death herself for the action. Heggen, however, was more interested in marking the novel coronavirus that placed the world in lockdown. And he liked the picture he saw of her statue, which appeared to depict her holding two silver feathers.
“For a pittance, you can get six of these from China,” he quipped, pointing out the accessory. “If I need a silver feather, I know where to get one.”
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes some 10,000 saints, but Heggen isn’t working his way down a list. He just browses the internet until he finds a photograph that catches his attention, then looks for the right wood to bring it to life.
As he works, he learns a little about each of the saints he carves, but the carving takes most of his attention. “I must admit I forget the stories pretty quickly,” he said.
Heggen figures he started carving his first saints three or four years ago. He doesn’t sell them, but he’s given away more than a dozen and still has 50 or 60 remaining.
“I’m kinda running out of people to give them to,” he said.
Before people start lining up offering to take them home, however, Heggen has a few caveats. First, his artwork isn’t garden statuary. It would never hold up in any kind of inclement weather.
Second, he said, he’s really only interested in giving away his statues to people who want to honor the culture and history that inspired both his work and the originals, not just someone looking to fill a spot on a mantle.
But he does understand why people might shake their head and wonder at the fact that he’s carving statues at all.
“As Mennonites, we work for world peace, alleviating hunger … but sometimes it’s good to do something a little more frivolous,” he said.
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