The Authentic Vision: Brother Joseph’s Ave Maria Grotto

IMG_1617  Authenticity in folk art (“outsider” art, self-taught artists – whatever the current designation of choice may be) is a topic that has long intrigued me. There are any number of phonies – some of them the off-spring of the real thing – who try to cash in on the folk art market. The idea of the authentic artist who creates art from an impulse that comes from within is what I seek in the work of “outsiders.”

IMG_1614Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), a Bavarian-born monk who spent the bulk of his life at St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, is an example of that inspired authenticity, I think. Brother Joseph had no training as an artist but created historical and fantasy structures that are a lasting tribute to inspiration and faith. His Ave Maria Grotto (www.avemariagrotto.com) is nestled on the Abbey grounds along with the still active monastery and the St. Bernard Preparatory School which replaced St. Bernard College when it closed in 1979.

IMG_1631Brother Joseph’s impressive installation in the abandoned quarry of the Abbey includes at least 125 structures created out of stone, cement, and discarded items. The centerpiece of the four-acre park is the large Ave Maria Grotto but its focal points are structures – real and fantasy, sectarian and non-sectarian – taken from world culture. The structures span the globe but a large number of them are based on buildings and sites in Rome and Jerusalem. When I was growing up everybody referred to Ave Maria Grotto as “Little Jerusalem.”

IMG_1637I first saw the place as a young boy in the days of “roadside attractions” before the interstate system was ubiquitous. I remembered it fondly as a kitschy place with edifices constructed of concrete and broken glass, broken marble and colorful discarded gaming marbles, costume jewelry and cold cream jars.  IMG_1602 One fanciful monument is topped by green Irish fishing floats. I remembered a miniature Noah’s Ark installation with plastic animals and a fantasy piece called “Hansel and Gretel Visit the Temple of the Fairies” complete with a fierce dragon bound by a chain underneath. A life-size statue of Pope Pius X is just down the hill from a miniature Egyptian-style pyramid. A miniature section of the Great Wall of China hovers close to touching memorials to “St. Bernard Boys” who died in various 20th Century wars in which the United States was involved. There are a 48-star American flag made with marbles, glass, and cement and a replica of the World Peace Church, the Catholic Cathedral at Hiroshima. IMG_1647

All of these things are still there.

Brother Joseph’s first structures were crafted around 1912 and his last, an impressive replica of the Lourdes Basilica, was built in 1958. I remembered the place as a quirky roadside attraction but on a recent visit I was struck by the level of craft and artistry, spirituality, and personal mission represented in the little monk’s life’s work. He was not a world traveler and had only personally viewed a handful of the structures he created – those from his Bavarian home town of Landshut and those on the grounds of the Abbey in Cullman. The rest were composed from photographs, the Bible and other written texts, and his imagination. Brother Joseph started constructing the buildings in his spare time when his job was to shovel coal at the Abbey’s power station. IMG_1627

A few structures have been added to the installation since Brother Joseph died including a life-size bronze statue of Brother Joseph facing his monumental Grotto. After one has toured the installation, a shaded path with the Stations of the Cross leads to the Abbey Cemetery where the monks, including Brother Joseph, are laid to rest. A small stone chapel stands watch over the cemetery. It is a quiet and reflective place, conducive to meditation and contemplation. IMG_1685

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