A prominent Utah arts group has stepped in to try to preserve the Christian School, the two-story Salt Lake City art installation that was the life’s work of an eccentric artist who died in August.
Shriners Children’s Hospital, which became owners of the building at 1324 S. State St. when artist Raphael Plescia died in August at age 84, had told Plescia’s family that they would have to vacate by Thursday.
That plan appears to be on hold. The Utah Arts Alliance has submitted preservation plans to Shriners Children’s, the national organization that runs the Salt Lake City hospital, which has granted an extension, said Jonathan King, the alliance’s community outreach and event coordinator.
“The hope is that we get it clean enough that we can actually make it into a pop-up,” King told The Salt Lake Tribune. “In a perfect world, it would be permanent.”
A spokesperson for the Salt Lake City hospital confirmed the extension.
Plescia spent a half-century filling the two-story space with his sculptures and paintings, with his unique depictions of passages from the Bible. Some of the works are intertwined with the building — from the Sistine Chapel-like ceiling to the hole he dug in the basement — and can’t be removed from the premises.
“Every time you turn around, there’s something hard, something creative, something sculpted into the walls,” King said. “The world needs to see this.”
The challenge with Christian School, King said, is finding “exactly how we can get the public in there to experience this Utah enigma.” The building is cramped, and doesn’t meet accessibility standards under the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said. It may be possible to offer hard-hat tours to small groups, he said.
Utah Arts Alliance is the force behind such installations as Dreamscapes, now housed in a former Macy’s store in Sandy at The Shops at South Town, and the Urban Arts Gallery in The Gateway. The alliance also organizes such events as the Urban Arts Festival and the Illuminate light show.
The alliance is trying to work out a memorandum of understanding, to submit to Shriners Children’s. King said the Shriners’ board hasn’t met to discuss the building, yet, but he said the organization listened to the fact that Christian School was Plescia’s life’s work.
Plescia’s family, King said, would continue to move other items out of the building, with the goal of leaving the artwork in place. “It’s a fine balance of grieving, cleaning and preserving,” King said.
There is a fair amount of debris mixed in with the art. On a recent walkthrough, one could find construction material, burnt musical instruments, boxes of comic books that seem to have been nibbled on by rats, cobwebs hanging off sculptures, a stray saw on the floor and pages torn from a Bible. Downstairs, there was a vintage car and a gas tank.
There also are countless religious paintings, and accounts written by Plescia in his slanted and distinct penmanship, tucked between piles of unfinished work and other detritus. One sign, half tucked away, reads: “God’s watching.”
“He didn’t want anybody to come in and move stuff around or do anything,” Neena Plant-Henninger, his daughter, said as she looked around the room with the most available light. On the ceiling, her father has painted portraits of members of their family who have passed away. “He’s had his whole life and time invested” in this place, she said.
Plant-Henninger has been in the process of mounting various estate sales, and having representatives of moving companies look at the items inside. An estate agent joked that they shouldn’t move anything, in case “Ralph pops out and tells us not to.”
During one visit, Adam Sherlock bought one of Plesica’s red paintings for $200. There is no time stamp on it — unlike his other works, which have a copyright with his name and date. Plant-Henninger estimates the work was created between 1978 and 1979.
Plant-Henninger asked if she could take a photo of it on the wall before Sherlock removes it from the building, holding up her iPhone and taking a few shots. Sherlock said he and his wife were excited to have it and plan to put it in their living room.
“It’s a piece of Salt Lake City history,” he said before carrying it out.
Plescia’s daughter has kept a number of her father’s research materials. However, she said, she wouldn’t know what to do with the building if they kept it. She has had dreams of having a pottery class in the front of the building, as she is an artist herself.
Sometimes, while she is trying to look at everything practically, something will surface that hits an emotional chord. She recalled finding her grandmother’s University of Utah student ID among the clutter, along with football tickets from 1934. She teared up when she talked about this, because she never met her grandmother.
A bell rings whenever someone opens the door to the Christian School. “That’s the spirit of Ralph,” said Kirk Kristian of SOS Senior Moving Services, who is helping figure out how to move the vintage car out of the building.
Preserving the installation could have far-reaching repercussions for Utah’s art history, King said.
“Maybe one day this will be our Monet, where it’ll go down in history that this was one of the most talented artists in Utah,” King said. “It would be a total shame if it was [acknowledged], but then we sold everything and destroyed it.”
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