Ten years ago, Dave Hanson retired from his job as a corrections officer at California's Folsom State Prison. Now the 71-year-old works full-time to create sculptures of Padre Pio, St. Francis and other figures for schools and institutions across the country.
“At one point, I began to inquire about Padre Pio,” Hanson told CNA. “I knew only that he was a saint and had displayed the Lord’s stigmata. The more I studied him, the more committed I became.”
“After completing the bust, I was able to place copies in various Catholic schools in the Sacramento area, and am currently placing one at the Padre Pio Academy in Ohio,” he explained.
Hanson's years as a corrections officer made him want to bring beauty and goodness into the world through his art. But his Catholic faith also helped him see his “day job” as a calling from God.
“If you wish to provide a Christian service to someone, prison is the place to work,” he noted.
A turning point in Hanson's career came when he made a sculpture of an angel, in response to a heartbreaking case in which a mother was convicted of beating her son to death.
He inscribed the words, “Angels sleeping,” without knowing that a homeless children’s center would later place the statue close to where the children slept.
“It gives me chills to think about it,” he reflected. “God knew, and wanted that statement there.”
He continued to place his angel sculptures in various schools and children's areas while continuing his work at the prison.
Years before, Hanson said, visual art had become “lodged in his soul” when he discovered the world of classical masterpieces as a young man.
“I just kept practicing and taught myself how to sculpt through trial and error,” he remembered, with a soft chuckle.
After graduating from college, he ran his own statue and fountain manufacturing business in the 1970s. During those years, he became dismayed at the lack of moral leaders in the U.S. He felt compelled to present examples of virtue through his sculpting.
Hanson still hopes that his sculptures will reinforce what children have heard about the Catholic saints, providing “something good” to identify with in a culture that involved “so much death.”
“I believe that presenting characterizations of moral leaders just might generate some interest in commitment to leading a moral Christian life,” he said.
Hanson believes that Catholic art, in particular, is “utterly important” for modern society. He thinks often about Blessed John Paul II's 1999 “Letter to Artists,” which explains how “art should be used for the betterment of the Church and society in general.”
The growing popularity of Hanson's works does present a certain temptation to pride. “I try to resist that and give all the credit to God – that’s where is belongs. It’s hard to reach that point.”
What matters, he said, is for people to see God's work reflected in the work of the artist.
“Any talent I have has been developed as a result of God’s actions. I know that,” Hanson said gratefully.