American sculptor humbled to bring sand nativity to Vatican

Photo Rich Varano Credit Alberto BasileCNA Rich Varano. | Alberto Basile/CNA.

Growing up next door to Daytona Beach in Florida, Rich Varano spent a lot of time making things out of sand with his dad. He never imagined it could turn into his full-time gig – but 30 years later, he cannot imagine doing anything else.

After discovering in his late 20s that one could, indeed, make a living being a sand sculptor, it is "all I've been doing ever since…" Varano said.

He sculpts year-round, and has traveled extensively for the work. For the past 17 years he has participated annually in a special sand-sculpting event in the northern Italian beach-town of Jesolo, where professional sand sculptors from around the world create original sculptures of the nativity and other Christian stories for locals and visitors to enjoy during the Christmas season.

This year, for the first time, the tradition was also brought to the center of the Catholic Church, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

"To be surrounded by such history, and art, and beauty, and magnificence, is quite humbling," Varano told CNA.

His first time in Rome, he said he found it to be beyond his expectation: "this is really a great place to be…"

This is also the first year that Jesolo sculptors are working on two projects simultaneously; the one in Rome and the one in the resort town close to Venice. Jesolo's exhibit for 2018 is made up of seven Old Testament scenes, viewed along a winding path. It begins with the creation of Adam and Eve and ends with the focal piece: Christ's birth.

The Vatican Sand Nativity, by contrast, is much larger, comprising about three-quarters of the sand being used in Jesolo to make up just one giant sculpture of Mary, Joseph, the Child Jesus, and an angel. The 52-foot-wide sculpture will be unveiled Dec. 7.

Sand Nativity scene in the Italian town of Jesolo. Credit/ Town of Jesolo.

"In the big picture, the largest difference probably between this and any other show I've done is it's all about the sand sculpture, but we're like the smallest part of the whole [operation]," Varano said.

Working with the Vatican, and all the support needed to make the project happen "kind of dwarfs what us sculptors are doing," he continued. "We're here for 15 days doing the sculpture, but I was also here for a week before doing the preparation."

He said the idea for a sand nativity at the Vatican started three years ago and took until now to be put into effect. The sculpting alone he estimated to be over 175 total hours of labor. As artistic director and lead sculptor, Varano got to hand-pick his team of three other artists – from Russia, the Czech Republic, and Holland – each of whom, he said, have "incredible skill."

The design for the sculpture and a plan for its execution were very carefully laid out in advance, and methodically worked through, since they work in stages from top to bottom – and there is no possibility of fixing or changing something above once the work below it has begun.

The sand itself, around 700 tons, was shipped from Jesolo to ensure the right quality for sculpting. Sand artists will typically use the same sand over and over again for different pieces, Varano said.

He noted that he grew up in a strongly Catholic family and he is glad his work on religious subjects provides the opportunity for spiritual reflection.

"These elements of the Bible have always been used as a beacon, as a guiding light for people," he said, pointing out that with the many challenges and conflicts around the world, these images give him hope "that more and more, as time goes by, we can be as one and have peace."

"The theme and the motif of the nativity is just such a graceful and joyful experience, whether you're working to create something that reflects it or just experiencing it by seeing it," he said. "It's a wonderful thing and for that we're very grateful."

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Varano said he and the other artists hope their work inspires joy in whoever sees it. "Because we enjoy making it and it's a blessing to be able to do something you really love and enjoy doing that also brings joy to others. It's its own reward."

"For me that's been such a spiritual fulfillment," he added.

The sculptor told CNA he is often asked what it is like to work with a medium such as sand, which is impermanent by its very nature, but said the enjoyment and satisfaction for him, and he believes for many artists, comes more from the process of creating art than from holding onto it indefinitely.

"And when you're at this level, you could always make it again if you wanted to," he said.

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