THERE WAS a good bit of blood around the scaffold, you understand, when Rick Hart fell of and snagged his wedding ring on the way down, but then he always spills a bit of blood (unintentionally) on his work.
He has finished his Ex Nihilo, the theme of creation out of nothingness, for the main door of the Washington Cathedral. It will take maybe three years for the 21-by-19-foot limestone group to be carved by technicians and installed on the west front.
"Just like a glove?" I repeated, dazzled anew at the price of art and unable to forget the gore.
"Just like a glove," Hart said. The ring tore the skin up, and did the knuckle no great good either, but this was some weeks ago and besides the doctors got the skin back on, just like a glove probably, and no permanent harm was done.
We shouldn't even think of it. But if you visit Hart in his vast studio in Northeast Washington and start talking, sitting on a couple of chairs beneath the scaffold and the sculpture, you can't get it out of your mind.
"Do you think God was telling you, ah - " he was asked.
"I don't wear my wedding ring any more," he said.
"Raincoats are dangerous, too," I said to make him feel better, "if you catch those field-marshal straps in the car door." Danger, in short, is everywhere, yet we go on.
And darkness or chaos is everywhere, too, as you will notice if you try to buy gas or make out a tax form or read the day's news.
The earth was, after all, without form, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and there it all is in Rick Hart's stone, as it is in life.
"I did a lot of reading," he said, "and more than that, a lot of thinking."
Man may be cynical, but not so cynical he will spend years carving a Creation for a cathedral door unless he has come to terms with what he does and what he trusts.
Hart sank farther in his chair and puffed a surprising volume of smoke from his cigarette, and the two of us admired the cool light coming through the ceiling on the huge clay modeling.
"It doesn't look very minimalist or, if you don't mind my raising the question, very modern," I said.
"Well," he said, "now it's beauty's turn.'
Hart has lived here since youth (he comes from Atlanta) and at first he was a painter. He caught on to all the fine new movements of that art, and I gathered he could paint a mean stripe. Maybe even zig-zags."Do you think maybe painting is something to be talked about, nowadays, more than something to see?" I asked . . . in the sense that a square of yellow canvas , or a white one with a mauve dot on it, leads to more talkativeness than, say, an old Duccio with a story going on in it, and the feet clearly shown in the water and a lot of folk on hand to see the baptism and plenty of gold in the garment folds.
"I don't know if it's more literary now - needing more words than it used to - but for me there came a time that I noticed I wasn't really very moved by the new schools. It wasn't something that took everything I had."
For a time he worked as a stone carver at the cathedral. He fell in love with rock.
He entered the competition for the main sculpture of the main door. No dice; he was turned down flat.
But then, one is always of two minds about art juries. They turned down Della Quercia in favor of Ghiberti for the doors at Florence, after all, because they got a lot more material (extra palm trees, birds, rivers) in the designs of Ghiberti, and the fact that the resulting doors are a mess didn't bother the jury.
But in Hart's case, his rejection was okay, because the jury rejected everybody else's designs, too.
He had a hard time. Not merely that the lived in a garret and didn't eat well, but mainly that there were years when he wondered if he was full of baloney trying to be an artist.
Besides, there is a certain presumption in a huge work that will sit there (if the bombs don't fall and the creek doesn't rise) a thousand years.
But after some struggle inside, there came a day that Hart knew he was a sculptor, never mind what anybody else thought, and there came a day he knew what the Creation was about. He submitted new sesigns and (to the astonishment of amny) was accepted. He did not have a name like Henry Moore or Maillol or Archipenko or Lachaise or Zorach or Milles or anybody else except Rick Hart.
"Now if you won't take it wrong," I observed, "your sculpture of the creation out of nothingness could serve just as well for part of a Last Judgment."
He blasted forth smoke and reflected.
"You know, at the top the saints trooping right along looking happy, and at the borrom the guys that didn't make it, looking glum. The figures in your Creation don't look very happy."
Hart is not sure, to begin with, that there is all that much difference between creation and judgment, and creation is not necessarily a happy or jolly business. Being forced into shape from a nice warm sea, maybe you miss the warmth.
The tympanum is filled with abstract forms that may be leaves, or flames or a choppy sea. Out of them lean eight human figures in a sort of vortex, their arms reaching out. They're part of the whirling, all right, and even their bodies are incomplete, but already they're leaning out and reaching. They're in relation to each other and they're on their way.
Hart is 35, with plenty of hair, muscles and teeth, and he gives the impression of sufficient health and sanity that you can imagine hell-raising on the way to wisdom.
He is working now on Alpha and Omega, sculpture for two quarterfoil on the curveship of God. The darkness and the light are both alike, as King David once figured out.
The figures in the swirl appeared, as we sat comfortably regarding their tension, intent on being turned into something. It didn't seem to make much difference (as far as the sculptural statement is concerned) whether they were happy or not, or knew what was happening to them or where they would wind up at the last, or even whether the whirling was worth the anxiety and dizziness involved.
So now it goes up. The limestone will be drilled or chipped, point after point, until, the work is complete in stone and not in clay. The drudgery that makes it finally real.
Maybe the tourists or the Worshippers won't look at it, but there it will be over the big door all the same, and Hart has the satisfaction of believing "I knew, at one point, that I wasn't going to come up with something better, later."
And the thing about sculpture, you never know when somebody will peer at it and see it. And see through the door, down the long pavement past the tremendous piers holding up the tower through the screen and under the roof beam, past all the stuff of the cathedral. To the stone with a couple of lights burning on it, reckoning the small lights are plenty.
Frederick E. Hart. Boy turned sculptor. Creator. Made it all out of nothing. Blood. CAPTION: Picture, Rick Hart and a clay model of his sculpture for the Washington Cathedral; by Harry Naltchayan-The Washington Post.