Ulrich Henn, the West German sculptor, had two things in mind as he designed the monumental bronze gates of the Washington Cathedral. He wanted to invite people into the cathedral and he wanted them to feel that imperfections could be accepted by God.
To satisfy the first, Henn worked his metal into a golden lace tapestry that serves as a delicate invitation to enter. And he chose his subjects, Abraham and Moses, to illustrate the ups and downs of religious conviction. "I didn't want to show perfect people," says the tall, talkative Henn. "The biblical characters were men, with their faults with their moments of doubt." After four years of work, the gates for the West Facade of the Washington Cathedral were dedicated yesterday.
Before the dedication, Henn sat on the cement steps in front of his gates, which are about 16-feet-6 inches tall and eight feet wide, and discussed his work. His interest in art emerged out of his imprisonment in an American prisoner of war camp at the end of World War II. "We had to dump unsafe ammunition into the sea, things like that. I started making things with scraps. It was largely because we didn't have any Christmas decorations," says Henn, 55.
His internment not only sharpened a previously unfocused ambition but taught him some valuable lessons."I wouldn't have missed that experience. It was a big lesson in humanity. People had only the Bible to read, in Italian, German and English, and what we had in our minds," he says, pushing his body forward for emphasis. "And that's what I tell my kids, put everything you can into your minds, because no one can take that away."
After his release he was encouraged by a sculptor in Stuttgart to pursue his new interest and he spent three months apprenticing with a woodcarver. That was his only formal training. At that time Germany was busy rebuilding and Henn worked on the massive restoration of stone and wood church figures. "Through that work I came in contact with architects who then asked me to do original pieces," says Henn.
As he flips through his color portfolio, Henn describes the series of intricately carved altars, pieta figures, doors, baptismal fonts, crosses and public fountains. The survey adds up to a portrait of a man who likes detail and brings to his work the insights of spirituality. "Yes, I enjoy details. I hate if people make one simple thing and then give others permission to duplicate it.I don't want to make a business out of my work. I want those doors made for this church and to remain here." sais Henn.
An inquiry about his faith bothers him some. "This is a very difficult thing. You must have a feeling or belief to do this," he says slowly. After he has thought over the question, he adds, "Let me quote you something from the Apostle Peter. He said 'I believe Lord, help my unbelievingness.' That's something, I, for myself, can't touch."
In 1975 Henn was chosen for the cathedral commission. He composed six scenes with Abraham and Moses, designing a grill of leaves and American dogwood around the vignettes. To illustrate Abraham's skepticism, at the angels' promise he would have a son, he has Abraham's wife Sarah laughing. In one scene of Moses, Henn has him breaking the tablets in anger over his people's worship of the golden calf. Once those images were firm, Henn made them in beeswax. "I made a one-to-one size model in wax inside a wooden frame. That is very difficult. And a lot of people would like to know how it is done, but that's my secret," he says.
In the final phase Henn traveled from his home village of Leudersdorf to the foundry in Basingstoke, England, six times. "The last few weeks I stayed there, supervising every single detail," says Henn.
Because he stays busy, Henn considers himself a 'lucky' artist. "There are artists who say they have nothing to do and they ask for so much money they have nothing to do for the next 10 years. But I work and am happy," he says. But he hesitates at offering an opinion at his favorite work or experience. "I just hope that at the end of my life, one or two things will stay in their places. It's like the rich man who at the end of his life can count on two or three friends."