Ted Rettig's Stones

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“Imago Pacis” (image of peace)

Reflections on a Gathering of His Sculptures and Drawings

J.S. Porter

“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

Edward Abbey

You see the sculptures first, especially a Zen-like limestone plopped unceremoniously on the wooden floor. Then you see the drawings. And finally when you get close to the graphite drawings on the walls you see the words: “Imago Pacis” (image of peace), the name of Ted Rettig’s fall retrospective at the Wynick/Tuck Gallery in Toronto. The name bespeaks a presence. You feel at peace in the gallery. A moment of kairos. You feel yourself to be in a surround of contemplative space and time, apart from ordinary time (awash with events) and ordinary space (aswarm with things).

“Imago Pacis” is what Rettig calls the whole assemblage of stone sculptures and graphite drawings; it’s also the name he gives individual pieces within the whole. The name assumes a prominent place among other names: “maitri” (loving-kindness), “guha” (cave of the heart), and “alaya” (the place in awareness where everything is at home) from the Sanskrit; “lux cordis” (light of the heart) from the Latin; and so on. Because the stones in particular are so well and carefully named, they seem to emit sounds as well as cast images.

In the same way that Rettig juxtaposes stone sculptures with drawings, art on the walls with art on the floor, and braids a number of spiritual traditions, so he scatters words from Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic and English. The words pronounce Being, as the drawings and the sculptures materialize Being: states of peace, harmony, and openness. Rettig takes care with the words as he takes care with the drawings and the sculptures. He seems as much custodian of a space as a sculptor of a space, as much a namer as a maker. He names his space carefully so that any one word — “heart” or “light” or “peace” or “openness” — might stand for all the others, and any one sculpture or drawing might as a part reveal the significance of the whole. The show is wonderfully well-integrated, each a part of all.

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“Guha” (cave of the heart)

Rettig’s visual world seems to consist of circles, crosses, leaves, flowers (lotuses), starfish, abstract designs, words, authorial reference (authors and books), candles and open spaces. The drawings show a lightness of touch as if they were composed of sand susceptible to the wayward nature of wind. The sculptures too in a certain sense appear “light.” Rettig carves the stones sensuously. The stones look organic, lush, richly decorative. They are rounded and open for the most part, though one stone is square-shaped and closed but also richly patterned with leaves and flowers. Rettig is a sculptor of the leaf and the flower, a sculptor of flowering stones.

In his work he manages to honour the stoniness of stone — its natural attributes of bulk and weight, stillness and solemnity — while at the same time carving “lifeforms” into it, the way a natural stone sometimes accrues what is around it and what imprints on it. He carves on the stone with a light touch as if embroidering on a warmly coloured and textured piece of cloth. He makes the stone warm, intimate and inviting. In the “cave of the heart” — a large piece of limestone elevated on a particle board box and surrounded by eight other particle board boxes in a circle — you can put your hand inside the sculpture’s softly textured interior. The sculpture, draped with leaf and vine, embodies “being and openness”; its heart is open, and it is full of light and peace.

Rettig’s circles of contemplation demand that the viewer meditate on each stone and on the nature of stone itself. Of all the forms of Being it seems the most alien, the most completely Other, in comparison with the human. Its stillness stands against human frenzy; its peace against human turbulence; its desirelessness against human craving. It mocks our pretensions and sabotages our Faustian grasp. Being over doing. Presence over activity. Stone is. It is what it is: a gift from the Given. Rettig works with these stones humbled by their power; he draws out their essential strength while linking them to other forms of life and Being.

Each stone stands by itself and speaks for itself, but each also engages in an ecumenical dialogue and is dedicated to inter-faith workers such as William Johnston, S.J. and Dom Bede Griffiths, OSB. As exquisite as each part is, the whole is greater than the parts. Only when you view the sculptures as a whole do you see the cross-referencing and inter-textualization. Inside the stone he calls “cave of the heart,” for example, which displays a vegetative luxuriance associated with the Hindu iconographic tradition, Rettig places an encircled cross. The vine and leaf pattern on the stone’s exterior might also suggest the Tree of Life, an important symbol in the Jewish tradition. Thus in a single stone he brings together East and West and unifies three religions: Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. Such unification may not be possible in words, which are so often used to divide, but it is possible in art.

Rettig’s space reverberates with recurrent and entwining motifs. The cross in the cave is the same cross on the hanging stone bowl; the Abba: (the Aramaic word for “Daddy”) appears both inside the wall of the “icon” sculpture and in a drawing on the wall where lines of poetry superimpose themselves on images; the circle is repeated again in the large bronze work with the letters for Alpha and Omega, and repeated once more in the particle board boxes placed around the two large limestone sculptures. Just as nature cross-pollinates so Rettig’s art cross-references.

While standing securely within the Christian tradition, Rettig is able to embrace other spiritual traditions. He takes the traditions back to their common point of origin in the human imagination and to their common archetypal heritage. He is able to do in visual art what would be very difficult to do in words. He points to the essential oneness of all religions. You can argue with a word, with fine points and shifting nuances, but you can’t argue with a sculpture. You can’t argue with stone. An interfaith dialogue may not be possible in words, but it is possible in stone. Stone embodies “thereness” and “givenness”; it’s irrefutable; it belongs to all. Likewise, circles, trees and crosses, stones and sacred spaces, and what human beings have done through artistic transformations of these things, belong to all human and spiritual pathways.

Light and peace and openness and heart are given to all and radiated, in varying degrees, from all. Rettig makes the invisible words of the Heart, the source-springs of Being, visible. He concretizes the miracles of the Given in the language of stone. He gives back to the world what he has received from it; he rediscovers, through natural and symbolic forms, the forgotten unity which lies beyond words. His work comes out of a profound faith in the communion of all things and the interpenetration of all forms. His “home” is open, peaceful and full of light.


  • Originally printed in Grail, volume 14, issue 2.

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