Amazing Places: One local artist’s quest to understand Heaven and Hell is carved into the walls of his basement
by Heidi Grieser and Jacob Hodgen
He redesigned the original lions used for the Capitol building. He invented and patented a way for violins to be more acoustically efficient. And he has giant dragons and a walk-through sculpture garden depicting the gates of hell in his basement.
Meet Ralphael Plescia: one of the most interesting people in Salt Lake City.
Ralphael is a talented artist who has worked in a unique studio on State Street in Salt Lake City for the last 40 years. He was kind enough to offer us a tour and share with us the story of his amazing work. Commissioned by the State of Utah in 1976, Ralphael was hired to renovate the concrete lions that once adorned the footsteps of the State Capitol building. After weathering for elements for decades, they were only just recently replaced by newer, marble versions.
Ralphael’s Salt Lake Studio
Walking into Ralphael’s downtown studio on State Street is like stepping into the pages of an artist’s sketchbook. From top to bottom, all three floors of his buildings are bursting at the seams with forty years of creative projects. Many are literally carved into the walls.
For Ralphael, his work is not only about artistic expression. His studio is in fact both a museum and treatise of his personal theological musings.
He tells us that all of his art, whether it’s violin repair or stone sculpture, is connected with his deep spiritual beliefs. Many of his ideas have come from dreams, and he is fascinated by the complicated theology described in Revelations 12 of the New Testament. He is particularly interested by the idea of a Queen of Heaven, which he calls the Lady Wisdom, to whom he devotes a great deal of his work.
Most, if not all, of the work in his studio is connected in some way to his unorthodox approach to and lifelong study of religion.
The upper level has a chapel-style, vaulted ceiling painted with angels. Here he stores some of his experimental cellos, which he has modified by carving and replacing parts of the bridge with scalloped brass to increase the acoustics. The upper floor also serves to hang some of his nine-foot-tall paintings of Jesus and the Lady Wisdom. By raising a wooden gate of crosses, one can descend down a rather unusual stone stairway into a depiction of the gates into heaven and hell that fills his entire basement. By passing through doorway shaped like a gaping mouth and then shimmying through a two foot wide hallway, one can choose to either enter a room representing paradise or the gates of hell.
I confess: we went to hell first. But only to check out the accommodations.
We passed another particularly large stone dragon over an unnervingly narrow stone walkway suspended over a rather deep and foul smelling pool of bubbling water and decided to keep moving. Heaven consisted of a life-size depiction of Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit. She is guarded by a majestic lion. The roof of this section of the basement is cut away to let in natural light from the outside, which shines down through a stained glass window.
Ralpahael’s current project is another, even bigger, lion sculpture. Right now it’s a wire mesh and rebar frame about 15 feet long and 6 feet tall, but he hopes to soon begin adding its concrete skin. Reaching out of the massive lion’s mouth will be a young mother clutching a newborn baby in her arms. Once completed, it will be too large to move and will remain on the studio floor. The lion, he tells us, represents the wilderness and serves as both a guardian and protector of the woman spoken of in Revelations 12.
Ralphael beams when he describes it: “It’s the best one yet.” §
Ralphael’s studio is a work in progress, but he offers free tours on Fridays between noon and 2:00 pm. Just knock on his door at 1324 South State Street.