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Feature News | Monday, November 13, 2023

Sculptor trusts in 'hand of God'

Roberto Perez Crespo’s exhibit at St. Thomas University proves 'coincidence doesn’t exist'

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Museum coordinator Isabel Medina, right, speaks to guests at the opening of Roberto Perez Crespo's "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. From left: Vice Provost Pamela Cingel, College of Business Dean David Edwards, Father Hilary Nwainya, director of theology programs, sculptor Perez Crespo and Michelle Johnson-Garcia, provost.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Museum coordinator Isabel Medina, right, speaks to guests at the opening of Roberto Perez Crespo's "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. From left: Vice Provost Pamela Cingel, College of Business Dean David Edwards, Father Hilary Nwainya, director of theology programs, sculptor Perez Crespo and Michelle Johnson-Garcia, provost.

MIAMI GARDENS | The “hand of God” has played a pivotal role in the life of sculptor Roberto Perez Crespo – even though he grew up knowing next to nothing about God, and not much more about art.

The Cuba-born artist — whose marble works include the statue of Christ outside St. Martha Church in Miami Shores, the altar and ambo at St. Dominic Church and the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, and the bigger-than-life 10 Commandments outside St. Coleman Church in Pompano Beach — sees God’s hand everywhere: reaching out to lift him when he’s down, giving him the strength to persevere as an artist when jobs and money are scarce, arranging for him to leave Cuba and come to the U.S., and helping him reunite here with the wife and daughter he left behind.

“Coincidence doesn’t exist,” he said while reflecting on the journey that brought him to St. Thomas University, where some of his works, and pictures of larger-scale ones, went on display Oct. 26, 2023.

Roberto Perez Crespo poses with Isabel Medina, St. Thomas University's museum coordinator, assistant archivist and art gallery director St. Thomas University archivist and opening of "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. Between them is the first piece he created in the U.S., "Perdón, Señor" (Forgive me, Lord).

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Roberto Perez Crespo poses with Isabel Medina, St. Thomas University's museum coordinator, assistant archivist and art gallery director St. Thomas University archivist and opening of "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. Between them is the first piece he created in the U.S., "Perdón, Señor" (Forgive me, Lord).

The exhibit, appropriately called “The Hands of Christ,” includes the first work he completed after arriving in the U.S., which he entitled “Perdón, Señor” (Forgive me, Lord). The sculpture depicts a white marble hand pierced by a dark granite nail that bends upwards when it exits the back of the equally dark granite crossbeam, as a glob of red blood — dyed glue — trickles down.

Also appropriate is the location of the exhibit, at St. Thomas University’s Archbishop John C. Favalora Archive and Museum, for it was Perez Crespo’spresentation of that sculpture to Miami’s third archbishop in 2003 that helped launch his artistic career.

One of Roberto Perez Crespo's works, "Sacrificio," on display at "The Hands of Christ" exhibit which opened at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

One of Roberto Perez Crespo's works, "Sacrificio," on display at "The Hands of Christ" exhibit which opened at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023.

“I didn’t study art,” Perez Crespo said, because he wasn’t exposed to it as a child. “I went along stumbling through life, in a way, without knowing that art even existed.”

But awe overtook him when, at 17, he looked at a famous sculpture in Havana’s Quinta Avenida, la Fuente de las Americas (the Fountain of the Americas). How can someone do that with stone? he wondered. And from then on he couldn’t shake the desire to sculpt, to work with stone, until at age 21 he began taking classes in Cuba.

But mentors and material with which to work were hard to find. He tried unsuccessfully several times to leave the island, even spending 48 hours in jail after getting caught. But the hand of God made itself manifest when, 11 days later, he inexplicably found himself on a plane to Portugal to take part in an art fair — theoretically an impossibility for someone who had tried to flee the country.

He learned more in Portugal, working in a marble quarry, cutting stone for other artists, before embarking on the journey to the U.S. and winding up at the Krome Avenue Detention Center. There, he met a representative of Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement and Employment Services who helped him start his new life here. Gratitude for that “hand up” from the Catholic Church led him to present that sculpture to Archbishop Favalora.

But the good times didn’t roll. He took a fulltime job at his brother’s shop making granite and marble countertops, trying to save money to bring his wife and daughter from Cuba. At times he despaired that he would never see them again. Taking a leap of faith, he decided to devote himself fulltime to sculpting and opened his own shop, Designing Stone Corporation. The commissions came, but scarcely.

Museum coordinator Isabel Medina, right, speaks to guests at the opening of Roberto Perez Crespo's "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. At rear is a scale model of the Christ he sculpted for St. Martha Church in Miami Shores.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Museum coordinator Isabel Medina, right, speaks to guests at the opening of Roberto Perez Crespo's "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023. At rear is a scale model of the Christ he sculpted for St. Martha Church in Miami Shores.

Little by little, though, his desires were coming true. In 2008, he was reunited with his wife and daughter (another daughter was born here later). He began getting commissions from churches, including that life-size statue of Christ outside St. Martha’s that he had always wanted to sculpt. Inspired by the larger-than-life sculptures of Christ in Rio de Janeiro and Havana, he had purchased a 7-foot-tall block of Carrara marble — the same stone Michelangelo sculpted — intuiting that a figure of Christ would emerge from it.

Then the City of Hialeah began calling, and he produced several works for public spaces. At one point, he crafted an entire sculpture in a public park, so people could see an artist at work.

That’s one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to exhibit at St. Thomas.

“What I like best about this is that young people can come see it,” he said, remembering his own struggles to fulfill his calling. “If you’re born with a yearning for art, there’s no cure. It gets worse over time. [Art] fills spaces in your soul.”

He is also glad because the exhibit will help people realize that the art they see in churches, or anywhere else, is part of a long historical tradition. “People don’t realize that there’s an actual live person” behind these works.

As for his own experience as it relates to the exhibit: Making a living as an artist is still difficult, but “I trust now. I let myself be guided by God. I don’t worry anymore.” 

IF YOU GO

  • WHAT: Roberto Perez Crespo exhibit, “The Hands of Christ”
  • WHEN: Through Jan. 6, 2024. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, by appointment. Admission is free.
  • WHERE: Archbishop John C. Favalora Archive and Museum, St. Thomas University (Library), 16401 N.W. 37 Ave., Miami Gardens 33054
  • INFO: 305-628-6769 or [email protected].
A young Roberto Perez Crespo is shown at work at the entrance to "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

A young Roberto Perez Crespo is shown at work at the entrance to "The Hands of Christ" exhibit at St. Thomas University, Oct. 26, 2023.

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