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Inspiration, prayer, spiritual advisor come first, artist says

Miamian Natalie Plasencia talks about creating religious art for new church at Big Pine Key

BIG PINE KEY | When the new church of St. Peter the Fisherman was dedicated this weekend, some of original artwork salvaged after 2017’s Hurricane Irma — including the stained-glass windows — were back on display. 

But other religious artworks — including the main crucifix over the altar and an outdoor statue of St. Peter the Fisherman — were commissioned for the new church from a Miami artist who drew on inspiration, prayer and her own personal spiritual advisor throughout the process. 

“All the artworks were very much inspired by a trip I made to Rome a year before the pandemic,” said Natalie Plasencia, a Cuban American who studied both art and social work and who maintains studios in Miami and Islamorada. 

Miami artist Natalie Plasencia works on the casting net for the St. Peter the Fisherman sculpture now installed outside St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Big Pine Key.

Photographer: COURTESY

Miami artist Natalie Plasencia works on the casting net for the St. Peter the Fisherman sculpture now installed outside St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Big Pine Key.

When she spoke to the Florida Catholic a few weeks before the Sept. 25, 2021 church dedication, she was busy putting the finishing touches on a stainless steel and copper “casting net” that completes the 5-foot-3-inch-tall sculpture of St. Peter. Inspired in part by Rome’s Bernini angels, the sculpture is situated in the rotunda at the main church entrance. 

Plasencia’s website describes the sculpture this way: “the saint’s eyes fixed on his catch, salty hair textured and entangled by the winds, burly hands grasp line and pull, feet spread wide, anchored to claim his existence in this world.” 

Plasencia consulted local Keys fishermen for inspiration and ideas on how to render St. Peter the Fisherman, particularly how to craft his casting net. 

Fishermen in general, she said, are almost universally humble and down to earth, ordinary individuals who lend some clues to the working-man character of St. Peter. She described all the fisherman in the Florida Keys as an inspiration, especially a good friend, Captain Larry Kelly of Key West, whom she relied on for the casting net.

“The more I studied St. Peter, I wanted him depicted as an average soul, and I find that fishermen are very real. Anyone dealing with the water and the ocean, storms, swells, tide changes, you need to be down to earth,” Plasencia said. “Working on the casting net is very humbling, as I have never made one before. It feels like I have gone back to my sewing and weaving years.”

The St. Peter statue is mounted on a locally sourced rock from Homestead, which was selected and cored to hold the statue. All of that rests on a two-foot concrete base. The bronze and metals will be allowed to age naturally, weathering from the elements the same way that an ancient bronze sculpture might age, according to Plasencia. The statue was cast at Art and Sculpture Unlimited, a foundry in Miami. 

Another major piece at the new St. Peter Church is the crucifix, a three-by-four-foot bronze work that hangs on a so-called purple-heart driftwood cross, mounted over the main altar. It was first carved from clay in the artist’s studio in Islamorada last year during the first summer of the pandemic. 

“A lot of the inspiration for that piece was drawn from the Passion of the Christ,” Plasencia said. “I find that when I create I go into deep prayer and I am able to have a deep conversion, closer and closer through my faith and more than anything to Christ’s passion — being able to experience that I found myself exhausted.”

“When I stepped away and realized I was working on His wounds and the thorns it made total sense why I was exhausted. To recreate that moment was quite the challenge spiritually, physically and emotionally,” Plasencia added. 

A shell-shaped baptismal font is also made in bronze and was nearly ready for installation in late August as Plasencia focused on selecting just the right stone to serve as the base. The inspiration for the font’s design was a southeastern Atlantic scallop shell that was used in the baptism of Plasencia’s own children. 

  • Other art elements that Plasencia created for the church include: 
  • Bronze door handles fashioned in the likeness of fish that adorn the main church entrance.
  • Brass icons created with nautical and Biblical themes that hang at the entry, nave, ambo, over the altar and at the chapel entry.
  • Bronze reliefs depicting key moments in the life of St. Peter that adorn the right and left sides of the main entrance doors.
  • High quality concrete floor tiles with brass inlays depicting key moments in St. Peter’s spiritual journey. These line the outdoor walkway from the parking lot to the church entrance. 

Juan Calvo, from Oppenheim Architecture who designed the new St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Big Pine Key, and his artist-wife, Natalie Plasencia, who created much of the new religious artwork there, stop for a picture in front of her sculpture of St. Peter casting his net prior to the dedication Mass Sept. 25, 2021. The newly completed church, parish hall and priests' residence in the Lower Florida Keys replace the old facility which was mostly destroyed by 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Juan Calvo, from Oppenheim Architecture who designed the new St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Big Pine Key, and his artist-wife, Natalie Plasencia, who created much of the new religious artwork there, stop for a picture in front of her sculpture of St. Peter casting his net prior to the dedication Mass Sept. 25, 2021. The newly completed church, parish hall and priests' residence in the Lower Florida Keys replace the old facility which was mostly destroyed by 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

Plasencia, a member of Blessed Trinity Parish in Miami Springs, said she regularly drew guidance for the project from her spiritual advisor, Father Giuseppe Maria Siniscalchi, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal based in Newberg, New York. The priest has visited the area a number of times and toured the new church site in Big Pine Key. 

“I have known him for many years. We discuss theology and how it pertains to the specific saint and also the function of the art piece: The crucifix is not just an ascetic piece, there is so much to these religious pieces,” Plasencia said. 

She added that the whole process of making religious art requires sincere expression so that the artwork’s true function is realized by removing the artist’s ego and letting the artwork occupy its proper location. 

After two or three years of work, Plasencia said she felt humbled to have had the opportunity to work on the church project in conjunction with St. Peter’s pastor, Father Jesus “Jets” Medina, and his parish and leadership staff.

“Art is a prayer, and this has been an amazing prayerful experience,” Plasencia said. “I have come to an awareness that these pieces have their own life, and they will forever exist beyond generations of my children.”

Natalie Plasencia poses with a model of the shell shaped baptismal font she created for the new St. Peter Church in Big Pine Key.

Photographer: COURTESY

Natalie Plasencia poses with a model of the shell shaped baptismal font she created for the new St. Peter Church in Big Pine Key.


Comments from readers

Jack Louden - 10/02/2021 08:18 PM
Tom, there is another great story about the stained glass windows that survived Irma. Connie Hauk coordinated a group that created the windows some time ago. Great story!!!

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