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Garden in Repair 

A community comes together to restore a Tucson cultural landmark

The late afternoon sun casts an ephemeral ray onto the white face of Jesus in the Crucifixion statue that stands in the middle of Tucson's Garden of Gethsemane. The sculpture is pristine and exudes a sacred feel that its artist was no doubt hoping for. The garden is home to multiple other biblical depictions, including an elaborate Last Supper piece. It's easy to see why a man diagnosed with cancer would choose to make a pilgrimage to this spot every day, why young couples flock here to be wed, and why countless others in the community come here to pray.

However, it's taken money, effort and time from many people to get the Crucifixion statue and the others that inhabit the park into this condition.

The original artist, Felix Lucero, was a World War I vet who began crafting the statues in the late 1930s as part of a debt he said he owed to the Virgin Mary. According to the story, while dying on a battlefield in France, Lucero asked Mary to spare his life and in return he would dedicate the rest of it to creating Christian art. Mary agreed, Lucero was saved and, once back in Tucson, the statues were born.

Another story tells how Lucero was in the middle of crafting the statues under a bridge in the Santa Cruz riverbed when a man on horseback came upon him and began to ridicule his work. It is said that the man continued riding, but a bit farther down the river a rattlesnake crossed his path. Spooked by the snake, the horse reared, throwing the man to the ground and breaking his neck.

Lucero died in 1951, but the sacred art that he crafted out of sand from the Santa Cruz River, rebar and plaster, remained.

In the years that followed, the sculptures took quite a beating.

After being ravaged by floodwaters and subjected to multiple acts of vandalism, the pieces had become almost unrecognizable.

Greg Schoon, the artist who has been commissioned to restore Lucero's original statues, now works from morning until dusk, splattered with white paint, in an effort to re-create what had long since crumbled. He says that although there have been many attempts by community members and volunteers to fix the damage, every statue in the park was in shambles when he began the restoration project in the summer of 2012.

"They were in very bad shape. Some were missing heads, hands and feet," Schoon says.

That was the situation a local member of the Salvador Foundation witnessed when she first came upon the statues. Appalled at the lack of upkeep, the woman went to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization that had been attempting to tend the garden, and urged members to request a grant to fund restoration. They did just that and the Salvador Foundation, a Christian charity organization, provided $51,000 for the project.

Schoon was asked to be the artist after members of the Knights of Columbus recalled that he had done a bit of restoration work in the garden years ago.

He has now refurbished every statue in the garden, re-creating how they may have appeared around the time that Lucero finished his work. He configured the statues according to old photographs of the garden. However, these renewed pieces have unique touches. In "The Last Supper," the hands on all the statues were cast using the hands of people who live in the neighborhood. In the Holy Family portrayal, a local child was used in the casting of the baby Jesus. And instead of using the same materials Lucero used in his construction, Schoon utilized cement to ensure that the statues will remain for decades to come.

The city of Tucson's Parks and Recreation department and the Tucson Pima Arts Council are also involved in this project. When Lucero finished the pieces, they were on private property. But in 1948, the property was donated to the city.

"Public spaces should be diverse, meaningful and maintained as well as possible," says Peg Weber, a specialized services administrator for the city of Tucson who sits on the advisory board for the Garden of Gethsemane, "and that's really what we want to do for this special place."

The Arts Council works with the city on restoration projects all over Tucson. Mary Ellen Wooten, the council's public art program manager, is in charge of helping Schoon adhere to Lucero's aesthetic intent. She also is doing outreach for the garden, looking for people who may have known Lucero, or whose parents knew him, in an effort to gather information about his life and his relatives. She hopes to find these people and have them present at the park's dedication ceremony, which is scheduled for February.

Schoon should be finished with the restoration long before then. He hopes to put the finishing touches on the project by December and, although he's not quite done, he wants people to know that the garden is still open for public use.

"It would be really nice if people came to decorate it and regard it as their own, as they do for other shrines in the city," Schoon says.

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