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My ideal sculptor, growing up, was Michelangelo. My father gave me a big heavy book filled with photographs for an early teenage birthday, over which I poured for hours with typical adolescent intensity. During a trip to Europe at age 18, I saw some of these works in person for the first time. I am now especially grateful for the immediacy of experiencing the Pietà in the Vatican before it was placed behind plexiglass.

Later on it was the works of Bernini that captured my imagination, and especially the Apollo and Daphne in the Borghese Gallery. For many decades I knew it only from photographs, but even as a flattened image it defied belief. How could someone capture in stone this heartbeat moment of transformation? When I did finally stand before the work I was overwhelmed to the point of tears.

What I didn’t have much time for, then, was Ivan Metroviç, the Croatian – then called Yugoslavian – sculptor, who had been in residence at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s and left many examples of his work throughout that campus. During my four years there I saw them, walked past them, sat near them, thousands of times. To my mind they were massive great lumps of undifferentiated people – not even – without individuality, impressive in their mass but not very interesting. They reminded me of Inuit carvings, or something else from ancient peoples, and certainly did not fire my imagination as did the hyperskilled works of Renaissance and Baroque sculptors.

Time passes. Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Ivan Mestroviç Palace in Split, Croatia, the sculptor’s self-designed home built in the 1930s. Mestroviç left the property to Croatia and now it is a museum of his life and works. As I walked through this large airy home overlooking the sea, I was surprised to find myself quite moved by his sculptures. They are not pretty, nor decorative; it is as if all the pain in the struggle to be human are captured within them. They glow with power, with conflict and with peace. It is compelling that most of them are caught in private moments, in motion and yet deeply still, almost always at curves and angles, endeavoring, so it seems, to evolve into something even more.

Mr. Mestroviç had a tumultuous life, suffering persecution first from one oppressive regime and then another, spending a good deal of his life away from Croatia. Where did he find the deep sense of tranquility that radiates from so many of his works? Partly in his Catholic faith? Near the Mestroviç Palace is a small chapel called Kaštelet-Crikvine, built to house his series of carved wooden panels illustrating the life of Christ. Created over a 33-year period, they reflect different artistic styles, but what they have in common is an enormous compassion and understanding of suffering. I wonder if Mr. Mestroviç was able to reach into the depths of his own anguish and adversity, and translate it for us into these magnificent depictions of a monumental yet still human Jesus.

That afternoon’s visit to the Mestroviç Gallery was enlightening, not only for the chance to become more familiar with these master works, but also to understand something about perception and learning. Change as transformative, eloquent and powerful as the works of these great sculptors can come to an open heart and mind at any time, even later on in life. It is unsettling, and a relief, to grow.

© Poets Sinews, 2014, reuse with permission.