The Church

The castle lay dormant for centuries. Okay, it was for a couple of years, but it seemed like forever. I had, for the most part finished one side and had feebly ventured a few side projects without much enthusiasm. The big obstacle was simply this; the next step would be a doozey. I have the castle set up on a picnic table with another one in a box in the basement. To do any other parts would require the other table, a lot less room in my life and a major undertaking. Additionally, I really had a lot of nebulous ideas about another tower, but nothing set in stone (har de har har). This changed in 2001. I also began writing this then, so once again, I have had a field day with the tenses.

All this considered, I did nothing for a long time. Then last summer, I took my niece to France and again was mesmerized by the great cathedrals of Europe. Now, I have my own very non-traditional approach to religion so this was not a religious conversion, but rather an architectural one. I love the cathedrals as much as I do the castles, so I decided to do one with all the elements of the best from Ireland (St. Patrick’s), France (Reims, Chartres, Saint Chappelle, etc.) and Italy (every church in the book.) So, I moved the castle to the basement – and although it’s modular, my nieces learned a lot of new words that day. It survived for the most part.

Next was the research – which I learned the hard way should come before construction. (See, I can be taught.) First of all, I had to dispense with the idea of a cathedral, because it was either that or give up my living room completely. Next, I had to scale down a lot of plans because I thought a life might be nice. Next was how to assimilate it with the castle, which is mildly and vaguely Irish. St. Patrick’s in Dublin is great, but (no offense) doesn’t hold a candle to France or Italy. So, my nieces and I one fine afternoon started creating the story of the castle. With a little lubrication on my part (mostly in the form of beer) we created (kind of) the story of five generations of the castle up to the present day including a younger son who went on a religious quest to the mainland and returned to not only become king, but to build a church, too using the influences of what he saw there.

Then I began. The timing was a tad eerie. I started the same week the World Trade Center came down. I told people I was taking solace in the church – just not necessarily the way anyone else would.  It wasn’t a joke. It really did help. The first things were polymer clay made arches to go between the columns and to go up to the first floor. Not hard with an extruder and all. (Extruders are fancy versions of your old Play-Doh factories which allow you to make snake like pieces in different shapes.)  I had an idea of what the church would look like, but then made some major changes along the way. One of these was to trash these arches because they would block the viewing too much. One of the problems with the church as opposed to a regular dollhouse room is that inevitably, there will be parts I have to make that no one will see. I tried to limit that. The next thing was a carving out of soapstone for the top of the sarcophagus where the king is buried. I had never really carved anything before. It was not difficult, but I didn’t have enough for the other parts, so I had to leave them for later. Basically, it is a guy holding a sword looking like he’s sleeping. I am extremely glad I started on that piece because the next piece of soapstone I got was so very hard, that I couldn’t have worked it at all for this piece. Ironically, this finished piece would also be trashed later for a better version having to do with desiccated remains and grandiose ideas from friends. Later, I ended up not having enough room for this at all.

The next big things were the knights’ chairs made out of wood. They didn’t have pews back then, but some of the larger churches had these and they had shields representing knights on them, too. These were made of wood, including store bought filigree with red velvet seats. To top them off, I made helmets of “gold). These were fairly simple. First make one of polymer clay, make a mold from it and then make the other 7. Paint them all gold, attach beads on the top and stick in a small feather. Swords to be crossed under them were made of silver painted wood with bead handles.

So far, so good. Next the windows.

Okay, I had all sorts of ideas about all this. Gothic churches are rather bland in some ways, but the windows knock you out. How to do this on a grand scale with the detail needed. I tried drawing on plexiglas. Nope – not enough detail. Next were Shrinky Dinks. Many tries were made with these. None were successful. Then a student mentioned computers. Remember, this was 2001-02, so the idea of graphics wasn’t immediately evident.  So, the idea is to make a large drawing in black and white, scan it, color it on the computer and then print it on a transparency. All fine and good. First buy a scanner. Then find out it’s not compatible with your computer. Then need to upgrade your computer. Yadda yadda. Eventually, you need to replace the scanner, the printer and everything and you can’t find the receipts. Sigh. But, it works. Not on single transparencies because the colors aren’t rich enough, but on doubled ones. And the new printer is so much better you end up doing half of them over. Still, I finally got one done after months of experimenting. I got so sick of Noah and his silly little ark. Anyhow, the final set for the back wall was a Noah window, a creation window (with God watching football on Sunday, which nobody notices) a Mary Magdalene and Lazarus (which is actually a nod to Robert Heinlein) window. The rest will come later.

Meanwhile, so far not one part of the actual building has been started. I was a tad bit daunted. I went to a drum circle (very new age of me, I guess) and spent an evening visioning everything and then felt ready to begin. I cut all the plywood pieces (some a few times) and glued the front, one side and a bit of the altar area to the floor. I also created a false floor (with a raised dais) so that wiring all the candles would be easily accessed. I cut the rest of the pieces and left them for later.

The first part I put together was the knights’ area at the front – because it was a small chunk and manageable. I now refer to this area as the choir. I chose the inside to be made of relatively uniform gray polymer clay bricks because that’s how I envision every church I’ve seen. Realistic looking or not, that’s what I’m stuck with. The floor of this area is fairly plain, a mild beige color polymer clay. Parts are painted, some in a Celtic cross type pattern, others in a gold star on wine or navy pattern that will be echoed on the ceiling. That was pretty easy. Then I cut some marble thresholds I got at the hardware store down to be raised daises for the knight’s chairs. Each chair has heraldry on it, unfortunately half of which won’t be seen.

I started creating the floor. It’s beige. It’s huge and yes, it’s annoying. There are colored “tiles” made in Italian style between each column, based on the Duomo at Milano. The rest is simple – you shouldn’t notice it unless you look, which turns out to be true as no one ever comments on the floor. (The only thing of note is the maze toward the front of the church that I saw versions of all over Europe. These mazes symbolized the journey towards a holy way of life.) Then, I started bricking the walls. Other than the sheer tediousness of it all, the three big problems I ran into were that a) my sister pointed out that they kind of steeped down in one direction, b) I ran out of clay half way through and the color was different (which was fixed up with a few hours and a pencil) and c) attaching all the windows with the bricks. My biggest concern is grouting there, because the inks from the computer. They are water-soluble. Careful and slow were my watchwords.

Since this is yet another our lady church, I decided to have the front five windows be of noted women in the bible. Not being up on all the stories, I consulted with my nieces for good women to represent. Obviously, Mary holding Jesus is in the middle, which is actually pretty much based on a real window. The others are my own design. (From left to right: Priscilla/ Mary Magdelen, Deborah and Jael/Rahab, Mary, Esther/Sarah, Ruth/Rebekah. The biggest difference with these windows and the other ones is that these are not just two transparencies, but they are also glued to Plexiglas. The others from before needed to be replaced because they warped too much. I will have to do that later when I work on the outside cloister.  It’s funny, but almost all people who see this church ask how I did the windows. Not anything else. Odd. (Years later, this still holds true.)

I decided to make a rose window. It has the signs of the zodiac, which was not that uncommon in churches. I used the extruder to make the polymer clay parts in between each window. Basically, I made a drawing, and made the things on top of that and then glued them together. Matching inside to outside was a tad challenging, but not unsolvable.

Then, there are the columns. Once again, the goal is for no one to notice them. They should look like stone, but not be overly noticeable. The problem is how. Oh, yeah, they have to be hollow for the bottom ten inches because of the need to wire sconces through them. (The sconces turned out rather simply to be a bunch of different filigree pieces from the bead store and dollhouse seed candles. I don’t think people realize the money that goes into dollhouse lighting.) So, the experimenting begins. Flekstone paint. Flekstone paint inside plastic tubes. Polymer clay. Stone itself. Cork for corkboards wrapped around cardboard. Final solution to the problem – Set up your fireplace tool holder in the kitchen. Cut electric plastic tubes to length. Tape up the bottoms. Tape to fireplace holder. Annoy your roommate. Mix plaster in one bowl. Put gold paint on another Styrofoam plate. One pours plaster while other glops paint. Before full, insert brass tube covered in paper to insure hollow area for wiring. Let dry. Remove tube. Wait a day or two (ask how we learned) to remove column. Do it on a flat surface or you’ll crack it. Voila. It only messed up every third time or so and they look great. I needed bases which were neo-gothic-classical-whatever and made out of polymer clay and painted. Then I put the wiring in. Well, the paper that had been left in after the brass tubes had been removed was not a help and wiring these puppies took forever. I installed them, and then started working on the staircase up to the bell tower.

Okay, I wanted the staircase from St. Patrick’s in Dublin. Picture white marble with wrought iron around the outside and intricately detailed. Not going to happen. So, as usual, settle for the next best thing. Making a castle really makes you think about how things are built. Anyhow, I decided to make molds for the rather pie shaped stairs and pour them with plaster and paint. They are round on the outside and then instead of coming to a point in the middle, they have kind of a round tip that is the middle column around which the stairs turn. I made the molds out of cardboard and lined with foil, knowing that final carving would come later. So I made a bunch of them. About 20 of them. Yup, ready to put together, all sanded and fine looking. Then as I was kind of playing with them, I realized that they were a hair too short. Really about an eighth of an inch. Not much, but eight of them is about a foot to the people then. So, I had to re-do all of them. They are still a tad short, but, oh well; now they are close enough. Then I wanted columns to support them. I wanted them to look like the green Connemara marble, so I took dowels and painted them. Then for the bases, I took a rather ornate bead and rolled it across some green and white mixed clay, then took that indented strip and wrapped it around the base of each dowel, fired it and then glued them in place. A round piece of wood painted at the top of the stairs finished it.

Mary is going to have a shrine. Actually, if you read the story of the people in the castle world, the one brother met up with a pirate in front of Chartres and she gave him “Mary’s veil”. Sorry to sound cynical, but that lady must have had a lot of clothes because there are veils all over Europe. Anyhow, for her shrine’s alcove, I chose a different sort of color scheme for the polymer clay tile. These are like the inserts between columns and of bright colors. In front of her shrine is a candle-offering stand that’s wired for five or six candles of various heights. The next decision was whether to make a painting or mosaic for the backdrop. Well, as nice as mosaics are, the pieces would be too tiny, if it was to look at all good.  So, a painting, it is. I made one based on a gothic painting in this great book called Gothic that I got at a medieval re-enactment event for 35 dollars. I would have gladly paid 100 for it – it’s just that good. (Later, it would get lost for a while and I was so upset, three different people went out and bought a copy for me, so now I have four.) It contains some of the best photos and diagrams I have ever found. The painting I chose was of Mary holding the baby Jesus. It took a few attempts – hard to compromise the desire to do well with that knowledge that nothing looked anatomically accurate around then.

Then came the ceiling. Pause for a moment with me, will you. There are few resources to make a gothic ceiling, most of the ceilings are too high up to really understand what you are really seeing and when you are looking at pictures, you are really looking at something that is made to trick the eye. I thought about it and thought about it. Finally, after much study, I took a board and used it for a base for soldered together pieces of wire in the shape of the ribs of one middle section. Then I made paper patterns based on that and used them to cut out mat board for the ceiling. It took a while to get right. I had no idea what angles – and turned out to be really wrong – and had to experiment. Eventually, I had all the vaults glued and taped together and inserted into the ceiling. I was kind of patterning the ceiling after Saint Chappelle in Paris. (In fact, much of my church has elements from this church, which on my last day in Paris, half a block from it, I decided to skip  – I was too tired. Dumb, Dumb, Dumb. Anyhow, I have had the opportunity since then to see it twice and it rocks.)  I painted it deep blue with gold stars. Then I started the ribbing.

Ok, I wanted three ribs for each seam and each vault. They are all hand painted. First, you paint one color. Then the other color. Then, trim up the first color. Then, the second. Then details, and then turn it over and do the same. I am tempted to place a mirror on the table in front of it, since most people will spend a half second, look in and go “Cool” and be done with it. The wow factor seems to be inversely related to the years involved. I worked on this steadily for weeks and got so sick of it, I put it away for 6 months or so before I finished it. It was particularly hard on my neck for some reason.

Then, I got a kitten. Sigh. He’s really quite wonderful, but when he was little particularly, his alias was Adventure Kitten. He fell through a wall once and had to be extricated, swallowed a nursing nipple, made friends with a large enthusiastic dog, etc. But, his favorite place in the world was the church, which I didn’t mind until I looked over and saw him chewing on the wiring. Ack. So, I made a Plexiglas enclosure for the viewing side. The next day, I found a knight’s chair cushion on the floor. So, I plugged up the two open windows – he really was that small (and has turned into humongous kitty since then). The next day I found another cushion and when asked, he merely looked bemused. Out loud, I said, something to the effect of how he had made himself a front door or whatever and then I realized that I had forgotten there was a front door, even though it was mostly up against a wall. Plugging that opening solved the problem, but left me wondering how bad the damage really was. So much so, that I avoided it for a year or so.

This summer (2005), I decided that I would tackle the problem. I did some fussy things like finishing tiling, and the Mary painting. I made saint seals for the floor, too. Never having seen any and only hearing reference to them in Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni books, I was at a loss. I basically chose to use the symbols of each saint I chose to keep them simple, with just a saying that goes along with each saint. Patrick was obvious (father of civilization), as was Brendan the navigator. Brigid was a delight, since my sister-in-law has spent much of her life as a midwife, not to mention Brigid being known for her belief that heaven would have a lake of beer. Cecilia is not only the patron saint of music, but also I chose her to honor a SCA friend of ours who passed away a few years ago. The last one was Camber, just in case Kelson ever has a need for a Camber seal (Deryni Rising, Katherine Kurtz.)  Then, with the help of my nieces, I tackled the whole job. The choir was fine and we merely removed it for this event (it will always stay modular since it is way too heavy on its own.) Then, the roof was taken off, the floor was removed and I had to check the wiring. To do so, it had to be placed on milk carton stands so I could get under it. I slept downstairs for a few days with one eye open. The good news was the wiring was intact. The bad news was a) I had to make two new saint seals – they had sunk too deep below the level of the tiles. b) the whole roof had to be raised by an inch – (the rose window would not be visible otherwise), c) something had to be created to support the whole roof down the road and new supports needed to be made for the tops of the columns. While replacing it, we also cracked one of the columns. While I don’t care looks wise, I think it will have to be replaced for support. We shall see. After a bit of fuss, it was put back together in the fall of 2005, with the hopes of finishing it within the next year or so.

What a joke. It is now late 2007 and I didn’t touch it for two years. Why? Well, it was feeling like work and it’s supposed to be fun. I had reached a point where all the things in front of me were annoying. I also had to face some serious decisions and went into total avoidance until this past summer – 2007, August.

I decided to finish this – it really is taking forever. I started the whole darn thing 15 years ago or so. First, I moved it to the basement. Okay, 6 others and I moved it to the basement to be near the castle. My niece and I butt walked it down there and the others helped in various directions. Down in the basement, I made a very scary decision. I could either keep working on it knowing there were some serious structure problems – kind of like throwing good money after bad OOOORRRRRR I could decide to have this last long after I am gone and do it right. Ouch. So, with the crack in the one column and the shorts made by my once young kitten, I decided to do the columns over. This was the biggest decision so far and would end up prolonging the finished product more than I would ever have predicted. (Because of this choice I would end up re-doing most of the castle itself as well.) So, from August through October, I did the following. I remade all the small windows and decided to re-do the rose window, too. The original was too large to accommodate the ceiling, as I had no idea when I made it how far below the peak it would hang. While doing this, I figured out how to match inside and out of the stone tracings. Make a paper copy of it that could be fired under the pieces in the oven and turn it over for the other side. It looks much snappier now.

Also, stability is of essence. To re-do the columns, I trashed the idea that it had to look like stone and decided to paint it. Ironically, I realized that the ceiling and the church this is based on are also associated with painted columns to begin with, so not only would it be more stable, but it would be more accurate. I took wooden dowels around 1 ½ in thick, drilled them out, painted them red and then painted tiny stars on them – about 500 per column. There are six of them. Then I re-created the sconces, candles and wiring. I just thought, while expensive and time consuming, it really would be worth doing right and not worry about it anymore. Then, I created a front door with good hinges, since that is the only avenue for viewing the choir. I did all these side jobs and had it ready before I took the castle apart because I didn’t want it to be apart for very long – the cat still having issues. So, my friend came over and we destroyed the church. We removed the roof, ripped out the columns, pulled off the wall, etc. It was awful – not difficult, but so much work being re-done. I really felt nauseated and somewhat violated, even though I was doing it myself. Still, the die was cast. I went to put the dowels in, and found they were about 1/8 in too big, so all the bases and tops had to be Dremeled out. Put the wiring in, reattached all but one candle – too hard to fix and re-put things back together. It is now together. Forever. If wiring goes out, it goes out. Still it is together and ready to go on. While I have much left to do, I feel pretty good about where it is.

2007 – Oct to Dec, I spent lots of time – as much as I could to finishing. I re-did the rose window – smaller and new grillwork that just plain was better done. I bricked the entire outside. (Sounds easy. First, mix the clay, black and white, then roll out on a weirdly textured old fashioned cookie sheet that gives it a cool texture, cut into bricks, fire, trim again, glue to walls in small sections. Then grout. Really dry hands. Really.) I finished a little abutment based on a structural error from the beginning. I made lots of trim to fix little areas that no one would notice was wrong, but would make it look better when right.

Next – the bell tower. I caved. I was going to cast each bell and had cast one, but I decided not to reinvent the wheel. It was hard enough as is. Thanks to the castle and cathedral series by David MacAuley who made the book/videos for kids, I got an idea of what I was looking for. Three bells per ringing post. Take two pieces of matching wood, carve out bell holders (which is basically the shape of the top ring that holds the bell in real life), stain, glue. Then use a rope to turn bell posts. Make side posts with holes to insert and there you have a bell tower. Works. Kids love it. (Eventually, they would invent Bronzclay and I could do them, but it would have been too hard to pull them out and not worth it in the long run.)

A month or so passed. A dog died. A puppy entered the scene. No way was I going to be trying anything with tiny little pieces until he was old enough to cope (3 days after I got him, he chomped down on a piece of glass and it went into the roof of his mouth and well, that was a very fast learning curve for me and what he could and could not handle.)