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In a city dominated by religion, Ralph Plescia's State Street studio testifies to a singular passion.
Story and photos by Stephen Dark
When Ralph Plescia (pronounced Plee-sha) graduated from West High School 60 years ago, he went down to his father's store at 1324 S. State to start working there full-time. But while he had assumed he would join his wheelchair-bound, Navy-veteran father working at Western Auto Parts Co., Theodore Plescia had other ideas.
"Go out into the world of hard knocks," he told his son, and learn about life.
Much of the education Plescia received in the intervening six decades has been immortalized behind the brick façade that previously housed his father's auto parts store, next to the gas station, on the southwestern corner of State and 1300 South. The only signs that an extraordinary vision lies behind the wall, are a curb garden protected by concrete crosses and a looming statue of a mother and child, and words painted in red on an adjoining door, "Christian School." The latter resembles more a plague-like warning than the title of a religious institution.
Plescia is a thin, sprightly 78-year-old with a head of vivid, electrified white hair, whose resemblance to a wild prophet in his own wilderness is belied by his quiet, gentlemanly charm and the understated passion he displays for religious self-expression as he shows a visitor around his studio. With cement and rebar, he's fashioned life-size representations of what the former Mormon has discovered through studying different religions and their texts. "Everybody picks and chooses what they want to talk about," he says. "I tell them about what they ignored."
There's no doorbell, and it can be haphazard trying to find him. Knock loudly midday on Fridays or Sundays and chances are he'll hear you and open the door.
Plescia inherited the store after the tragic death of his father and 8-year-old daughter Maria in a car accident in Nevada in 1970. That said, even though he pays for its upkeep, he says he doesn't own the building technically; it's held in a trust and will go to Shriners Hospitals upon his death.
Plescia's held many jobs over his lifetime, from working as an apprentice embalmer at a mortuary in his early 20s, to singing in bands and repairing musical instruments. He's worked on-and-off for Summerhays Music Center's Briant Summerhays repairing instruments for close to 30 years. Summerhays describes Plescia as a "highly, highly creative guy." Plescia, it turns out, invented a bridge for violins that the late Utah Symphony music director Joseph Silverstein lauded to the Deseret News as actually improving the sound violins make, but given the value of his instrument, chose not to adapt it.
Plescia also rescued a number of damaged cellos after a fire savaged the former Summerhays' store on Main Street. He plucks out several notes from half a cello he salvaged, using his ingenuity to fashion an internal bridge that would replicate the missing half of the instrument. "If it survived as far as it did, I should put it back together to make it play," he says. "Just because it ought to be done."
Homespun Plescia has always made do with little. "In my life I have had no money, so I have to fix things." In 1976 he repaired the weather-beaten stone lions in front of the Utah Capitol built by Gavin Jacks in 1914. Amusement park Lagoon subsequently took two of them for its fairground. In one of the lions, Plescia placed a heart stitched together by his daughter Tammy, who died of a brain aneurism in 2009.
What dominates Plescia's studio, though, is his unique religious vision, fashioned from all he learned responding to a challenge by an Episcopal minister in 1983 to come up with his own theory of creation. In Revelation 12, Plescia says, he discovered references to a woman who he believes is the heavenly mother. She's part of the curb garden, "clothed in her radiance," he says, with baby Jesus in her arms. "Sometimes you get to thinking it ought to be done and then you do it," he says.
Ask Briant Summerhays for his thoughts on Plescia's striking religious statues and he references Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel for context. "I don't think Ralph has his artistic talent," he says, "but you might say he has some of his creative yearnings."
Compared to the rush of traffic on the street, inside the studio there's a slight chill in the air, and a dusty silence. The first spectacle that greets you is the Garden of Eden, Eve climbing on the serpent's back and reaching for forbidden fruit. Plescia then leads you upstairs to a second floor where he has fashioned a ceiling mural in the form of a cross on which are painted the faces of his loved ones who have preceded him to whatever awaits after death. "There is an afterlife, and we are going to it," he says. These celestial renderings boast eyes fiery-bright and wild white locks, keeping him company from heaven as he works on 10-foot high banners bearing Christ's anguished face beneath a crown of thorns. Plescia carries the banners each Holy Friday in the Community Ecumenical walk through the city, marking the stations of the cross.
Plescia is largely self-taught as an artist. "After seventh grade, I never had an art teacher who taught me anything," he says. His philosophy is if you ask questions, people will point you in the right direction. So he studied art books at libraries and watched artists at work, like a magpie, forever picking up ideas.
Plescia then goes down into the bowels of the building, past dragon-like serpents, a 1931 Cadillac he bought when he was just 19, and then on down some steps to hell, where several figures reach yearningly up to be saved from a water-logged pit. At times, as you squeeze through labyrinth-like tunnels, it's more akin to a Middle Eastern archaelogical dig than the basement of a forgotten building.
Out in the back garden, the smell of jam-sweet blackberries wafts up from years of sun-dried fruit underfoot. A tombstone dedicated simply to "Curtis" stands at the back of the garden. Plescia says it memorializes the son of a former owner of the neighboring gas station. "Curtis" was shot five times in the head and after surviving for years, finally died.
He's planted moonflowers beyond his fence in the back alley, which, he says, only bloom at night. "Something is going to grow," he says, meaning weeds. "So you plant something so that doesn't."
He'd like someone to take over the studio after him. His agenda, he says, is simple and, in a sense, seems almost a response to the fate of State Street itself, long forgotten in the rush to I-15 and the suburbs.
"Teach what's ignored," he says. "Through art."