Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese REPORT:
Furniture and carpentry students at Burwood's Southern Cross Catholic Vocational College have been hard at work constructing a cypress pine picket fence. Pupils from five Sydney Catholic schools have been equally busy, spending weekends and other days at a hall in Caringbah creating a spectacular painting on plywood.
Now starting on Monday, 14 November, the young people will have a chance to see the fruits of their labours when installation of St Mary's Cathedral's Outdoor Nativity begins.
The Outdoor Nativity is beloved by Sydneysiders both Catholics and non-Catholics unlike. But this is the first time the Nativity has employed the talents of students to design and create a hand-made fence to go around the perimeter and a brilliantly imagined vibrant backdrop to off-set the 12 life-size figures including those of the Angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph and the Christ-child.
In previous years the Outdoor Nativity, which is erected each year in the Cathedral forecourt, has been surrounded by a series of street barriers.
"But now, thanks to the students at Southern Cross, we have our own very handsome beautifully-made fence," says a delighted Dieter Koch, Property Officer for the Archdiocese.
He is equally thrilled with the backdrop.
After more than five years, the original backdrop by well-known Sydney artist, Tony Johansen, had suffered from exposure to weather and normal wear and tear. A new one was needed, but this time instead of turning to professional artists, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell was keen to employ the talents, vision and enthusiasm of young people from the city's Catholic secondary schools.
John Charadia, Creative Arts Adviser for the Catholic Education (CEO), embraced the Cardinal's suggestion and immediately invited visual art classes at different schools across the Archdiocese to participate.
Those first off the mark were chosen. Then in April, under John's enthusiastic guidance, visual art students from Marist Sisters College, Woolwich, Freeman Catholic High School at Bonnyrigg, Kingsgrove's St Ursula's College, Auburn Trinity Catholic College and De La Salle College at Caringbah met for the first time to discuss the design and vision for the new backdrop.
"I wanted this to be very much a collaborative effort between students from all five schools," says John.
Taking their inspiration from what the Nativity meant to them and to their faith, the young visual artists agreed the theme should be 'light of hope.'
"Which was when some students took ownership of the image of light, while others took ownership of the star and others of the sand dunes," John says.
Along with the beautiful imagined images and design, the students wanted the colours of the backdrop to echo and complement those used for Nativity's life-size figures and animals, which were commissioned and created in Italy in 2005 by the Demetz family, renowned ecclesiastical artists since the 16th century.
"With the backdrop measuring 7 metres wide by 6 metres in height, we used a hall in Caringbah. At that size the plywood backdrop had to be laid out on the floor. This was how it had to be painted and to look at the work we hired a platform ladder with everyone climbing up to almost ceiling height, where they could look down on the work and see what had to be fixed or what needed adding," says John.
Not only working during their visual arts classes at school, the students also worked on the project on weekends, often under John's supervision as well as that of professional artist Wanda Grein, who frequently works with John on the artists' retreats he organises.
The results are spectacular and the 11 different panels that make up the backdrop are now being carefully bubble-wrapped and transported from Caringbah to the Cathedral in preparation for its installation as part of the Outdoor Nativity over the next few weeks.
From Monday, 14 November installation of the Outdoor Nativity will begin and on Sunday, 27 November which marks the start of Advent, the Nativity will be unveiled and blessed by the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell.