‘Bronze lasts forever’: the sculptor of the saints

A chance meeting with a Josephite Sister in 2004 led bronze sculptor Linda Klarfeld on a journey that would result in her creating a monument of St Mary MacKillop and a strong connection with Australia’s first saint.

“This place is not easy to find, and it was one winter’s day and a lady came in,” says Prague-born Linda of her Terrey Hills studio.

“She was a nun and she came to me and gave me this relic of clothing of Mary MacKillop. She said it was a relic and it looked really old, and I said: ‘I can’t take that; that’s important.’

“She told me she was a Josephite nun and I said: ‘I can’t have that’. And she said: ‘No, no, it’s meant for you; you’re supposed to have it.’

“I said: ‘Well, what can I do for you?’ And she said: ‘Nothing. But one day you will be called upon to make a statue of Mary MacKillop.’”

Linda Klarfeld in her Terrey Hills studio.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Linda moved to Australia at the age of four with her family.

“I didn’t actually know who Mary MacKillop was,” she says.

“About a year later I was talking to a friend … and I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, and I was saying: ‘It looks really bad, I’m going to need a miracle!’

“My friend said: ‘Oh, don’t worry, I know of someone who can make miracles. It’s a nun, and she cured someone of cancer so a boyfriend for you will be no problem!’

“So we went to the Mary MacKillop Museum and we got there and I was absolutely shocked because I thought: ‘Hang on a minute! Mary MacKillop … I have a relic of Mary MacKillop’.”

Several months later Linda was visiting an isolated Aboriginal community in Western Australia.

“There was nothing anywhere, it was remote desert, so hot, and there was nothing there but a church which was inspired by Mary MacKillop,” she recalls.

“I thought: ‘This is crazy; is she following me around?’ A few months after that I had the Australian Catholic University approach me to make a statue of Mary MacKillop.”

When the ACU asked Linda to include Blessed Mary’s dog in the monument for the North Sydney campus, she was stunned because “Mary MacKillop had an Australian terrier and so do I”.

“I feel like I was almost destined to make it because it kept following me and I kept ignoring it.”

Linda has been sculpting since she was seven years old, when she made a self-portrait. At the age of 14 the film Camille Claudel about Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor responsible for The Thinker, convinced her that sculpting was what she wanted to do. But there were few opportunities to enter the industry.

“Neither of my parents are in any creative field or anything and there are very few sculptors around here,” Linda says.

“So I had to search out an education, which was difficult. First I went to art school and then someone said, ‘You shouldn’t be here, you should be with this person’, so I went to that person to be an assistant and they said, ‘Oh no, I can’t teach you that, you have to go to Europe’, so I went to Europe.

“In Europe I was an apprentice sculptor to a sculptor who lived next door to the president of the Czech Republic, and then I went to New York and I was an apprentice to a technician who worked on the Statue of Liberty.”

Although her parents wanted Linda to do whatever made her happy, her grandfather was “totally against it”.

“My granddad actually bribed me. He said: ‘I’ll give you $10,000 if you become a doctor because we can’t have an artist in the family!’

“So in the end I started studying a psychology degree and I finished that and gave him his money back and said: ‘You know what, I’m supposed to be a sculptor, I can’t be something else.’

“I finished the degree, got high distinctions and was off to Masters and then the Stations of the Cross came up and I went: ‘Sorry, I’m a sculptor, here’s your money back.’”

At the age of 21, Linda was asked to sculpt the Stations of the Cross, her first major commission.

She recalls: “It was over 100 figures in relief. Cardinal Clancy unveiled that and it was one of the biggest commissions a 21-year-old has ever received.

“It was interesting because it was religious and I had no idea, so I had to study the Bible to find out what does this mean, and I had advisers to educate me.

“That was my first taste. Now I have a more emotional connection because of Mary MacKillop.

“She was this lone, determined woman who in a way was a career-minded person, and at the time it must have been crazy.

“She had a lot of opposition and when I started sculpting it was a male-dominated field, so to be this young female sculptor who makes public monuments double my size, people wouldn’t do what I wanted.

“But that they did that to her, too, and she kept going, and I like to think that that’s what I did, too, to get here.”

Through the sculpture, Linda has witnessed the devotion to St Mary MacKillop.

“People actually love her, they really do, and you can see it when they come to the statue. You can see that relationship.

“At first I didn’t know how it would relate to me, and now I feel like I have this personal connection, almost like being a chosen one.

“And that’s really nice, because I don’t have much of a religious background, so I’m getting to know everything through her, I guess.”

Linda believes that the work she does is sent to her for a reason.

“It’s like I need to know something about myself or I need something in my life or I need to be aware of something, and the universe or God sends me the answer or the direction in the form of a client.”

She is also commissioned to do paintings and other works, but prefers bronze for longevity.

“The reason that I’m a bronze sculptor is I realised at 14 that people can actually die,” she says.

“I thought, well, I don’t like that, I think people should live forever. So what can I do about it? Bronze; it lasts forever. If you make a statue it will be there for 2000 years.

“So I use bronze in order to make everything permanent; people permanent, people I love permanent, and in that way I live forever as well.”

Linda says sculpting is a lengthy, time-consuming process, with one series of 16 life-size statues now nearing completion after seven years of work.

“It’s the thing about time; sculpting is a very slow thing to do, and the process hasn’t changed for thousands of years.

“But modern technology with internet and telephones, everyone wants everything quickly and you can’t do it.”

With a studio full of copies of her favourite pieces of work, “as you see, I don’t really let them go”.

“If I can I keep a copy, a resin master, the client has the bronze and I have the resin master in case something happens. Well, I justify that way!

“Sculptures don’t photograph well because a sculpture is in your personal space; it’s almost like that person is there.

“Mary MacKillop is almost there, sitting there looking over her garden, and you can touch her and you can pat her dog. With a painting, you can’t, and a photograph doesn’t have the same effect.

“That’s the scary thing about what I do, that it’s uncanny how much I get to know the person when in fact I don’t know them. It’s almost like you channel them, which sounds crazy, but you know them intimately.”

Having sculpted the Stations of the Cross, Mary MacKillop, other prominent Australians and her Board of Directors series, there is one project Linda would like to try her hand at.

“There are relief sculptures that haven’t been finished on the Art Gallery of NSW. There are three or four big relief sculptures, and it’s unfinished for some bizarre reason.

“I’d like to finish it. That would be great and such a challenge because what would you put there?”

With Mary MacKillop now enshrined at ACU, Linda says she will still visit her from time to time, as well as return to Mary’s tomb at North Sydney.

“I’ll go and say ‘thank you’ to her at the tomb. One, I have a boyfriend, and, two, I got to make a beautiful statue.”

And she still carries the relic of Mary MacKillop when she needs to.

“When in doubt, take Mary MacKillop with you.”