CWB June 2003 Furnishing Sacred Spaces A Southern California liturgical artist?s work on a Los Angeles cathedral earns national recognition. By Sam Gazdziak Tortorelli Creations La Verne, CA www.tortorelli.com Year Founded: 1986 Employees: 3 Shop Size: 2,000 square feet FYI: Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral was the company?s largest job and lasted two years, from the initial meetings to the final installation. Custom furniture pieces are generally put in very prominent places in customers? homes. Jeff Tortorelli?s custom creations go one step further. As a liturgical artist, his furniture is the centerpiece of churches across California and, more recently, the United States. ?It?s an honor doing this kind of work,? he says, ?and a blessing that I can make a living at it.? Thanks to his work at Our Lady of the Angels, the new cathedral in Los Angeles, his company, Tortorelli Creations, is becoming known all over the country. While he has been a woodworker since 1986, Tortorelli first got involved in liturgical art when he built a couple of pieces for his church in 1996. Tortorelli Creations of La Verne, CA, has been building furniture for churches and synagogues in Southern California, but the cathedral was his first project to earn national recognition. Tortorelli says that the massive cathedral is the first to be built in the United States in about 40 years. It has a floor area of 57,000 square feet and can hold up to 3,000 people. The interior of the cathedral reaches 104 feet at its highest point and 333 feet at its widest. Tortorelli was originally scheduled to build three pieces, but by the time he was done, he had built 14 pieces for the cathedral, including the ambo, deacons? chairs, cardinal?s chair, gift tables and cantor stands. Divine Design Inspiration Because of the nature of his work, Tortorelli often gets design ideas from sources that are a little more unusual than other woodworkers. ?I try to base my designs on what?s pertinent to a particular community,? he says. ?What message do they want to give.? One candle stand commission came from a church named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who was martyred in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In doing his research, Tortorelli discovered St. Kolbe?s strong relationship with both the Virgin Mary and Judaism, so he built the cantor stands to tell the saint?s story. The cardinal?s chair, or cathedra, consists of three parts: the chair, the platform, and the arch. The back of the chair consists of crosses made from wood species around the world. Jeff Tortorelli constructed a steel skeleton and fit the pieces of wood around the steel. The stands are American black walnut. The base is a hammered copper crown of thorns. Several strands of barbed wire make their way up the stands, symbolizing the concentration camp. As they progress, the barbed wire turns into rosary beads, symbolizing his devotion to Mary. The crown consists of two pieces of ebony that form a Star of David. The ambo in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral was based on a gospel reading from Matthew in which Jesus walks up a mountain, turns and begins preaching to his followers. ?He wasn?t standing behind your traditional ambo or pulpit, which is usually a box. He was not protected but was right out in fromt of the people he was teaching. My whole point was to minimize any visual blockage,? Tortorelli says. The concept of the ambo changed over time, but the one constant was that it would have a cantilevered reading table. The suspended reading table is 2 feet by 4 feet, and levers can raise or lower the table, making it accessible for anyone doing the reading. The table drops down to 31 inches, which is the ADA-required height for people in a wheelchair. The ambo is steel reinforced and includes a hydraulic jack to actuate the reading table smoothly. The exterior ambo is made of jarrah wood with satine trim and ebony inlays. The exterior of the ambo hides the complicated machinery inside. It is steel- reinforced and weighs more than 1,200 pounds. A 10-ton hydraulic jack actuates the reading table, so it can be pumped up and lowered smoothly. He adds that the ambo is strong enough that an adult can stand on the reading table, and it can still be operated. The outside is jarrah wood with ebony inlays, and the reading table has a leather inlay with a satine trim and ebony inlays. Tortorelli and his two employees, Dan Tilbury and Stewart Flowers, are all proficient at both metalworking and woodworking, so they were able to build the ambo and its interior mechanisms themselves. Large-Scale Furnishings One of the largest pieces was the cardinal?s chair, or cathedra. The chair, which represents the pastoral and teaching power of the cardinal, weighs about 800 pounds and sits on a 1,500-pound steel-reinforced platform. It is a variation of a chair design that Tortorelli had previously designed. He made it much larger to fit the scale of the cathedral. There is also a 9-foot removable arch which displays the cardinal?s coat of arms. The company?s employees put their metalworking skills to use and made the coat of arms from brass. The back of the chair features a series of interlocking crosses made of woods from around the world: purpleheart, ebony, pink ivory, anboyna burl, caribe, holly, cocobolo, lacewood, carob, olivewood and verawood. Tortorelli started by making a steel skeleton, then he cut the wood pieces in half, fit them around the skeleton and joined them together. The woods are also contoured on the back and sides. He remembers that Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles archdiocese came by the shop one day to see the work. Tortorelli had made a cross that combined the carob from Lebanon and the olivewood from Israel, but he wasn?t sure about the color combination. ?The cardinal said, ?No Jeff, you have to leave the Palestinians and the Israelis together. They have to learn how to get along,?? he recalls, laughing. Assembling the chair was very difficult, but it led to one of the moments that makes Tortorelli love his work. ?Up to the point that I put the crosses in, it was an 800-pound chair that was hard to work on,? Tortorelli says. ?The pieces were so big; the seat pan is probably 150 pounds. To move the chair, I had to use the crane. ?Around two o?clock in the morning, I?m by myself in the shop putting these crosses in,? he continues. ?I finished, and I stepped back from it, and all of a sudden it turns from being a chair to being the symbol that it?s supposed to be. This is why I like liturgical furniture. There?s nothing I can think of that?s more rewarding.? When it came time to install these large pieces, Tortorelli and his employees had to get very creative. They used a hoist to put the ambo on a dolly, strapped it down and took it to the cathedral. There, they used an ancient Egyptian technique with bags of sand. ?We couldn?t pick it up off the dolly at the cathedral,? Tortorelli says, ?but we lifted it off a little bit and put three bags of sand under it.? They slid the other end out and put sandbags under it. Once it was off the dolly, they cut the bags and swept the sand out, causing the ambo the gradually sink onto the floor. The barbed wire, rosary beads and Star of David carvings on these cantor stands all tell the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who died in Auschwitz during World War II. Tortorelli and his employees also welded together a dolly for the cathedra platform, which had to be delivered on its side to fit through the interior doors (with 3/4 inch clearance). The dolly was cut away at the cathedral, and the base was carefully lowered into place. Working with a Community Tortorelli says that he likes getting a church community involved in the design process. ?I want their input, because they?re not my worship pieces,? he says. ?When I deliver those pieces, they belong to the community, and they should be what they want, not what I want.? Prices for his pieces vary; an altar could cost from $10,000 to $50,000, and a full church with 10 or so different pieces (minus the pews) can range from $80,000 to $100,000. The company?s yearly sales range between $200,000 and $250,000. One of Tortorelli?s tasks in working with a church community is determining a realistic budget for a project. ?One of the greatest rewards in working with the communities is being included in the journey that they take, from the contemplation of a new church or a major renovation to the realization of that dream,? he says, adding that he will work with each community to help them get the most beautiful pieces that work within the budget without sacrificing his craftsmanship Once Tortorelli Creations has been commissioned for a piece, all the woodworking and metalworking is done in the company?s 2,000-square-foot shop. The company is in the process of moving into a larger location in order to better accommorate the large-scale projects. A 30-year-old Tree mill that Tortorelli bought used is a mainstay in the shop. Besides the router, employees also use a Delta RT40 16-inch table saw, Jet spindle sander, Seco 20-inch planer and wide-belt sander, an SCMI 12-inch joiner from SCM Group USA, Porter-Cable hand tools and a variety of welding equipment. ?It?s been pretty incredible,? he says of the cathedral project, which lasted two years. ?What?s happened since that commission is I have gotten a lot of attention in church circles. I?m starting to get work all over the country.? One of his most recent projects is for a church altar in New York. That project, which requires wood bent in a tear-drop shape, will give Tortorelli a chance to experiment with ammonia bending. ?It plasticizes wood, and it?s a lot more effective than steam,? he explains. He says that churches usually tend to go with local artisans to make the liturgical furnishings, but the cathedral project has helped churches across the country to become familiar with his work. ?There?s a comfort level after seeing what I?ve done. They know that if they contract with me, they?re going to get top quality. The craftsmanship is going to be impeccable,? he says. His cathedral furnishings, for example, are guaranteed to withstand the test of time ? and then some. ?One of the parameters for my pieces was that they were supposed to last for 500 years. I said, ?I?ll give you a 300-year-guarantee, but after that, come looking for me?? Tortorelli says with a laugh. ?But the way I built those pieces, they will never fall apart.?
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