Blue House/Blue Studio

 

 

The lyicral figures oozing onto the façade are just the beginning. This Salt Lake City storefront, which used to house an auto shop, has been slowly morphing for close to 30 years – so slowly that few residents take notice. Swooping graphics about Raphael’s Stradivarius are scrawled below the roofline beneath an expanding white lookout structure on top.

Walk past the concrete crucifixes that line the sidewalk and knock on the door. Usually nobody answers but if Raphael Plescia answers the door, he may invite you in.

 

 

 

 

 

Take a few steps along the bannister and look down.  Out of a cave-like bottom 15 feet below grade, a stylized concrete sculpture of a woman reaches up towards the light to grasp at a branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She appears to be climbing over a dragon that twists itself around inside the cavern. Below them are sculptures, decorated concrete walls, narrow pathways, and figures. A white lamb, flowers, and some toadstools surround pools of water.

This deep glimpse is lit only by the shopfront windows.  Beyond is a dark interior — vaguely Medieval in design — with a huge fireplace, balconies, and several staircases.  A good look around the room shows dozens of chairs, several pianos, mannequins, a life-size nativity, a row of wire mesh masks, and endless building materials piled in the corners.  A 25-foot-long concrete dragon balances on a stack of oversized books near a table piled with documents and plans.

The first time I went inside this puzzling building, I went alone. I had just come from a curious bright blue house by the Jordan River on the west side of Salt Lake City. I had noticed this house a couple of weeks prior.  It had a twirling roof spire which ended in a cross, and the chimney had paces peering from it.  I left a note in the mailbox asking the owner to contact me, then drove directly to this old auto shop with the figures peering down from the roof. Before going to the door, I asked some young auto body workers in the alley about the place and they said, “That’s just old Ralph. He’ll show you around his sculptures.” Then I asked a clerk in the gas station next door if he thought it was safe to knock on the door to this shop of mystery, and he said to go ahead; the old guy was harmless.

When Plescia met me near the door and invited me in I was still a bit leery. He has a wild shock of white hair and intense, curious eyes. He was very polite and accommodating, and seemed perfectly happy to show me around his creation.

What is this place?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can ask that question of Plescia, but he seldom answers it directly, as he speaks in aphorisms and quotations.  He generally leads visitors to a backdrop he painted that tells the short version. Roughly, it’s the story of “Lady Wisdom,” as he calls her.  She is ascending a staircase, wearing nothing but a crown and she is pregnant with God’s child. Following her up the staircase are two renderings of Satan, who want to devour her child. One is a red dragon similar to the other sculptures in the room, and the other is a benign-looking old man wearing what looks like a pagoda on his head. None of the figures appears either menacing or threatened — its as if this is about to be a bloodless coup.

It can be difficult to assimilate Plescia’s passionately held beliefs because there are visual distractions everywhere. Beyond the balancing dragon is another spot where the floor opens up to reveal more sculptures in the basement around another deep pool of water.  In this one, everything is illuminated by red lights.  An adjacent room contains the vestiges of his father’s auto repair shop: gaskets, fan belts, a huge volt meter.

But he’s not working on cars, he’s making an 8-foot long lion. In the 1980’s, Plescia made the repairs on the lions that guard the entrance to the Utah State Capitol building. Now he is building one from scratch, “sewing” wire mesh onto an armature, which he’s covering with a cement skin. When that’s complete, another version of Lady Wisdom, this one suckling her child, will go into the lion’s mouth. Plescia is delighted at the way they will fit together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he invited me into the basement I glanced around for alternate exits, and cautiously stepped down his offset brick staircase to arrive at the entrance to the next level: a gigantic dragon’s maw. The walls are covered in concrete script detailing more information about God and Hell. Against my better judgment, I went right into the dragon’s mouth and followed him into a narrow corridor beyond.

which led to a few more stairs.  I followed Plescia as he hopped over a watery step.

Ultimately we reached a dead end chamber that he calls the “scholar’s room” for reasons that make sense within his theories. I remember thinking that no one had the slightest idea that I was visiting this place. We backtracked and headed through another passage that was so narrow I had to turn sideways.

 

Now we entered the cavern I first glimpsed from the front door. I was down on the pathway next to the deep pools where the lamb sat with the toadstools.  That was Eve, Plescia told me, reaching for the forbidden fruit.  I told him I was feeling claustrophobic, so he directed me to some hand-molded concrete steps which took me back to the front door. Once I was topside again, I needed to ask more questions. The answers, he said, lay outside in back of the building.

 

Plescia excavated all the soil from that basement with a five-gallon bucket, and mounded it here. He and the birds landscaped the garden with allium and iris. It’s astonishing to see the amount of dirt he removed before he could even begin embarking on his sculptural fantasy. He also personally built all the Medieval interiors and scavenged antique doors and windows from various tear-downs.

We entered a little side courtyard with Tudor embellishments, little concrete faces peering out of crevices, and a huge gnarled tree that was overwhelming the entire space. This is where I mentioned the blue house I’d just seen by the Jordan River and he looked at me and said, “That’s my house.” He didn’t seem at all surprised that I had driven straight from his house to his studio with no knowledge of their connection.

From here he led me up a stairway and asked me to open the door.

I opened it and all I could see was a big brass bed.  He encouraged me to peek around the door to see what hung on the wall beyond. It was a 10-foot high concrete head of Lady Wisdom with her eyes wide open and her mouth agape in fear or astonishment – it wasn’t clear. Inside this room were about 50 light fixtures in various stages of repair, and three claw-foot bathtubs. He recently dragged one of the tubs up the steep stairs just because the other tub was too short to lie down in. Not that any of these tubs is plumbed, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in that aspect.

Back downstairs and up a rear staircase by the auto shop takes one to the second floor that is piled with potential building materials. We wound around a couple of narrow crossings and ended up inside the white lookout with the octagonal windows that can be seen from the street.


This is the celestial room, where Plescia is painting a version of the creation on the ceiling. An ornate mirror sits on the floor beneath it so it may be viewed without craning one’s neck. A row of cellos hangs on the wall and a few other stringed instruments are cast about the room. He explained that he is painting the back sides of them with ground glass to make them sing, despite the fact that most of them look like they’re beyond playing. I asked about a violin with the face of a little girl painted on the back side of it. He said that he had been in a car crash years ago in which his father and his daughter were killed, and this was a portrait of his daughter. I remembered seeing a little pink cement heart shape down in the cavern next to the lamb with the name “Tammy” on it. I wondered who Tammy was, but I resisted asking him.  He had already been far too generous with me.

I was ready to get to my car now.  Plescia walked out the front door with me explaining the nativity and the crucifixes along the sidewalk. He indicated the doorknob faceplate and said it came from the LDS Mormon temple in Manti, Utah.  When I admired it he offered to show me the architectural plans for the church that sits next to Gilgal Garden, a sculpture garden created by a Mormon zealot in the middle of last century. When I told him I wrote about Gilgal twenty years ago, Plescia said he spent his childhood playing there, and watched as Thomas Child constructed his monumental sculptures to illustrate his faith.  Gilgal is now recognized in the art community as a “visionary art environment.”  For the first time that afternoon, Plescia’s muscled fervor began to settle into some kind of context.


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4 Responses to “Blue House/Blue Studio”

  1. Mandy June 25, 2011 3:34 am
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    Wow, I haven’t been inside this building in years. I’m Ralph’s niece, Mandy. I was unaware there were pictures of his building online. It has probably been at least 20 years since the last time I was there. Ralph’s a good artist. It’s funny how you saw their house, and then went to the building without knowing they were both one in the same. I’m glad I found these, they’re great pictures!

  2. Mandy June 25, 2011 4:00 am
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    P.S. The name \"Tammy\" you mentioned was another daughter of theirs, my cousin, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2009. Maria was the child killed in the auto accident in 1970.

  3. admin June 26, 2011 6:25 pm
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    Mandy,
    I have enormous respect for your uncle’s talent, his dedication to his art, and his endless energy. He is an amazing man.
    Kim

  4. Beau Chaine' July 28, 2016 5:45 pm
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    I met Raphael in ’98 just after we closed Aardvark’s Cabaret and Catering in the old Southern Plantation restaurant building at then 243-249 West 400 South. There’s a Wendy’s there now. I was looking for another venue to continue the non profit fundraising we did there for the state wide Helplines of Utah. He gave me the tour, with an old maroon whateveritwasIforgotnot car, maybe a Dusenberg, in the garage section, and St. George was almost spearing the dragon in the basement by a pond…What this article doesn’t state is that Rafael also repaired the two lion heads that were fronting the old Lyric theatre the Mormon church turned into the Promised Valley Playhouse, now a parking lot. And another great fact, the cement he uses for his waterproof sculptures is patented as it is one of the few known cement elements that weather cannot harm, and for sale in lots! I’m going to contact Dan Rascon from TV and see if we can get a special done on this wonderful artist and is “IWatt’s Towers of Salt Lake” series of eternal art before he leaves this earth!
    ,

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