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Hospital dedicates 'Hope' to oversee garden

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Virginia Miller

The butterfly is a symbol of life and rebirth, according to Susan Wagner, a Pittsburgh sculptor whose bronze statue of a little girl holding a butterfly was unveiled and dedicated Thursday at UPMC Passavant Hospital in McCandless.

The three-foot statue called "Hope" was installed in a year-old "healing garden" in a long, narrow courtyard across from the hospital chapel.

Wagner and her model, Sarah Axtell, 7, of the city's Friendship neighborhood, took part in the ceremony while 100 invited guests in the adjacent assembly hall watched on a television monitor.

The Rev. H. William Dambach, Passavant's director of pastoral care, dedicated "Hope" to the hospital patients and the community on behalf of volunteers who worked on the foundation's 1999 Enchanted Gardens Tour.

The hospital foundation and a healing garden committee headed by Peggy Stefanko of McCandless commissioned Wagner, 50, to create the sculpture. Wagner sculpted the imposing statues of former Pittsburgh Pirates greats Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell at PNC Park.

In a seven-month national search, the committee selected six artists, five of them local and one from Ohio, for further consideration.

"The field was narrowed to two who we thought would have the right vision of what we wanted for the garden," Stefanko said. "When we met Susan, it immediately clicked."

After visiting the garden, the two finalists submitted samples of what they envisioned and their feel for the garden. The committee chose an angel after the concept of a boy was rejected because it had too much energy.

"We took off the angel's wings and went with a butterfly instead of a bird," Stefanko said.

"We really felt Susan heard us when we talked about the elements of the garden, its harmony and tranquility." Wagner said she wanted to show reflection and hope in the girl holding a butterfly, symbol of rebirth.

She began working on Hope in September 2000, using Axtell, the daughter of John Axtell and Diana Ames, for her model.

"I had noticed her beauty a couple of years ago and had asked her mother if I could use her as a model some day," Wagner said.

She posed the child for photographs to use for reference, then sculpted her to size in clay.

The committee was thrilled with the results, Stefanko said.

The statue was cast in bronze at the Light Sculpture Works in Cleveland, Ohio, in a five-month process.

Proceeds from the Passavant Hospital Foundation's 1999 garden tour paid Wagner's $15,000 fee, which she said included the casting.

The artist, a tiny woman with dark, curly hair, said she competed for the Clemente work, but was asked to do the one of "Pops" Stargell. Her work also includes a 14-foot statue of Jackie Robinson at Journal Square in Jersey City, N.J.; soldiers for a Gulf War Memorial in Greensburg; a boy and girl with a sea lion at the Pittsburgh Zoo; a police memorial on the North Shore and a life-sized nun and child for Holy Family Institute in Emsworth. She is working on a statue of the late dancer and film star Gene Kelly for downtown Pittsburgh.

Wagner lives and works in a three-story brick house on a tree-lined street in Friendship. Her third-floor studio is filled with works in progress from her free-lance business, including commissioned bas-reliefs and a model for a Holocaust memorial, for which she hopes to find a sponsor.

Wagner also paints in oil, producing colorful works which are less realistic than her sculptures.

Some sculptors have criticized her for that realism.

"I have been told many times not to be so realistic, to push the envelope," she said. "But this is my journey. I can do abstract but choose not to."

Her paintings are another story. "My paintings aren't traditional at all. I go wild," she said.

"Hope" is part of a garden in which people can meditate, relax and enjoy the beauty of nature. Bricks, many of them engraved to honor or memorialize loved ones, have replaced gravel on the winding garden path.

Healing gardens were common in the Middle Ages, and recent studies in environmental psychology support a revival of the concept.

"Hope" will contribute an uplifting presence in the idyllic setting of seasonal plantings, two ponds with waterfalls and benches. As Ralph DeStefano, chairman of the hospital foundation said, the statue is a symbol of hope of cures for diseases in the future.

Virginia Miller is a free-lance writer.

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