We need art, and we need artists. Before I met Guido Dettoni della Grazia, I would have said, too, that we need artist to inspire us to “change” the world and to make it a better place. As a matter of fact, that was the very first thing I told him when we met and talked. “We all need to transform the world – especially us, religious people”, I said.

And he listened. I could even hear his smile through the phone. But he brushed aside that observation of mine with a simple rhetorical invitation. He suggested that I consider a calling to “interact” with the world before attempting to “change” it.

He caught me by surprise. And, of course, he did the only thing that made sense in that context: he allowed me to “interact” with him and his work, and to “sense” it. And I must say, through that direct experience I got to “change” my own art and work, and that’s why I’m sharing this experience with you, readers, as his work might also resonate with you.

Guido Dettoni is an exceptionally multifaceted artist and an even more cultured person. It’s very easy to find information about him online; there’s a plethora of videos, resources and articles about him.

I was inspired by his exhibition “Maria” in Assisi. I was also moved by his project on “Reconciliation”. And I was intrigued by “PAU Universal”.

Throughout his work there’s an underlying common thread of using one’s own hands to experience the world: to sense it, to feel it, to play with wax and other materials and to become a sculptor as a means of sensing and feeling our world and ourselves.

It’s all about being able to manifest reality with your own hands as your hands interact with matter.

In Dettoni’s approach, everything leads to the ultimate aim of letting our hands act and give a testimony of our attitudes and our being. Living, sensing, experiencing… it all becomes an encounter that happens in between our hands.

Since Dettoni is a prolific artist, there are plenty of projects and ideas to focus on. I’ll choose the three I’ve already mentioned as a starting point into this dialogue.

In the first place: “PAU Universal”. No spoilers here… except to say that PAU  was a fossil from the Miocene which was found in Catalonia.

Dettoni was asked to bring that fossil to the world and to make it accessible to everyone. But as so often happens with great art and great artists, he did far more than that. He made it into a truly unique and immersive experience that combines touch, sound, being, presence, existence. It became a gift to all of us, as he managed to capture something truly universal.

Through his vision, a fossil from millions of years ago was embedded and cast in a hollow structure that was then scaled up to human dimensions. People could stay inside and listen to music that was played and reverberated internally.

“PAU”, then, generates a musical landscape that manifests that time has no end.

Reality is not only something that we can hold, grab and contain; Guido Dettoni della Grazia reminds us that reality is something that contains us.

We go inside. We can comprehend with our senses what it is, and what we are, in relationship to ourselves and to our faith, for in a way we are that which contains us.

“PAU” – the sculpture, the concept and the experience – gives a complete testimony of our planet, which is engraved from within its acoustic environment. Hence, it is an expression of “knowing” itself.

As someone living in Madrid, and given the tense sociopolitical relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, I was deeply suspicious of the possibility that “PAU” could be used as political propaganda.

My views were unfounded. Guido reminded me that history is localised in a given culture and in a given reality, and as such it can conform the identity of people.

PAU, the fossil, existed in a time well before humans; well before Catalans, well before Spaniards. And hence, the symphonies we feel when we are inside it are not just notes, but a philosophy of the transcendence of being itself. It’s history as it never was. And it’s embracing our shared humanity in an encounter with a fossil that contains us…

Impressed as I was with “PAU Universal”, “Reconciliation” brought me to a new level of relating to Dettoni’s art and to experiencing the world and ourselves.

The underlying concept was to give wax to people in need of reconciliation, and to let them manifest with their own hands what that meant to them.

As Guido Dettoni told me, it was a cathartic experience done at an individual level, but that was then shared with others.

That incredibly personal experience of moulding the wax – just moulding – had amazing psycho-therapeutic benefits. The people who participated managed to feel happier, and more reconciled with themselves. The testimonials that they offered and that they all shared after the experience were never made public. That was not the point at that time. But it goes without saying that the insights they offered were as valuable, if not more, than the experiences themselves.

Participants really felt liberated from inner tensions. And what Guido’s vision allowed them to see is that what matters is not the path we walk through life – the path in itself – but rather how we travel through it.

If he had asked them to experience wrath and to manifest that through the wax, what would have happened? Their hands would have manifested wrath. And if you let killers do the same, they would have shaped guns.

And, as we talked, I confirmed what I had previously sensed about his work: the idea that the art that you do on your own is just art, but art that you do with others becomes a reality – a transforming reality.

Our hands manifest what is in our beings. We manifest when we cook, when we touch, when we caress, when we mould. We need to learn how to interact with the world in a more tactile way.

Reality manifests itself through touch. Above all, his gift is the idea that “hands matter”.

And from “Reconciliation” to “Maria”, as a way of closing this personal encounter with his work. You can see the permanent exhibition – a show of a sublime beauty and of a delicate spirituality – in Assisi or online.

Seeing “Maria” prompted me to ask Guido about devotion and religiosity in this day and age in which, rather that touching, we just see art and religious images through the screens of our mobiles. We don’t even look at it; we just consume it.

Again, he reminded me that any work of art – any object of religious adoration – can be a three-dimensional reality.

Our hands can touch, but not see. They can only see when they touch with the complete hand, not just with our fingers. When you hold a figure of Mary in your hands, something emerges. We can transcend reality in a way that we cannot do when we merely caress it with our eyes as a two-dimensional image.

As he said, even our planet opens up when you touch it. That’s why it’s important to shape matter, to interact.

Right now, we are feeding the digital world with images. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t incorporate touching, sensing and spirituality into this digital experience.

Why not leave a photographic testimony of something that you have   moulded and created beforehand?

And as the true artist and visionary Dettoni is, he suggested an experience for us. Not only for me, but you too, as you are reading this article.

We could all blindfold ourselves. And we could start by praying together, or by going through an inspirational passage. By doing so, we could help
our hands to manifest a reality born out of a specific stimulation. Then, we should let our hands work the wax and manifest themselves.

The possibilities are limitless. It could be done in the intimacy of our desks, or it could be shared online by taking a photo and sharing it, or by video conference.

We could have a reflection as a starting point and come together to build a collective aesthetic story.

We could all see, in the sense of looking, and through that experience we could give testimony of our encounter with ourselves.

As Guido said, we don’t need to “change” the world. The world changes on its own.

What we need is to return to experiencing with our hands as a antidote to getting lost in it.

There are plenty of avenues that we need to explore, and that we must develop. We must find the way to reconnect to our humanity in all of its expressive capabilities, for if we fail at doing so, we are doomed.

We need art, and we need artists. But we also need our hands, for it is through our own hands that we must renew our aesthetics at a global scale, and it should all be done with a certain artistic and suggestive willingness to meet the world and interact with it before attemptign to change it.

Thank you, Guido Dettoni, for the work you do, for the conversations we’ve had, for the impact that your work has had on me, and for the contribution that your art has made in Europe and beyond.

(Unfortunately, the spring equinox soundscape has been suspended because of COVID-19)

Next on Novena:

Easter Sunday meditation: The resurrection of Maria


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.