Artist couple has heavenly inspiration

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hank Schlau has been a saints fan his entire life. But its not the football Saints that have his attention, it’s the ones of the holy variety that he prefers.

Schlau, who grew up in a Presbyterian family, was always a little envious of the medals his Catholic friends carried and became increasingly more interested in saints as he studied and then taught medieval literature at the college level and edited books on Catholic theology.

Now, with the help of his wife Karen, Schlau’s fascination with saints takes on a different form as statues and medals he creates and sells for his business In the Company of Saints.

Six years ago, Hank Schlau tired of his work as a book editor and professor and wanted something that was less taxing and more therapeutic for his brain. He found his therapy in clay.

Using clay and precision dental tools, he began sculpting and carving his first saint statue. Focusing on the details, Schlau said he used an image from a book to guide him.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I just knew that I wanted something different than what I was doing before. I was tired of thinking.”

Living at that time in Charleston, S.C., Schlau said his statues were better received than he thought they would be.

“Karen had a garden store there, and we began selling some statues there,” Hank said. “I was very surprised that anyone would want to buy them.”

From there, Karen said, things just took off.

Since then, they’ve worked basically daily creating statues to sell in catalogs, gift shops, retail stores and at art shows.

“One day we were working and realized we were running a business,” Karen said. “We didn’t expect for that to happen.”

Hank sculpts the statues, makes the molds and then pours them. Karen then takes over glazing and painting the pieces to enhance the details.

“We work mostly in harmony,” Hank said. “Our jobs are very separate so that helps, but mostly we have the same vision.”

Catalog orders are approximately 50 percent of the workload with a mixture of orders from retail and gift shops, individual order and pieces to sell at art shows and festivals rounding out the other half of their work.

“We don’t really stop,” Karen said. “Even when we are on trips we will probably visit Cathedrals or other places to look at saints.”

The process of creating a new statue can be weeks long, with the initial carving and sculpting being the most time consuming step.

“When I get interested in a saint, I’ll read a book or two on that saint to get a feel for the history of that saint and what symbols and items are associated with the saint,” Hank said. “Then I close the books and start working.

“I don’t work off of pictures, because I like for my statues to represent my understanding of the saint. If I’m just going to duplicate a mass-produced image, then what’s the point?”

He said he also finds the lesser known figures most interesting and is often the only producer of some of those.

“If it is a statue of Hildegard of Bingen you want, we are most likely the only place you’ll find her in the country,” Hank said.

Karen then uses her artistic abilities to complete the statues.

“In general we like the really natural, wood-like finish for most of our pieces,” she said. “Lately, we have been using more color to put more life in them.”

Despite the seemingly never-ending work, orders come in almost daily from catalogs and stores, both Hank and Karen say they never tire of creating the statues.

“I love what we are doing,” Karen said. “It is unlike anything Hank has ever done and it is fulfilling to both of us.”

Hank said being an artist is a far cry from teaching and editing, and he is very thankful for that.

“I don’t have to think when I’m doing this,” he said. “It just happens. The payoff of creating these items is very personal to me where the other work was for other people.”

For more information about In the Company of Saints statues and medals visit www.inthecompanyofsaints.com.