People and Places

An art project of iconic proportions

It started, as most obsessions do, harmlessly enough: with just two ceramic figurines. It has since escalated into an art project that has rendered Bill Staubi’s powder room unusable. He calls it “the grotto,” a word used to describe a natural or artificial cave, and he has no idea how many objects it holds, though he can vouch that it’s definitely close to 300. He has only one rule: pieces can come in, but nothing ever leaves.



“It started innocently enough,” says Staubi, 60, an art collector and hobby artist whose two-bedroom Centretown apartment overflows with whimsical and serious art.

“I got Saint Teresa and Jesus in a box of things from a York Street antique store that was closing. I was buying odds and ends, and the store owner quietly put these two in my box. I have enough respect for other people’s feelings about religious symbols that I couldn’t just throw them away.” Later, he found another plastic Jesus, so it went in the powder room too.


Of course, many of Staubi’s friends had items they couldn’t throw away either. What better way to clear one’s conscience than by donating them to the fledgling grotto? Now, no surface is left uncovered. Even the sink is occupied — by a santos (Spanish for “saint”) doll dressed in strings of prayer beads from around the world. Staubi points out objects from England, France, Portugal, Greece, Thailand, and Chile. “Sometimes I rescue things, like this battered crucified Jesus. He was $6. He deserved a home for that price.”


“I have questions about the role of faith in people’s lives,” says Staubi, a self-described humanist who occasionally attended the United Church as a kid and dabbled in Catholicism briefly as an adult. “I find the contradiction between a religion that discourages idolatry but manufactures statues in great quantities interesting. I find it fascinating that people direct so much energy to what these items represent. How can we be interested in a higher being, and yet we treat each other the way we do? It helps me contemplate those kinds of questions.”


No question, the grotto is full of kitsch — tacky renderings of everything from Jesus and Christian saints to the grim reaper, Buddha, and Vishnu. But it also houses fine art. There’s a photograph by local artist Darren Holmes and a sculptural piece by Chantale LeClerc, who was inspired by highway memorials. There are 17 plaques by B.C. artist Sid Dickens. And mustn’t forget Saint Teresa and Jesus — the two who started it all.