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Singapore's Art Treasure Graces City

July 18, 2002

The music of Ireland is evident in his voice and in the twinkle in his eye and the culture of Singapore is in his heart. Both are in Brother Joseph McNally’s sculpture that is on display at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery until Aug. 11.

"Every child has creativity within him,” McNally said. “It is up to those who surround him to give it an outlet.”

McNally, 80, found that outlet early in life. “I was the eighth of 10 children and all of us were artistic or musical or involved in some sort of creativity,” he said.

He grew up in Ireland in a home that was filled with music and love and laughter. He began to paint at an early age. “My first portrait was of the village fool,” he said. “He came by my house every day and was a bit slow. I painted him and everyone laughed. I thought they were laughing at me so I felt a bit discouraged for a time.”

He overcame that setback and submitted a self-portrait to a national art contest and won. “I guess they liked it,” he said.

McNally joined the De La Salle order and went to Singapore shortly after World War II. St. John Baptist De La Salle founded the order in France in 1680. The Christian Brothers carry with them a 300-year tradition of educational excellence. La Salle founded a revolutionary religious order devoted exclusively to the Christian education of youth. The order survives today in more than eight countries on five continents. In the United States alone, there are over 1,300 Christian Brothers teaching 70,000 young people. The founder is the patron saint of all teachers.

IN SINGAPORE, McNally replaced the Christian Brothers who had died during the Japanese occupation of that country. “The Christian Brothers tried to survive under Japanese occupation by teaching in Japanese,” McNally said. “When that didn’t work, they took their students and their workers into the jungle and did what they had to do to survive until the Japanese were defeated.”

McNally has lived in Singapore for more than 50 years, teaching young people and serving as a principal to one of the most important high schools in the country. His sculpture is now recognized throughout the world. Recently, he was proclaimed as one of the six national art treasures of Singapore.

The sculpture has both a political and a spiritual tone. He depicts a Burmese official who was elected and not permitted to serve. “She is a truly remarkable woman,” he said. “She was elected but the army placed her under house arrest and would not allow her to perform her duties.” The sculpture shows the woman with a chain over her mouth, across her shoulders and down her back, binding her hands.

“I have been very lucky that I have been in the right place at the right time to witness great world events and important personal ones,” McNally said. He came to New York to study at Columbia University in 1968. “There were unmentionable things written on the walls of the buildings and there was a student strike just after I arrived,” he said.

HE WAS ALSO IN NEW YORK and witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. “I was on my way to Newark Airport when we saw a great fire,” he said. “I thought it was some type of incinerator but when I saw the tower fall, I realized what I was seeing.”

He has finished a sculpture depicting the collapse of the World Trade Center that was unveiled at the Singaporean Embassy on July 16. “I used glass to show the flames and the root of an apple tree from my father’s garden to show the exploding tower,” he said.

His work combines Celtic symbols with Chinese symbols in a way that blends the two cultures that are so much a part of his life. There is a 6,000-year-old piece of bog oak with Chinese rice bowls of crystal. In another sculpture, God holds the world on his knee and contemplates his creation. In still another, McNally shows the world being created and then evolving through three millennia, connected by chains of DNA.

“I don’t teach anymore, at least not directly,” McNally said. “However, I work in full view of the students who can stop and ask me questions any time they want. In that respect, I will always teach.”

Judith T. Wilsey is the executive director of the Friends of the Torpedo Factory. “We are incredibly pleased to have Brother McNally’s work on display here,” she said. “Each year, we have an event at an Embassy and then show works from that country’s artists the following summer. We had no idea that Brother McNally was going to be the artist who was selected and we are very fortunate to be able to show his work.”

The events at the embassies are the major fund-raisers for the Torpedo Factory. “That means we have to make them pretty spectacular,” Wilsey said. “This one is certainly that.”