Years spent traversing winding country roads. A hunting trip to Saskatchewan that turned into a hunt for the perfect piece of natural stone. 53 1/2 years of marriage.
An Art Prize artist who wasn’t this year, because he was working on a piece which held more importance and significance than any Art Prize masterpiece he’d attended to.
Jim and his wife Marie always took the back roads so that they could soak in the beauty of nature around them. “We’d go down natural beauty roads and I’d always say, ‘those are your kind of roads, Marie.’ She was a natural beauty,” he recounts.
Along the way, they’d often stop and wander through cemeteries and appreciate the history and stories they contained. They even went to some rather famous cemeteries as well: Arlington and John F. Kennedy’s grave, Normandy, Auschwitz, & even Jerusalem, a trip they won from a church raffle!
It’s at this cemetery that John Ball is buried at. Most headstones are granite or marble and polished to a shine, but John Ball’s gravestone is crafted from a rugged piece of natural stone. When Marie saw that she said, “That’s what I’d like for my headstone someday.”
Jim remembered that comment, but thought nothing more of it at the time. He and Marie were busy with their 8 kids and their families, and he taught art for 40 years at Catholic Central High School and also at Aquinas College. They built their log home by hand, with the help of their kids and grandkids, out of wood cut from trees that he and his brother and cousins planted up near Fife Lake. They immersed themselves in the life and community of their church, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and much of the handcrafted artwork adorning his home reflects his deep faith.
He thought little of it, in fact, until this past April 17th. The day after Easter, Resurrection Sunday.
After taking their daughter to lunch that day, they returned home and Marie laid down to take a nap. While she was napping she suffered a hemorrhagic brain stroke and essentially never woke up.
It was a shockingly unexpected and profound loss that reverberated through every part of his life. “We did everything together and we used to talk all the time. We’d talk all day, and then get in bed at night and just keep talking. Still now, so often I start to say, ‘Marie …’ because there’s something I want to share with her,” Jim said, his voice trailing off. “It’s just what we did.”
Looking around the space that he and Marie built together, filled with living trees (that are planted two feet down right into the earth!) and adorned with original family artwork, he said, “It’s been an emotional time for me. But I know that Marie is in heaven and that I will see her again. Since I know that, I have peace about that. But I miss her. Oh, do I miss her.”
His eight children grieve too. One of Jim and Marie’s children, Lisa, poured out her grief through her Art Prize entry “Simply Put, Our Mom is Love.”
Jim, like Lisa, had exhibited his work at Art Prize in past years and remnants of those pieces still adorn his home and property.
“This year I did not do Art Prize. I did a tombstone instead.”
Jim remembered her comments from their cemetery trip from years before and wanted to honor his beloved Marie’s request. So he got to work on his labor of love.
Finding just the right piece of natural stone was Jim’s first challenge.
His son Tommy had a bear hunting trip planned in Saskatchewan in May, and he told Jim that while he was there he was going to go looking for a rock. They were on a reservation 1600 miles away, and by the end of the week the guide and the entire camp were looking for the perfect rock to take home to his dad.
They found it. A beautiful, tall, heavy, rugged piece of stone befitting a tribute to his mom. Tommy put it in the back of the pickup truck, sticking up in the cab, and crossed the border with it. “Canada has a lot of rocks in it, and apparently border patrol wasn’t concerned about rock smuggling at all,” Jim chuckled. “That rock came across the border, no questions asked.”
Jim power washed and noted that “it was beautiful. Creams and browns. Warm. Just perfect.”
With the rock found, the next challenge was laying out the design. Jim made a paper template of the rock and pinned that to a quilt he hung in his living room. He cut out different fonts and sizes of letters and played with them first, laying it out just right, full scale, before starting to carve the rock itself.
With the template ready to go, Jim used a chain hoist usually used for pulling engines to put a sling around the rock so that he could work on it. Jim’s other son Jimmy a concrete cutter to cut the bottom straight off of it.
Then Jim started carving.
He had to buy diamond-cutting tools to grind into the rock because it’s such a hard, solid piece of stone, and since natural rocks have crevices and he didn’t want to risk splitting it with power tools, he chiseled everything by hand.
“I chiseled by hand and kept turning it, turning it, turning it. I did not want to use a hammer drill and take the chance of splitting it because it had crevices. If I did it by hand I knew where I was going. I sat there pounding and pounding and pounding. Progress was slow on it. It’s a hard rock.”
He carved “Wisnewski” on it. And a heart with their marriage date of Oct. 12, 1963.
Jim explained that getting a rock wet brings out the color of it. He applied two coats of sealer on it because there are natural cracks on it that he didn’t want splitting the rock, and also to bring out the color of the stone.
“It turned out very well. I think it’s just perfect. It’s beautiful. I’ve done metal and sculptures, but this is my first tombstone,” he said, standing by the stone in St. Mary's Cemetery in Belmont. He caressed the ridges and lines of Marie’s stone, brushing over the letters of her name and the heart that contains their wedding date.
“It was good that I was doing something with my hands that was for Marie. I was making something and it was coming out. I never got discouraged -- sometimes I get discouraged with work that I am doing. But not this time. It was my grief coming out.”
Twenty-five years ago Jim and Marie had attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. As part of their weekend activities, Jim wrote to her at that time: “I don’t want you to die Marie, but I don’t want to die first because knowing that I hurt you by dying first would be harder … I love you, I love you, I love you.”
He paused, reflecting on the weight those prophetic words held. “I still mean that. Even now,” he said, gesturing with one hand to the air, signaling the unseen and bittersweet mingling of grief and memories. “I have no regrets.”
This is the third in a 3-part "The Art of Grieving" series. You can read of Part 1 Art Prize 9 Artist Lisa Nawocki's (who is Jim's daughter) experience here, Part 2 Art Prize artist Wendy Cross here, and subscribe to our blog below to have future stories delivered to your inbox.