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All the saints in heaven above

Marika Azzopardi meets Pierre Bugeja as he puts the finishing touches on a line of statuettes in his workshop in Cospicua

They stand to attention, some still semi clad, the rest waiting for colour to liven up their snow-white apparel. Frozen in motion, they stand alert, in expectation of the gentle hands which will see them through. All are in line on the workbench as sculptor Pierre Bugeja and I talk about his work and his statues.

A former police constable, Mr Bugeja has been creating miniature sculptures since childhood. "I remember my grandfather taking me to Valletta and wanting to buy me a toy. As a boy, however, I wouldn't ask for toys but for modelling tools or clay ‒ things I could work my hands on." His first artistic composition was executed when he was barely five - a model of the Pope Pius IX statue which the people of Cospicua like to call Il-Papa ta' Bormla.

Mr Bugeja, however, admits he is not wholly self-taught since a stint in art training at the Tarġa Gap school lasted three years during the 1970s. This was followed by art training at the School of Arts. It was enough to help consolidate his passion in sculpture.

Today his creative skills are widespread and range from statues made of clay through to those made from fibre, hydroplaster or papier mache (kartapesta) as well as detail work such as the application of design in gold leaf. Ultimately, he can produce statues from any kind of material or substance except for bronze or metal as he has no facility in which to cast these.

"Back when I was in the police force, I was strongly involved in the setting up of the Last Supper table at the police depot. I recreated a whole set of traditional statuary which is a perennial part of the police force's exhibition for Good Friday."

With his ex-colleague Mario Ebejer he also worked on creating the salt exhibits tied to the Last Supper theme and was incidentally, highly acclaimed, together with Mr Ebejer, for the series of salt works depicting masterpieces by Caravaggio exhibited last year. He has also executed large-scale works such as the mannequins, clothed in antique police uniforms within the Police Museum at the depot in Floriana.

Statuettes are most popular and in demand by connoisseurs and collectors during two peak seasons throughout the year - Christmas and Easter. However, by far, the busiest time for Mr Bugeja is the countdown to Good Friday. "People will request a complete set of statuettes for a Good Friday exhibition - something which is becoming increasingly popular on an individual basis as a devotion, and the likes of which you can find aplenty in all towns and villages. Many times I am requested to make replicas of the large-scale Good Friday statues belonging to specific localities. For instance, there is one replica set which I made of the Cospicua collection; one set which exhibits at the Inquisitor's Palace and one set in Mosta. But once you are commissioned to copy somebody else's work, your hands are tied. The biggest challenge and most enthusiastic one is the commission which gives you free rein to recreate the images, the figures, the scenarios to your liking."

Christmas brings in less demanding work and yet connoisseurs of the genre appreciate the baby Jesus statuettes made by Mr Bugeja. He shows me some other specimens of his works and I notice they are not exclusively religious but also include non-religious themes such as traditional Maltese costume figurines as well as varied coats of arms.

The work involved in making miniature statuettes is not only time-consuming but also tiring. Mr Bugeja does not use pre-cast forms ‒ whatever he creates is made from scratch. The body of the statuettes is made first out of clay and after this dries, it is covered in plaster, crevices and irregularities carefully gessoed and sanded down. The paint comes last. The set of statuettes in-the-making has been at hand since last January. He admits he has to rest his eyes half-way through his day, even though the work itself does not tire him at all and time literally flies by when he is busy in his Cospicua workshop.

"This hobby takes up my entire day now that I have left the police corps. It can be an expensive hobby - apart from the clay, plaster, paint and what-not. Just consider that for certain jobs I utilise a brand new paintbrush just once and discard it."

Yet all the saints on his bench do not seem to mind in the least. Even while Mr Bugeja admits his skill is tiresome, his eyes twinkle as I admire the last statue in a row and prepare to leave. Certainly each and every statuette which emerges from this workshop is accompanied by much love and patient attention.
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