It took about three years to create, but in reality “Comforter,’’ the sculpture Dr. Robert Martuza of Marblehead recently donated to Massachusetts General Hospital, had its roots in his first glimpse of a marble masterpiece.
“It was 1964, in high school,’’ Martuza said. “We had a field trip to New York City to see the World’s Fair. And it was the only time the Vatican let out the ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo.’’
The sight awed him.
“I grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania where there’s really no art,” he said, “and I saw this and I cried. . . . It was so beautiful. I never saw anything like it.”
It was decades later, however, before he finally found time to pursue his artistic passion. Martuza, 65, the chief of neurosurgery service and the director of the Stephen E. and Catherine Pappas Center for Neuro-Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, began taking classes in clay and bronze sculpting about 10 years ago at the suggestion of his wife, Jill. He then studied marble sculpting at the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vt.
With these skills, and working at his home studio, he turned a slab of marble into “Comforter,” crafted in tribute to the MGH Comforters, a group of women who have made and donated quilts to patients at the hospital since 2001.
“I thought it would be a wonderful thing to house here at the hospital as a symbol in honor of the women who’ve done this, but also as a way to express our desire as a hospital to comfort people,’’ said Dr. Peter L. Slavin, president of Mass. General. “That really is at the heart of the mission of this place.’’
‘I had the privilege of seeing it about two months ago at his home and was blown away by it.’
Martuza’s black marble sculpture depicts a woman’s hands working on a quilt spread across her lap. The quilt appears to flow from her heart.
“I look at this as a blending of the softest art form, quilting, and a stone-hard art form, sculpting,” Martuza said.
The MGH Comforters group is led by Jill Martuza, who began quilting 36 years ago.
“I started quilting when my daughter, who’s 39, was 3,” she said. “I took a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and I never looked back.”
Coincidentally, the Comforters had scheduled their first meeting just two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, adding to the poignancy of the group’s work. The group never directly meets the patients who receive the quilts, which are given to nurses who then give them to patients. Usually, they go to “the sickest of the sick patients — pediatric cancer, radiation oncology, burns,” Robert Martuza said.
But occasionally the quilters hear feedback.
“A woman actually came down to our little display today,” Jill Martuza said. “Her granddaughter’s in the pediatric intensive care unit and she got a quilt. And this woman came by to thank us.”
Martuza’s sculpture is also meant as a way to say thanks to the MGH Comforters, and in recognition of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., who have developed a distinctive quilting style based on traditional American and African-American quilts.
“This is in celebration of the MGH Comforters and the Gee’s Bend quilters and to celebrate the creativity and the beauty that emerges from the hearts of women everywhere to comfort us all,” Robert Martuza said.
Martuza worked on the sculpture every other weekend for about three years in a studio behind his Marblehead home. He used to work inside the house, but the constant dust from the sculpting sent him out back.
He started with a 1,300-pound slab of black marble from the Lake Champlain area. The finished product, which weighs about 800 pounds, was unveiled on May 22.
On that day, the Comforters donated 28 quilts to the neuro-intensive care unit, where Martuza began working in 1973 after he graduated from Harvard Medical School. The sculpture is in an atrium outside the unit.
“I had the privilege of seeing it about two months ago at his home and was blown away by it,” said Slavin. “To take a piece of black marble and turn it into something that really looks like a quilt is just amazing to me. But a comfort is something that is soft and warm and makes us feel better, and I hope that feeling is something [visitors] will experience as well.’’
“Dr. Martuza has had a big imprint on this organization through his clinical work, his research, his leadership of this department,’’ Slavin added. “And this floor that we’re on is the neuro-intensive care unit, where countless of his patients have been cared for. So it seemed like a wonderful tribute to him to house this work that he’s done here.”
The sculpture will be a reminder for years to come of the work both Martuzas have done for Mass. General.
“I’m just overwhelmed by the fact that he made it with this purpose in mind,” Jill Martuza said. “And I hope it stays there for a long time, even when we’re gone.”