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Lou Costanzo: Sculptor and Healer

By Dee Dwyer

When the East Lawrencetown sculptor Lou Costanzo says, “the whole is greater than the parts,” he is definitely not talking about the sculpture itself, but about the creative, interactive, and healing process. “The end result,” he says, “is not as important as the process.”

Inspired by his uncle Armando Pica, Costanzo started sculpting when he began carving wood when he was 18.  Costanzo has his uncle’s tools, including his hand chisel, which he uses often. He has worked in clay, bronze, cement, wax, and plaster, but his favourite material is stone. “I want people to touch my works because I think touch is what heals,” says the sculptor, who grew up outside of Manhattan (NY).  

He studied psychology at Taylor University and at the University of Maine, and in 1979 came to Nova Scotia to do a MA at The Dalhousie School of Social Work. He worked as a therapist at the Atlantic Child Guidance Centre at the IWK Health Centre. He tells me the story of one female patient with a tattoo that read, “A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” She wasn’t talking, so he sketched hearts in cages, and hearts breaking out of these cages. These drawings caused the girl to cry, which began the healing process. The drawings also led him to create a sculpture called Wild at Heart, Kept in Cages of an abstract heart shape with a steel chain around it.

In 2012 when he was suffering from damage to his body after 28 years of the repetitive pounding that comes with sculpting stone, Costanzo asked his doctor if he should give up sculpting. The doctor responded with the question, “Is life worth living without creativity?”

In the process of reevaluating his practice, Costanzo came up with the Not for Sale Project, in which people were given the opportunity to live with eight of Costanzo’s sculptures in their homes for seven months. Costanzo asked the participants to keep a journal noting changes in how they related to the sculptures in different circumstances. “The beauty of this sculpture experiment is that each participant becomes part of the creative result,” says Costanzo.

In a show at Nocturne 2015 in collaboration with the Canadian Institute for the Blind, Costanzo’s sculptures were again part of a creative and healing process. The sculptures were in a room at the Lieutenant Governor’s House. About 700 participants were blindfolded before they went into the room—to experience the sculptures by touch. Costanzo spent six hours afterwards talking to those participants about their experiences. He tells me that the parents of a girl with cerebral palsy told him she was calmed by the experience.

When I ask Costanzo about his creative process, he says, “I don’t buy into the idea that the stones speak to me.” He quotes his uncle, “I’m just a technician.” He starts by writing and drawing his ideas; he may switch into clay, making a replica of what he wants to carve. He constantly reassesses the stone, looking at the chemical changes. “It gets a skin,” he says, and he wets the stone to find the “inclusions,” or the lines or cracks in the stone.

One sculpture, Smile at Fear, is made of a round delicate stone easily broken, which started with the shape of a child’s balloon and the idea of what fear might look like. He has placed it on a wooden boat-like base, and inserted an electric light there to accentuate the stone’s crack. Costanzo quotes from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” 

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