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Nativity interpreted in local clay

Thursday, December 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sue Gerard points a slightly shaky finger at the matronly figure of Mary in her Nativity scene.

The girl, made of cream-colored clay, stands behind a manger and cradles a bundle. Gerard explains that her minister told her Mary was probably only 14 when she gave birth to Jesus.

“I like to think of a little 14-year-old mother being out in a dirty old barn in a strange country,” Gerard says. “There’s not running water, there’s not even a woman to hold her hand while she gives birth. I feel like she’d be so proud of this baby, she’d be holding him in her arms.”

Gerard, 89, has been making Nativity scenes from Missouri’s soft clay for about 40 years. She was born and raised on a dairy farm in Boone County and has lived here since.

She used to collect clay from her farm but stopped in 1993 when the process became too difficult. Her latest Nativity scene is made from clay her grandson collected.

This year’s model might be Gerard’s last. Her hands shake, and the process has become more tedious.

“A shaking hand is no good to make faces on Mary and Joseph,” she said.

When Gerard started making Nativity scenes, she gave them to churches or family and friends. Some she sells for as much as $250.

Although it might be quitting time, there is always a chance she’ll start up again.

“You could get sentimental about things, but I’m not,” she said. “If I change my mind, I can change my mind.”

Her most recent set is a gift for someone special — Gerard won’t say whom. For now, it sits in the lobby of Lenoir Manor, resting on a red cloth inside a ring of gold tinsel.

Although Gerard received some help with this Nativity, she always reserves the faces for her own construction. Each is meant to have a unique expression.

“The kings are conceited,” she said, lifting a cream-colored crowned figure to eye level. “Well, he looks like he’s frightened and conceited.”

Gerard spends about an hour on each face.

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Gerard, 89, has a grandson who started helping gather clay for her figurines in 1993 because she’s no longer mobile enough to gather it herself.

“I work with the face until it gives me a thought: He’s different, he’s thoughtful,” she said.

The two shepherds wear cloaks of clay, rolled by a secret tool to make them look like sheepskin. Gerard describes them as ugly, though it’s clear their thin hoods and slender staffs are made as carefully as anything else.

In Gerard’s Nativity, Mary’s bewildered young carpenter husband stands with arms outstretched, waiting to help with the tiny child.

One of her first Nativity scenes was donated to Olivet Christian Church, where Gerard is still a member.

“We use it every year,” said the Rev. Dennis Swearngin, senior pastor. “It’s in the sanctuary, and it serves as kind of a focal point for the children.”

Gerard does some sculpting in her apartment in Lenoir Manor, where she has lived since October 2002. Sculptures line her shelves and windowsills.

She is a former swimmer, lifeguard and teacher, and many of her miniature figures illustrate lifesaving breathing techniques.

On Gerard’s wall, a clay ark destined for her great-granddaughter holds Noah, along with pairs of squirrels, giraffes and elephants. A violin hearkens back to the 1930s, when she fiddled at square dances for extra money. A homemade pot holds her collection of canes.

Gerard began sculpting while working at Columbia College, which was Christian Female College at the time. She taught a recreational leadership class and took her students to her farm to work with clay. Gerard realized she could make things from the material if she refined it.

“I have great respect for this material,” Gerard said, squeezing a gray lump. “I think it can do a lot of things.”

This respect has led Gerard to theorize about its origins. She thinks prehistoric children discovered clay when playing in the mud and made models of animals.

“I’m giving children credit for discovering one of the most important things in the world,” Gerard said. “We know more of prehistoric people from pottery than baskets or wood-carving.”

But her own work with clay has finally caught up with her, she said. If she makes any Nativity scenes, they will be for people she knows.

“I’m so slow now,” Gerard said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s nice when you have somebody in mind. It’s about Christmas.”


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