While the world mourned Queen Elizabeth II, many would have been unaware that a few days prior, another ‘last of their kind’ figure had quietly slipped away in Melbourne. Joseph Giansiracusa, artist and restorer of religious art, passed away suddenly in September at the age of 76.

Joseph’s ‘castle’ was a studio in Preston’s industrial area, flanked by a satellite supplier and tool shop. No Balmoral perhaps, yet it housed treasures of a different kind.

Born in 1946 in Siracusa, Sicily, Joseph Giansiracusa migrated to Australia when he was 11 and later studied fine arts at RMIT. It was there he met the iconic Mattei brothers, makers of both religious and general statuary. They too had migrated from Italy, though in the 1920s.

Joseph was entrusted with the Mattei brothers’ collection of historic statuary in the 1970s, when the last of the brothers admitted to him that he couldn’t bear to part with the statues piecemeal. He knew Joseph had the same love and respect for them, a confidence that proved well founded.

Sacred Art Studios opened in 1975, and by the 1990s Joseph had left his career in teaching to curate and restore religious statues and sacred art full time. Many a Melbournian church or chapel has a statue or painting restored by Joseph’s hands; indeed, many artworks have survived only because of his tenacity. Joseph’s labour of love extended to rescuing artworks from destruction or from newly renovated churches, closed convents, op shops or antique stores. Some of these adorned his home—shared with wife Lilia and children Luisa, Giulia and Sam—but most of them congregated in the studio. Along the way, Joseph also began to import new statues, prints and piety items to sell to the public.

The last time I visited Joseph, I was met first by a life-sized statue of Our Lady facing the street, conscious of hundreds of other eyes upon me from statues of all sizes crammed into every corner. On one high shelf stood four life-sized plaster statues facing each other as if in conference. On another, a diminutive shepherd from the Nativity knelt before a towering Infant of Prague. There were several statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, many of Our Lady, and saints both familiar and unfamiliar—some with missing limbs or heads, some unpainted, many complete and ready for sale. The studio felt like a kind of heavenly waiting room for these moulds or broken statues in various stages of restoration until they returned to their respective homes to draw our attention heavenwards.

A customer once asked if the statues ever talked to Joseph. ‘Signora,’ he answered, ‘the day that happens is the day I walk out the door!’ In the end, it wasn’t a statue but the Divine Voice who called Joseph out of his studio for the last time.

Down in Quinn St, Preston, the studio is not the same without the man who started it all. Joseph clearly loved what he did, and no doubt the Mattei brothers would be proud of the passion with which he carried on their legacy. The loss is profound. What has been lost is not only Joseph’s prodigious knowledge of art history and Australian Catholic history specifically, but also his masterly skill in restoring. Both are increasingly rare, as is the appreciation of traditional religious artworks.

More significant, though, is the loss of a mentor and teacher who was incredibly generous in imparting this knowledge and skills to others.

Years ago, I called Joseph out of the blue, having been tasked with a gilding job for which I needed some advice. Despite never having met me before, he unhesitatingly invited me to the studio, where he showed me how to gild and even let me loose on one of his statues (using authentic gold leaf!), refusing payment of any kind.

I am not the only one to have benefitted from this generosity. Joseph would happily teach other budding restorers how to do things properly, especially when it came to statues. In fact, passing on these skills was as important to him as restoring. Brush in hand, Joseph would explain that one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced statue restorers is painting with just one tone, leaving the statue looking two-dimensional and flat. You must paint in layers, he would repeatedly say, with several coats, paying attention to depth and using different colours in different areas. Some ‘restored’ statues are given just black dots for eyes, he lamented, laughing abruptly at the absurdity, and sighing with dismay.

Thankfully, Joseph’s teachings weren’t just one-off lessons for amateurs. For a few fortunate artists, his mentorship was ongoing and invaluable, at both an artistic and personal level.

One such student, Ian Cairncross, became Joseph’s part-time assistant. Coming from a varied background of furniture-making, funeral directing and even film, Ian found his niche among the statues too. When I met Ian for the first time last February, he described Joseph as not just a teacher, but ‘the best teacher’.

On the same visit, I listened, amused, as Ian and Joseph discussed which of two Our Lady statues the other had restored, both having forgotten who’d restored what until Ian finally pointed out that the statue with more ornate gilding was Joseph’s work.

For Ian, restoring statues ‘fulfills a creative need, and each statue you finish is a thing of beauty, restored to what it was meant to be, then goes back to a home or a church. I’m a great believer in bringing this stuff back.’

Another artist taken under Joseph’s wing is Catherine Vennard, now herself restoring a former church in Gooloogong, St Malachy’s. Catherine spoke of what an incredible support Joseph had been, and of how his mentorship opened a whole new world for her, including a career in restoration.

Joseph would say that the importance of statuary could not be underestimated. He called statues ‘objectified prayers’, explaining that ‘when someone is before a statue, they are entering a sacred space.’

His dream was to have a permanent museum and studio to house the statues and to have a space for artists to come together, practise their crafts and learn from each other—a permanent place to show these precious artifacts to the public so that they would live on, doing what they were made for: inspiring and raising minds and hearts to God. But this dream never materialised, and without Joseph, the shop and studio in Quinn Street will be permanently closed when all the statues, religious art and books have found new homes.

While this was not his original vision, Joseph would take heart from the fact that Ian and Catherine, as dedicated restorers of sacred art, will continue his wonderful legacy. And perhaps, as the last of his statues and artworks find new homes, it might fire up a new appreciation—a new ripple of passion for the sacred—not in a museum but in pockets of sacred spaces spread through the homes and churches of Victoria, quietly but powerfully keeping Joseph Giansiracusa’s dream alive.

You can support the studio by visiting Factory 3, 56 Quinn Street, Preston Victoria 3072, where you will find a huge range of items to clear at heavily reduced prices, from small to large statues, religious pictures, books and piety items.

The studio is open Monday–Friday, 9am–6pm, and on Saturday by appointment.

Contact: Sam Giansiracusa (Joseph’s son), 0431 694 996

Those needing statue-restoration services can contact Ian Cairncross on 0430 200 024 or Catherine Vennard on 0404 286 999.

Photos by John Casamento.