John Sisko (left), with his 87-year-old father, John Sisko Sr., in front of Sisko’s bronze statue of Pope John XXIII at St. James Cathedral. Sisko’s father served as his model for the pope. Photo by Maria Laughlin

John Sisko (left), with his 87-year-old father, John Sisko Sr., in front of Sisko’s bronze statue of Pope John XXIII at St. James Cathedral. Sisko’s father served as his model for the pope. Photo by Maria Laughlin

Looking back on his childhood, John Sisko, 54, can say, unlike most people, “I always knew what I wanted to do.”

September’s unveiling of his bronze sculpture of Pope John XXIII at St. James Cathedral marked a highlight in the career of the longtime Queen Anne resident, whose work resides in public and private collections around the country.

Sited on the cathedral nave’s north wall, Sisko’s statue of the son of Italian sharecroppers, known as the “Good Pope John,” strikes a disarming note: corpulent, with big ears and nose and an openness to humanity. The pope, who died in 1963 after convening the Second Vatican Council, sometimes snuck out of the Vatican at night to walk the Roman streets.


Leaving its mark

Sisko was born in 1958 in Bismarck, N.D., to a Catholic father and Lutheran mother. The family moved to Butte, Mont., when he was very young. Whatever else it is, Butte is a vivid, powerful place that leaves its mark on those who grew up there. 

“Even as a kid I had a sense of foreboding,” he recalled.

The family seldom watched its black-and-white TV and rarely attended the movies. The mass media had not yet reached into the 6-year-old’s soul. It was in a Catholic church in Butte that Sisko saw, for the first time, a sculpture of the crucifix.

The experience rocked him. “There were no other competing images,” said the man who earned his degree in philosophy from the University of Washington in 1987. His life’s path was set.

“This primal image runs deep through Western culture,” Sisko of the crucifix. “I think it’s the most powerful image in Western culture. It’s complicated. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish — it’s in our DNA.”

In his memoir-in-progress, Sisko titles one of his chapters “Medieval Montana,” an acknowledgement of the power of church imagery amidst meager cultural holdings — as it was in the Middle Ages.

At school, teachers recognized his talent in drawing and then pottery. After hours, they made resources and materials available to him, especially after the family moved into the Kirkland school district. Sisko still has the Greek-like vase he fashioned at 13.

An elected fellow of the National Sculpture Society, Sisko sports a resume filled with exhibitions, awards, teaching posts and commissions. His Sisko Gallery, 3126 Elliott Ave., carries 18 other artists; monthly openings draw artists and “civilians” from all over the city. 

The space, with blue-painted cement floors and high, white-painted, beamed ceilings, is in an old warehouse that once commanded waterfront views before development sealed them off.


Reaching another plane

A sweet symmetry attended September’s unveiling at St. James: At the behest of Father Michael Ryan, cathedral pastor, the occasion drew 91-year-old Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen back his to old cathedral from Montana. 

Hunthausen, who landed in hot water with the Vatican in the 1980s and retired in 1991, is an admirer of Pope John XXIII. Sisko is a huge admirer of Hunthausen.

Other interesting occurrences surrounded the project.

Sisko recalls how, one day, a man in his 70s dropped into his studio as Sisko worked on the pope’s statue. “That’s Good Pope John,” the man said, and proceeded to tell the story of his meeting the pope when he was a 16-year-old atheist.

An audience with the pope was to be part of his Italian tour with his grandmother. He fretted about maintaining his manners while retaining his youthful atheism. In a room full of people, as the pope moved toward them, he and his grandmother kneeled.

“Holy man, bless me,” the 16-year-old suddenly muttered. The pope raised him up by the shoulders and told him, “No, holy man, you bless me.”

Sisko’s 87-year-old father, also named John, modeled for the statue of the pope while wearing Hunthausen’s ecclesiastical robes. As Sisko worked, his father talked about his own Catholic upbringing.

“He had a smile on his face the whole time,” Sisko said.

During the dedication at St. James, as Ryan blessed the statue with incense, Sisko remembers thinking how his art had achieved some other plane beyond mere self-expression: “Wow, it’s a sacred object. It’s been taken away,” he said.


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