He’s not a craftsman or guilder, nor artist or tradesman. Andy Birkey makes his living carving, casting, and decorating traditional gothic furnishings for Catholic churches, but he said he struggles to consider himself part of Bloomington-Normal's community of artists.
Birkey told WGLT he prefers the term "maker," a title in the grey area between trade and art.
“I try to make 600-year-old style furnishings as efficiently and as affordably as I can,” he said, calling himself a "professional cheater."
Birkey’s work can be seen in Bloomington’s St. Pat’s Catholic Church on the west side, or at his current project in Chester, Illinois, in familiar Catholic furnishings like the altars and pulpit.
Birkey said it’s all about sticking with the traditional gothic style, because “it’s the furniture that creates the atmosphere.”
And Birkey knows his pieces carry meaning. He recalled a past project that included a 29-foot-tall altarpiece and accompanying altars for Saint Mary and Saint Joseph. Birkey noticed a man in his mid-80s crying in front of the Saint Mary altar.
“I went down and asked him if there was anything I could do, if I could get the priest for him,” Birkey said.
The man told Birkey “No, you’ve done quite enough.”
Birkey said his first instinct was to assume he had done something wrong, but the man’s response was something that would give Birkey chills to this day.
“(The man) said, ‘The last time that I saw this altar, my wife was kneeling at it at our wedding,” Birkey recalled with a tear in his eye. “That’s the kind of thing that you realize, this is heavy stuff.”
In the Catholic faith, the bride-to-be prays to Saint Mary as part of the wedding ceremony.
“To know that those pieces could be influencing how they feel at their wedding, or their (loved one’s) funeral, or their baby’s baptism, or high points in their life, low points. You’re there to sort of make a frame for what they’re going through at that point,” he said. “It’s not lost on me.”
Birkey says he’s a romantic when it comes to old churches, always keeping a sharp eye on Gothic church woodwork pieces at flea markets and antique stores. Birkey then takes those old pieces and molds and casts them to use in his current projects.
“It’s a bit of an homage to the builders that did it originally. I don’t know, it just feels right,” Birkey said. “It feels like you’re taking the spirit of what was and inserting it into what you’re building.”
Even though he works mostly in Catholic churches, Birkey is a practicing Buddhist.
“I’m very upfront about it, and I’ve never really gotten any kind of negative reaction to that,” he admitted.
He remembered a church he worked on 20 years ago. Birkey said he’s often asked by parishioners if he is Catholic and the conversation follows the same path. But in this instance, he had become good friends with the priest, who overheard the question.
“He laughed when he heard this question and he responded to the parishioner, ‘He’s not Catholic, but he’s more Catholic than most Catholics.’”
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.