SUNDAY MAGAZINE: God Never Turns Down a Helping Hand

February 21, 2010
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If the truth be told, it is not just the hand of God that worshippers feel when they attend church or synagogue. Man’s hand is also very present, and one hand, in particular, Jeff Tortorelli’s.

Clear about what his life's work is supposed to be, Jeff Tortorelli couldn't be happier.

Clear about what his life's work is supposed to be, Jeff Tortorelli couldn't be happier.

For many year’s Tortorelli owned a liturgical art and design studio on Arrow Highway in San Dimas before moving his workshop to Colton two years ago when he couldn’t negotiate a reasonable new lease agreement. He, however, remains very active with Holy Name of Mary Church in San Dimas, and his son Nick is the owner of Tortorelli’s Italian restaurant in La Verne.

Today, the religious woodworker, metallurgist, engineer — part Michelangelo and Da Vinci — is usually busy in his 7,000 square-foot studio designing and building many of the religious furnishings used in community worship spaces, such as pulpits, altars, tabernacles, presider’s chairs and crucifixes. These aren’t off-the-shelf items found in a colorless catalogue. Each piece is custom designed and fashioned from a meeting of the minds, reflecting his clients’ faith, tradition and vision with own his own beliefs, understanding and experience.

His work illuminates and sanctifies such sacred places of worship as Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Temple Sholom Synagogue in Ontario, Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Faith Lutheran in San Dimas and many, many other houses of worship from Los Angeles to New York City.

Tortorelli, as far as he knows, is the only person in California, solely devoted to the liturgical crafts. “There were some talented guys over the years, but they’ve been dropping off or getting out altogether,” Tortorelli said, covered in sawdust and metal shavings while standing near a big metal barrel ablaze with wood remnants to provide warmth in his cavernous studio. “I don’t think there’s anybody else in California that exclusively specializes in what I do.”

Cathedra with interlinking crosses.

Cathedra with interlinking crosses.

How Tortorelli became the chosen one and owner of Tortorelli’s Creations, Inc.  is even hard for him to believe. Although he made his first bookcase when he was 5-years-old and grew up the son of a machinist and the grandson of a master woodworker, Tortorelli was college bound. He attended USC and graduated in 1976 with a degree in finance.

He married the next year, moved to San Dimas and went to work for his father-in-law learning mortgage finance. A year and a half later he opened his own finance company. His artistic output was mostly limited to remodeling his craftsman-style office on Arrow Highway in San Dimas near the city’s new post office.

“I ran my finance company from there,” Tortorelli recalled. “It was dark forest green with burnt orange trim. You either loved it or hated it.”

Although the mortgage money was good, Tortorelli began thinking that making loans for a living was a “cold business,” so in 1989 he took out his contractor’s license and began rehabbing bungalows, including many in Pasadena’s Bungalow Heaven district. “I really loved working with my hands,” Tortorelli said.

Around the same time, Father Bill Moore, then a priest at Holy Name of Mary and an artist in his own right, asked Tortorelli if he would make a few religious pieces for the church.

“Father Bill knew the kind of work I did,” said Tortorelli, who agreed to make some candles, a presider’s table and a processional cross for the church. “I really enjoyed the work. It was different than building, say, secular furniture.”

God or coincidence intervened as well when a couple from Holy Name of Mary, Bob and Sue Burns, told Tortorelli about a religion convention being held in Pasadena. “You should exhibit some of your pieces,” they urged. He followed up.

Then he got a call from the Los Angeles Archdiocese asking if he had a presider’s chair that the Cardinal could use for a celebration mass. Tortorelli didn’t have a portfolio or the stock, but wasn’t about to pass up the honor or request. “So, I built that chair and lent it to them, and I didn’t see that chair again for a year and a half,” Tortorelli said.

Angel Wing altar

Angel Wing altar

At another religious convention, Cardinal Roger Mahony came up to Tortorelli at his exhibitor’s booth and commented on the chair he had made for him. “Jeff, it’s a beautiful chair, the Cardinal said. “Too bad, it’s not bigger because we’re building this new cathedral.”

The new cathedral was, of course, Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, which would hold a capacity of 3,000 worshipers and serve as the heart of all 287 Parish Churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The proposed budget for the project was $150 million, but as the charities and donations kept coming, the builders and architects were able to implement everything they desired, taking the final cost to $189.7 million. The budget included the cost of furnishings.

Tortorelli put together a portfolio of his work, sent it to the consultant for the cathedral project, and was invited to present his ideas for the cathedra (cardinal’s chair), ambo (lectern or pulpit), deacon’s chair, the presider’s chair, the holy oil ambry (where the oil is stored) and the tabernacle (a case or box on a church altar containing the consecrated host and wine of the Eucharist).

Tortorelli didn’t think he had a prayer of winning any of the commissions. He had produced only small stuff.

Pulpit in Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Az.

Pulpit in Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Az.

But his prayer was answered. The church commissioned Tortorelli to create 14 pieces, including the ambo, presider’s chair and cathedra. The cathedra alone would stand about eight feet high and weigh more than 800 pounds.

“It must have been an act of God,” Tortorelli said about getting the nod over more celebrated artists. “A cathedral hadn’t been built in this country in 30 years. This was a big deal. It was a big national commission.”

The commission put Tortorellli on the religious map and on a first-name basis with church leaders and officials across the country. “To get the Los Angeles Cathedral commission was mind-boggling to me,” Tortorelli said. “As a result, I can now talk to any catholic church and they know my work because everyone  has either been to the Los Angeles Cathedral or is aware of it.”

From concept to completion, Tortorelli becomes heavily invested emotionally and spiritually in each piece. A product of catholic schools through high school, he immerses himself in the symbolism of the objects he creates. By example, on Sundays, the Los Angeles Cathedral presents mass in 42 different languages. To symbolize the city’s diversity and multiculturalism, Tortorelli built the back of the cardinal’s chair with interlocking crosses, using woods from from every continent.

A presider’s chair that he made contains a bright flame fashioned from three different natural woods, their individual radiance so brilliant one would assume (mistakenly it turns out) each has been dyed. For Tortorelli, it’s the flame and powerful symbolism behind the tricolor that make the chair transcendent.

“Red is divine love, yellow is divine light, purple is humility and chastity and the shape itself represents inspiration and sacrifice,” Tortorelli explained.

Large candle altars he created for St. Maximillian Kolbe Church in Westlake Village, Calif., are just as poignant. A lace of barbed wire-looking metal wraps around the base before morphing into a strand of rosary beads pointing upward to a Jewish star. His design and creation honor the Polish Conventional Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland.

Jeff with his crew after installing a Crucifix at Christ the Light in Oakland.

Jeff with his crew after installing a Crucifix at Christ the Light in Oakland.

 Torterelli obtains many of his prized and rare woods from Peterman Lumber in Fontana. “They maintain this incredibly array of exotic woods,” he said, adding that there are similar yards in La Jolla and Carson he frequents as well.

Tortorelli would be in a class by himself, it he were just a woodworker, but his machinist background makes it possible for him to build the inner workings of his creations, as well. Strip away the skin of the pulpit, and you’ll find a Rube Goldberg puzzle of pulleys, pumps, weights, rods, rams and a jumble of wires inside, which make it possible for a reader to adjust the lectern to any desired height, even if the reader is wheelchair-bound.

While his shop is a maze of both woodworking and metalworking equipment, such as planers, table saws, band saws, engine lathes and gas and electric powered welding equipment, he has to rely more on his wits than his mechanical wonders for installations away from his shop. It takes job-site ingenuity to hoist a crucifix weighing more than a ton high above the an altar. Once, to lower a pulpit in place, he set it atop a stack of sandbags, then methodically scooped out the sand until it gradually sank into the right place.

Tortorelli said he used to hate parting with his religious pieces, but has grown more comfortable over the years knowing they’re heading toward a better place – in the churches, cathedrals and synagogues where people go to worship. He also loves the people he works for, far more than when he was working for secular-based businesses.

“What I’ve found in dealing with worship communities is they are so excited about the church they’re building or renovating,” he said. “These are the people who are really involved in their church and their worship community.

Advent Wreath

Advent Wreath

“I am blessed not only in what I do, but in the people I deal with. I have never had a bad experience. It’s an amazing industry I’m in, if you want to call it an industry.”

If Tortorelli has one regret, it’s that he ever went to USC. He’s glad he has the degree, of course, but he knew he should have followed his heart from the start. Ironically, one of the few friends he made in college was a student named Yeslam bin Laden, half brother of Osama bin Laden.

“We were in the same graduating class,” Tortorelli said. “I was about 21, he was about 24 or 25. I didn’t know who he was, but we became pretty good friends. He was married already and lived in this gorgeous house in Pacific Palisades. He asked me if I wanted to go to work for his father’s construction company in Saudi Arabia. The only condition was I would have to learn to speak Arabic.

“Then I met my wife on the night I graduated and I ended up not going,” he said, laughing. “If I had, I’d be wearing these white flowing robes.”

Instead he’s covered in sawdust half the time, working with his hands and fulfilling God’s plans.

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