For Bill Staubi, it all started innocently enough with a statue of Jesus and another of St. Theresa, given unto him surreptitiously by a generous antiques dealer.
From there, the collection of religious icons and artifacts in the spare bathroom of Staubi’s Centretown apartment grew until it covered the walls, counter and shelves, and even filled the sink. Eventually, he removed the door, and with it any lingering pretence of privacy.
‘The Grotto,’ as it became known, was given its own Facebook page, and soon attracted a fervent following.
“Friends would say, ‘Oh, my sister’s visiting and she saw about The Grotto, can she come and see it?’ People would bring their friends and family. So for a decade I welcomed people into my home to see this wacky art installation that I had in my bathroom,” Staubi said.
But after 10 years, Staubi, who describes himself as a “not particularly religious” art lover, has finally decided to pack it all in.
“Maybe the time that we’ve been going through is making me think about, what do I want to do with my life? What do I want to do next? And I realized that this wasn’t something that I would bring into the future for very much longer,” he explained.
Friends for plastic Jesus
The Grotto’s genesis can be traced to an antique shop in the ByWard Market that was closing its doors. Unbeknownst to Staubi, the owner slipped some extra items, including his first two figurines, into his bag on his way out.
He discovered Jesus and St. Theresa when he got home. Unsure what to do with the statuettes, Staubi placed them in his spare powder room. Soon, he found another plastic Jesus statue and added it to his collection.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got friends for you.’ I popped him in there with the other two,” he said.
Before long, friends began donating their own religious relics, given by grandmothers or discovered in attics. They scoured junk shops and scouted out deconsecrated churches on his behalf.
Staubi’s collection grew quickly, and soon filled the small room.
Staubi estimates he accumulated 500 items, from tiny trinkets to larger statues and paintings. The collection included crucifixes, bottles of holy water, a priest’s kit for administering last rites and hundreds of rosaries, most of them draped over a statue placed in the bathroom sink.
He made a point of including art from a range of religious traditions including Buddhist iconography, artifacts from Mexican Catholicism and tiny Qur’ans.
“I feel fairly safe saying you name it and I’ve got it — or something close to it,” Staubi said.
Staubi describes himself as an “atheist by nature,” though as a gay person who grew up attending Sunday school, he admitted his relationship with religious faith is complicated.
“I totally respect people who have a faith and who use that faith to guide their lives. I don’t have much time for people who claim to have a faith but live a life that’s discordant to that faith,” he explained.
Staubi said in 10 years, no one ever told him they were offended by The Grotto.
“It was very much about community, and I think that’s part of what made it so pleasurable in the long term,” he said.
There was one problem early on, especially during dinner parties, Staubi said: guests would excuse themselves to use the bathroom and would become so engrossed in The Grotto that they’d forget to return to the table, forcing their host to reheat their meals.
Staubi said that stopped once he removed the door.
End of an era
Now, after a decade, Staubi has decided it’s time for The Grotto to go.
This year, while performing the annual rite of removing and dusting each piece in his collection — Staubi calls it a “resurrection” — something made him decide to pack them away instead.
“I just had that feeling that, ‘OK, we’re done here,'” he said. “I often start these crazy projects and then I reach a point where I’ve exhausted my interest in it. It just feels time to move on.”
He plans to return some family heirlooms to their rightful owners. As for the rest, Staubi sent eight boxes to local artist Marc Adornato for future projects, and other items will go to local social enterprise junk shop Highjinx.
Staubi isn’t sure what’s next for his suddenly spacious powder room. He’s considering transforming it into a mirrored “infinity room” and plastering the walls with hearts, or maybe a combination of the two concepts.
He said though it may seem like a small act, the experience of transforming his bathroom into an art space made him feel like part of something bigger.
“We didn’t cure anything. We didn’t resolve anything. We didn’t achieve world peace, equity between the genders or the resolution to poverty,” Staubi said. “But [people] got involved, and it was a really fun thing to be involved with.”