Man escapes death, sculpts soaring Ten Commandments

Sunday, January 22, 2006

AURORA, Mo. -- Jim Luce has survived three heart attacks and a tornado, but the retired Missouri sculptor and painter isn't content to nurse his health and count his blessings.

Instead, Luce is answering one very big artistic calling.

Luce is sculpting the Ten Commandments on limestone tablets that tower side by side 14 feet high on his southwest Missouri property.

The monuments together weigh 11.3 tons, he said.

Luce, 47, said he felt that God spared his life when a 2003 tornado destroyed his house as he crouched in a hallway. He felt compelled to respond. In the Bible, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments inscribed on two tablets.

"It was definitely a conviction from God," Luce said, although he put off starting the project until last November because he had to rebuild his house and his life following the twister.

Luce, a Pentecostal turned Catholic, knew the work would be arduous.

"I fought it for a long time," Luce said. "Once I made the commitment, that was it."

Luce uses rusted chisels, hammers and other tools to chip away at the monuments, which he said probably would take all year to complete. Luce works by hand, forgoing the quicker methods of sandblasting, lasers or water jets.

'Pure pain and anguish'

"It's nothing but pure pain and anguish, but it's OK," Luce said. "It's a challenge. It's like moving a mountain with a spoon, but I know I can do it."

Luce said his project is not meant as a political statement following recent national controversy over the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. He said he simply hopes the sculptures will inspire people to embrace their message.

"For me, it's rules to live by," Luce said.

Luce is sacrificing things he used to enjoy to do the sculptures. He sold his golf clubs and black-powder gun collection, for example, to raise money for materials.

Luce, whose long beard and gray, shaggy hair get covered in white limestone dust while he sculpts, said he tries to work at least two or three hours each day, mindful of his history of heart attacks and diabetes.

"According to the doctors, this sculpture thing is the last thing I should be doing," Luce said. "I've lived four years longer than they say I should have, anyway."

James Luce II, Luce's son and a student at William Jewell College in Liberty, said he understood his father's commitment.

"Any Christian man would want to die knowing they have left a legacy serving God in their wake, and this is an excellent way to do it," the younger Luce said. "He can build this and have it stay around for centuries."

Possible world record

Luce, 20, has researched whether anyone has done a Ten Commandments monument larger than his father's. He could not find any and contacted Guinness World Records, which sent the elder Luce a letter Jan. 11 stating its interest in his project.

Luce said he is not out to build the largest Ten Commandments display, but that getting listed by Guinness would be beneficial.

"If someone is going to try to break the record and they are not a Christian when they started, they definitely will have certain feelings by the time they get done," Luce said.

Luce said he rented a forklift to set up the tablets, which belonged to a friend and were stored on Luce's property, about a mile north of Aurora, off Route K.

Luce has drawn letters of the commandments with a felt-tip marker, and the words eventually will be sculpted on the tablets. He is now doing the monument's perimeters, working his way toward the lettering. He will sculpt a rope design around each monument, representing bondage. He plans to place 4-foot-high stone crosses atop each tablet and make stone benches, an altar and a walkway.

Luce said no one has objected to his sculptures, which are legal because they are on private land.

Motorists stop frequently to look at Luce's monuments and take pictures.

"They can't make him take it down, can they?" said Rose Strick of Springfield, who visited the sculptures last week. "It's a shame anyone would object to them being on display anyplace."

Luce always has made some sort of living as an artist, he said. He grew up in a home without water or electricity, earned a general equivalency diploma, and studied art in college.

Luce said he was a carver, a painter and a sculptor who once spent a year doing a Norwegian stone fireplace for Julia Irene Kauffman in Mission Hills. He said he also has done some work at Country Club Plaza businesses and in Kansas City homes.

Some of Luce's acrylic paintings were once displayed in a show in New York, but he said he has made a living however he can.

"I've had to resort to painting saw blades and trying to sell them down in Branson to pay the utility bills," Luce said.

Art comes easily to him, he said.

"I can take a piece of leather and carve it into a rose."

But art has seldom been enough to sustain Luce and his family, which includes another son, Nicholas, who also is in college. Luce's wife, Valerie, is an eighth-grade teacher in Aurora. He has worked construction and odd jobs over the years.

Luce said no one has objected to his sculptures, which are legal because they are on private land.

Motorists stop frequently to look at Luce's monuments and take pictures.

"They can't make him take it down, can they?" said Rose Strick of Springfield, who visited the sculptures last week. "It's a shame anyone would object to them being on display anyplace."

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