How to Build Cathedrals

How to Build Cathedrals

I can’t balance my checkbook, but I am crazy about numbers. You can suck me into any tourist trap with the word “biggest.” I once drove out of my way to see the largest frying pan in Iowa (just off I-380 in Brandon). It weighs 1200 pounds and is 9 feet 3 inches in diameter. Think of the Paul Bunyan-size pancake that can be made in it. It’s not the largest in the world, but you can fry 44 dozen eggs in it at one time. Bon appetit.

On a trip to Austin, Texas, I visited the presidential library of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’d never been to a presidential library before and have to admit it was much cooler than I expected. You walk in the door and the first thing you see is LBJ’s custom-built black stretch limousine, his town car for tooling back and forth from the ranch. Weighing 5,100 pounds, the limousine is equipped with a TV, telephone, and reserve gas tank. There is a specially designed communication system within the car for contact with the Secret Service. This vehicle, however, is not armored, bullet-proof, or bomb-proof. Imagine how much weight the presidential rides must carry.

At the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, I count myself lucky to have seen another amazing number spectacle. It was a piece of artwork named “How to Build Cathedrals” by Cildo Meireles. It was made up of 600,000 shiny copper pennies, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, and 80 paving stones. A critique of Jesuit missions built in colonial times, Meireles’s work suggests that the conquest of the Americas was as much about economics as saving souls. (By the way, Cildo, great title. I dearly love artwork that has a name.)

Some might say I should just keep a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records on my night table, but I don’t like being bombarded. I like being surprised, happening upon a number frenzy in an art museum or down an Iowa country road.

Perhaps I like all those crazy numbers because they are proof of the human spirit pushing the envelope. Some man or woman sat there in a studio, a garage, a basement and thought: How can I make a better this or a bigger version of that?


For a book about art and the creative spirit, but not numbers, check out Maud’s House.