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Totally devoted to you

By Pip Cummings, Sydney Morning Herald, April 13, 2006

With Easter, Passover and Buddha's birthday upon us, it's time to get holy.

Sydney, Australia -- When Kerry Williams purchased a metre-high Virgin Mary statue at auction, she was faced with a transport problem. So she strapped the statue in to the front seat of her sports car, roof down, and took her for a drive.

<< An iconic representation of Bodhisatva Tara

It's not that Williams is an iconoclast. On the contrary, she is so smitten with representations of the Virgin she opened a homewares store in Surry Hills two years ago - Hail Mary, I'm Home - full of Virgin Mary statues, candles and crucifixes to share her enthusiasm. Our Lady of the Fast Car takes pride of place in an altar behind the counter.

Williams says the religious items - from Argentina, France, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Vietnam - have been a larger component of the business than she envisaged.

"I thought it would just be an obscure interest of mine," she says. As it turns out, her wares are eagerly sought by homeowners. Items for sale at present include French statues, embroidery and paintings from the 1930s, a solid brass 1880s candelabra from the Presentations Sisters Convent at Lismore and a Goan statuette of the Virgin Mary, carved from sandalwood and rosewood.

"Some people are devout; for others it's cultural," Williams says, citing Italians and South Americans as customers who've grown up with these items. She also has many sentimental buyers, who want reminders of their grandparents' homes, and people who are collecting for purely aesthetic reasons.

"The customers either spread it throughout the house, or devote a wall or room to it, or they have the little focus of the home altar," Williams says. She plans to run a home altar competition next month.

The artist Mathew Lynn, whose work has hung in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman exhibitions, practises Tibetan Buddhism and maintains a colourful home altar in his study. "It's important to have one because it's important to maintain the tradition," he says. Lynn adheres strongly to the Nyingma tradition - the oldest of four schools of Tibetan Buddhism - but shares the altar space with his wife, Irene, who more generally follows a female Buddhist deity, Tara. "One half has the things she likes on it, and my half's got the things that are particularly important to my tradition," Lynn says.

Items on the crowded drawer-top altar include a butter lamp and seven bowls that contain either rice or water. There's also a serkyem cup, for making an offering to protectors and local spirits, and vases of flowers. Other objects include statues of the historical Buddha, the wisdom Buddha, the medicine Buddha, Guru Rinpoche (who founded Tibet's first monastery in 779), and a picture of Lynn's teacher, Dzogchen Rinpoche.

When Kerry Williams purchased a metre-high Virgin Mary statue at auction, she was faced with a transport problem. So she strapped the statue in to the front seat of her sports car, roof down, and took her for a drive.

It's not that Williams is an iconoclast. On the contrary, she is so smitten with representations of the Virgin she opened a homewares store in Surry Hills two years ago - Hail Mary, I'm Home - full of Virgin Mary statues, candles and crucifixes to share her enthusiasm. Our Lady of the Fast Car takes pride of place in an altar behind the counter.

Williams says the religious items - from Argentina, France, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Vietnam - have been a larger component of the business than she envisaged.

"I thought it would just be an obscure interest of mine," she says. As it turns out, her wares are eagerly sought by homeowners. Items for sale at present include French statues, embroidery and paintings from the 1930s, a solid brass 1880s candelabra from the Presentations Sisters Convent at Lismore and a Goan statuette of the Virgin Mary, carved from sandalwood and rosewood.

"Some people are devout; for others it's cultural," Williams says, citing Italians and South Americans as customers who've grown up with these items. She also has many sentimental buyers, who want reminders of their grandparents' homes, and people who are collecting for purely aesthetic reasons.

"The customers either spread it throughout the house, or devote a wall or room to it, or they have the little focus of the home altar," Williams says. She plans to run a home altar competition next month.

The artist Mathew Lynn, whose work has hung in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman exhibitions, practises Tibetan Buddhism and maintains a colourful home altar in his study. "It's important to have one because it's important to maintain the tradition," he says. Lynn adheres strongly to the Nyingma tradition - the oldest of four schools of Tibetan Buddhism - but shares the altar space with his wife, Irene, who more generally follows a female Buddhist deity, Tara. "One half has the things she likes on it, and my half's got the things that are particularly important to my tradition," Lynn says.

Items on the crowded drawer-top altar include a butter lamp and seven bowls that contain either rice or water. There's also a serkyem cup, for making an offering to protectors and local spirits, and vases of flowers. Other objects include statues of the historical Buddha, the wisdom Buddha, the medicine Buddha, Guru Rinpoche (who founded Tibet's first monastery in 779), and a picture of Lynn's teacher, Dzogchen Rinpoche.

Irene's side houses an assortment of Taras, pictures of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa Lama, and a depiction of yabyum - a male deity in sexual union with his female consort, representing the union of insight and compassion in the quest for enlightenment.

"The only reason it's so populated is because Irene loves buying little presents for me," Lynn says, "And people always say it's much better to receive a Buddha than to buy it yourself."

Sometimes a more lateral approach is taken to keep traditions alive. Among the serious collectable and devotional items in Williams's shop is a range of "saints on skates" - tiny religious figures riding plastic skateboards - that people have included in their altars. "I have ministers who'll buy quite kitsch things," she confides.

Schlomo Goldschmidt of Gold's World of Judaica also sells self-described "kitsch" - skullcaps printed like soccer balls, a doll that dances the "Matzohrena", and matzoh covers for passover, printed with Australiana. It's a way of keeping children interested in religious tradition, says Goldschmidt, who also sells more classic Judaica.

With Passover this week, the shop is crowded as Jews stock up on the objects required for the Seder family meal: a plate to hold five symbolic foods, matzoh covers, and two-handled cups used to wash both hands before eating. An elaborate silver Seder plate is for sale for $4000, but a simpler aluminium version is also available for $15.

The shop also sells items for the weekly Shabbat dinner and mezuzahs to hang near the door. So plentiful are the devotional objects in Goldschmidt's store that the menorahs (candelabras used during Hanukkah) have been relegated to storage until later in the year.

The objects are not the point, of course. As Lynn says: "It's a gentle reminder. One doesn't pray or offer to the actual objects. It's what they represent."

The practice is in everyday life, "so I don't mind if, for some reason, the shrine was stolen or burnt down, or something like that".



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