Days after the devastating tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, Deb Pettengill began designing a piece. She had been at home in Southern New Hampshire the day the disaster hit, and vividly remembers the haunting images that quickly made their way around the globe. The piece would commemorate the difficulties faced by children in Sri Lanka, she decided, an island nation that had been hard hit by the tidal wave and which was also suffering through a civil war. As opposed to focusing on the country’s difficulties, though, Pettengill wanted her piece to focus on the positive aspects of the culture. It would be a concrete column, Pettengill determined, and the sides would be covered in a mosaic of found and collected objects. On top would be a delicate clay figure of a child leaning over a small empty vessel.

    The finished piece is about five feet tall. On one side of the column, layers of sculpted waves flow down the side to the ground and the top of each wave is inlaid with shells in such a way that it appears as though the waves are lapping against them. The shells are delicate and pale and some resemble tiny hands; Pettengill’s grandmother-in-law collected them from an island in Florida. On the other side is a tree traced in gold leaf and surrounded by inlaid sea glass. It is a rendition of the tree the Buddha sat under while achieving enlightenment, the Bodhi Tree, which is believed to grow in Sri Lanka. Named Mantra II, the piece is one of a series of six sculptures by Pettengill that address the state of at-risk children in various parts of the world. At the top of each, cast in clay, is a child holding an empty vessel, the figure’s small scale dwarfed by the large concrete representation of their culture beneath them.

    Pettengilll studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University (previous to that she studied pottery at the University of South Carolina and in Japan), and she has been making sculptures around themes of children and childhood for over two decades. She started sculpting children when she became a mother 23 years ago. (“My children were available models,” she explains.) From there she moved on to making pieces about her students and their lives. Since 1977 she has worked on and off as a teacher; currently she teaches at a boarding school in northern Massachusetts. The first student-inspired piece she made was a bust of a somber looking boy surrounded by symbols of things he found “wild and delightful”, as Pettengill put it—a pirate ship sails out of a seashell on the boy’s head, and tropical fish swim from his chest.

    She went on to make busts of a number of students, trying to capture both their uniqueness and the qualities they had in common. “They are so unjaded,” Pettengill said. “They feel they are accepted, and they have the freedom to be exuberant and childlike for as long as they need.” She also made busts about siblings with candelabras built into them, “to show the radiance of childhood,” she said. But to say the pieces are about childhood is just a start—they’re also about innocence, unbridled optimism, and a sense of security in the world. These qualities deserve protection, but a child’s transition to adulthood never leaves them untouched. In this way Pettengill’s sculptures speak not only to valuable aspects of childhood, but also to the transience and instability of all stages of life.

    By the time Pettengill finished this series, she knew she wanted her next project to involve larger human-scale works. She also realized she’d been making portraits of kids who had all their desires met. “I decided to work on pieces about children who live in countries where they don’t have a lot,” she said. “Children who are at risk and live in a harsh environment, where people don’t always put them as a priority.” She began to research images of children and found herself gripped by the faces of children in India and the degree of poverty in their lives. She decided that her new series would include six pieces, and the first one, Mantra I, would be based on India. The others would look at Afghanistan, regions of Africa and, of course, Sri Lanka.

    She built the small clay figures first and then began work on the concrete bases. They had to be large, almost exaggeratedly so, especially when compared to the figures. She wanted to show how big a culture is when compared to the scale of a child, and how small certain children are compared to the odds against them. It took a whole summer to build the six concrete pillars. When she was done she stored them in her basement—it was the only place they would fit.

    Pettengill then began to research the cultures she would be commemorating, looking for aspects to symbolize in mosaics that would cover the sides of the pillars. “I wanted the pieces to exist as prayers for these children,” Pettengill said, explaining why she focused on parts of the cultures that could support and nourish children. This way she could show the children atop the pillars as being uplifted by their heritage, as opposed to being overwhelmed by the difficulties they face. Finally, once the concrete pillars, the small clay figures, and the research were done, she began to painstakingly put the pieces together.

    The result is sculptural collages that operate almost as double portraits; they portray both the small, figures of children and the concrete columns that represent the children’s cultures. But whereas the columns are almost anthropological in their specificity, the result of a cultural excavation of sorts, the figures, unpainted and without noticeable cultural markers, are more universal—they represent the hopes and needs that all people can relate to.

    The subject matter has dark elements, but the formal structure of the works imbues them with an inevitable sense of optimism. The columns’ obvious weightiness strikes a strong contrast with the delicately crafted clay figures on top, and the juxtaposition gives the figures an almost weightless quality. While the children are held up by their culture, they are not held down by it.

    In a recent show at The Geisler Gallery in Western Massachusetts, Pettengill’s busts and candelabra pieces were placed along the walls of the large room filled with her work. They projected both cheerfulness and a quiet serenity. In the middle of the room were four of the pieces from the Mantra series, tall concrete columns with the solemnity and force of totem poles.

    All the pieces are covered in elaborate mosaics. Mantra I, the piece representing India, has a serpentine pattern of silver metallic hands winding up the sides, and interspersed between these are small red glass orbs representing the small red dot Hindu women wear on the foreheads to ward off evil spirits—the bindhi. The undulating pattern the two make running up the column echoes the lines of the small figure on top, who holds an empty vessel above her head, in a gesture that is somewhere between an offering and a plea.

    Mantra III, which is about Afghanistan, has carefully crafted arches, inlaid tiles, and beautifully rendered Arabic symbols. It incorporates much of the art-historical information Pettengill discovered in her research. Each of the tiles, for example, contains a symbol of the goddess Inin, who was worshipped in the Middle East prior to Islam. Inin’s followers preached the benefits of peace, tranquility, and respect for nature, and the symbols—a bundle of grain, a pomegranate, the Tree of Life—reflect this.

    At the base of each tile is also an Arabic translation for various virtues, such as compassion, stability, and kindness. “These are the kinds of things children should experience, rather than war, famine, and insecurity,” Pettengill explained. The tiles run in a row up the side of the column, and at the bottom of each row is the Arabic symbol for peace.

    Just because Pettengill focuses on the positive aspects of the various cultures represented in the columns rather than the difficulties, though, this is not because she is ignoring the problems. She is clearly deeply aware of them, but as opposed to forcing the viewer to become overwhelmed by the problems, she has done the hard work herself of researching them, digesting them, and then coming up with an antidote imbued in a singular form. In this way, the pieces manage to emphasize solutions and the need for positivity even in light of vast difficulties. They also bring the viewer’s attention to the problems’ cyclical nature. The people who today commit genocide or propagate war were children once themselves, the viewer is reminded, just as the child on top of the column will inevitably grow up.

    Mantra IV, the last finished piece in the series, is unique from the others in that it focuses not on a particular country, but on six regions in Africa where children are at great risk. Pettengill, who has long been fascinated by African patterning and sculpture, divided the column up into six strips and filled each one with patterns from tribes in one of the regions she was focusing on. Each consists of hundreds of small clay beads, the crafting of which took an entire season. “I spent all winter just sitting beside our wood stove, making beads,” she recalled. In the spring she etched in the patterns, glazed the beads and fired them, and then in the summer she laid them onto the column.

    The finished piece, rounded, solid, and covered in organic red and brown hues, resembles a tree trunk. Meanwhile, on the surface of the column, the different sections spiral up around each other until they reach the top, where the clay figure of a child sits securely, held aloft by a myriad of traditions.

    Among the beads there are also hands, painted with orange diamonds, yellow mazes, and black and white waves. “Our handprint is part of our identity,” Pettengill said. “It represents us.” Hands, in fact, are a reoccurring form in the Mantra series. They express the desire to be recognized and to be seen for what we are, a need which is both universal and ancient. Some of the earliest paintings consist simply of handprints left on a cave wall, Pettengil pointed out, an individual’s lone way of marking his existence.

    Lined up side-by-side in the gallery, the Mantra pieces have a peaceful but solid presence, and there is something both ancient and modern about them. They bear witness to the enduring difficulties faced by human beings, but they also allude to an equally long history of devotion and meditation. Contained within them is not only a reminder of the undeserved problems faced by so many people, but also a plea and a promise to do better. The subject matter could easily leave a viewer feeling hopeless, but instead, one is left with an awareness and appreciation of the sanctity of life.

    Molly K. Langmuir