Down to the wire

In 1977, a teenager in Hazaribag, India, created a Madonna out of pieces of wire. It travelled 25,000km before a remarkable phone call 47 years later.

 JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH 

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

It’s the first weekend of winter 2024 and Melbourne is bathed in sunshine. When his work phone rings, motorcycle enthusiast and business owner Jonathan Daniel is pretty much up to his elbows in engine oil.  

But the call, as it turns out later in the day, is not business-related. The caller is Chris Laming, a former Australian Jesuit who was mentioned in the story A (very) quiet achiever, published on our Province website on 2 May this year. He and Jonathan share some significant geographical DNA, having both spent time at Mahuadanr and Hazaribag in eastern India, where the first Australian Jesuits arrived in 1951. 

This Madonna, created from random pieces of wire in 1977 by Jonathan Daniel, who was a teenager at the time, was cherished by the Laming family, who were visiting India. Photo: Chris Laming

When they talk on the phone, Chris mentions a rather unique Madonna that Jonathan created out of random bits of wire, back in 1977. The mention jogs Jonathan’s memory. The piece of artwork is so far in his past that he has completely forgotten about it, to the extent that even Vera, his wife of more than 30 years, is astonished to hear about it. 

The next day, I get in touch with Chris. He tells me, “Jonathan created it for my parents, who were visiting us in India. My dad was based in Tehran, Iran with the United Nations at the time and my mum worked for Save the Children. They actually drove, doing the overland trip in a 4WD three times, from Turkey the first time, from Iran the second time and then from Afghanistan the third time. Later, they flew in for my ordination as well. But on each of those overland trips, they would come laden with all sorts of things for all of us in Hazaribag, and they even used to bring spares and parts for the Jesuit workshop in Mahuadanr, so that the old Land Rover ambulance there could be kept in running condition.

“They were delighted when Jonathan created and gave them the Madonna and it remained with them for decades. They were in Tehran until the Shah left in January 1979. Later that year (1 April) when the country became an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, they basically fled and went to London. Obviously, they took the wire Madonna with them. When they retired, they came back to Australia and after they passed away, I kept it because it had a lot of meaning. After all, I knew the person who had created it.” 

Now it’s time for me to find out what technique Jonathan – who was just 18 years old at the time – used when creating it. I already know that he was very close at the time to an Indian Jesuit, Br Lawrence Saldanha, who had an engineering background. Br Lawrence mentored him in several aspects of the Jesuit workshop, most commonly in relation to anything mechanical or motorised.  

“It was a simple technique,” explains Jonathan, typically playing down any notion of creativity. “It was something that Br Lawrence taught me. Essentially, you take a picture and enlarge it on graph paper to the dimensions that you want. Then you bend pieces of wire to follow the outline and once you are happy with the precision of the shapes you braze the different pieces together.” 

The wire Madonna has travelled a great distance since it was crafted in 1977, with Chris Laming’s parents taking it with them to Tehran and then to London before moving to Afghanistan and then finally back to Gippsland in Victoria.  

Jonathan remembers they gave him a new shirt and a crisp $10 note, in gratitude. But they valued the Madonna so highly that they took it with them wherever they went. For a first attempt at religious art, it has certainly stood the test of time.