One man’s passion

Bremen and Cullman artists reopening Ave Maria Grotto builder’s workshop

Ben South and Donna Drake talk to visitors Jesse and Holly Woodby about Bro. Joseph’s workshop and art. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune) 

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Ave Maria Grotto has, since 1934, been home to the artistry of Benedictine monk Bro. Joseph Zoettl, OSB, who built miniature sculptures at St. Bernard Abbey from 1912-1958. After his death in 1961, his workshop on the edge of the park grounds was used as a maintenance shed housing lawnmowers and other quite non-artistic implements. That recently changed. 

 About three months ago, Bremen-based artist Donna Drake and Cullman artist Ben South teamed up to reopen Bro. Joseph’s workshop, clearing away modern debris and rearranging the shop to represent the days of Bro. Joseph’s work in the 1940s and early 1950s.  

 The Tribune visited Drake and South at the shop earlier this week. The space inside was filled with found and donated objects: sea shells, beads, marbles, crosses and crucifixes, bits of stained glass, broken household goods, religious icons and several pieces of Bro. Joseph’s work in various stages of completion or repair. 

 Gesturing to boxes and racks of odds and ends throughout the work space, South said, “All this was in here when we started; everything. We haven’t really brought anything in.” 

 South and Drake are working to give the shop a lived-in feel, with overalls hanging on the wall, and tools and project pieces displayed as they might be left at a break time. 

 “We’re trying to make it feel like he just got up and went to get a cup of coffee,” said South. “Or the Benedictines ‘work or prayer,’ so he just got up for prayer.” 

 Working from direct knowledge of Bro. Joseph 

 South’s father was a teacher at St. Bernard back in its college days, and the family came on several occasions to meet Bro. Joseph and watch him work while they ate lunch. South said that he learned his colors as his mother pointed out and explained the various hues of items around the park. 

 Said South, “It’s a wonderful place for children to learn their colors, because there’s every color you could imagine here!”  

 South pondered his knowledge of Alabama art and asked, “Do I know a more important Alabama artist? You know—a painter or someone who does sculpture, or something like that. And I don’t. And I’ve been a painter in galleries for 35 years. I don’t know that person. 

“This is one man’s passion4.5 acres of passion that he’s doing over a 60-year period, so I don’t know of anything to compare with it.” 

 The miracle of connection 

 Drake, who lives in the Bremen area, and South met purely by chance at an art gallery in Decatur. Drake was carrying a piece of found-object art that caught South’s attention and sparked an idea. 

 According to Drake, “He said, ‘Have you ever been to the Grotto?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, three or four times.’ And he said, ‘Really. When?’ and I said, ‘Well, when I was in first, second, third grade.’ He said, ‘You must have a really good memory!’” 

 Turning to South, she continued, “And when you said that, I had a mental picture of me going, running, ‘When’s lunch? Is there a treat? Is there a place where you can go buy stuff?’ After the first or second, ‘Yeah, it’s old buildings.’ And I came back after I talked to you, going, ‘This is amazing stuff!’ You know, as a child, you don’t appreciate what’s there.” 

 South pushed the idea of a revived Bro. Joseph workshop harder than he might push other notions, because it spoke to him in a special way. 

 Said South, “I’m really not prone to do that, but I have been so interested for so long, and thought, ‘Maybe we could do something with this space.’ And really, when Donna got involved, we looked at (the uncleared workshop turned maintenance shed) and it was like, ‘Okay, Donna, what do you think? Could we do something?’ And Donna has a real can-do attitude, and so it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s get a broom! Let’s clean this thing up!’” 

 A candy store for the creative mind 

 Standing in the workshop, one sees the tiny bits that became Bro. Joseph’s sculptures down in the Grotto. In addition to all of the glass, broken jewelry, stone and seashells, there are the mortar mixing trays, hand tools and workbenches looking as if Bro. Joseph had just walked out the door. It would not take much for creative minds to see what kinds of things they might do if turned loose inside, and that is what Drake and South hope to see in the people who come to the shop.  

 The host artists hope to see classes happen, and others come to make things for themselves in the inspired space. New items made in the workshop will also be offered for sale in the Grotto gift shop. Most of what is in the shop will, of course, remain as an exhibit and tribute to Bro. Joseph, so donors are being sought to bring in a fresh supply of found objects to be used in projects and classes. Drake and South are also looking for artists specializing in mosaics, stained glass and found-object art who are interested in sharing their craft. 

 Said South, “If somebody wants to get involved here, we can figure out a volunteer thing that they could do, or a teaching thing they could do.” 

 A timetable for classes and other activities at the workshop has not been set. Those interested in getting involved or donating can contact the Ave Maria Grotto at 256-734-4110 or visit 


Tools and small project pieces still sit on one of Bro. Joseph’s workbenches in the shop. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

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W.C. Mann