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Romancing the stone in West Rutland

Members’ exhibition opens at the Carving Studio

By Julia Purdy

On an unseasonably hot and sticky May 28, coinciding with the Vermont-wide Open Studio Weekend, the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center (CSSC) on Marble Street in West Rutland held the opening reception for its annual members’ exhibition.

Earlier in the day visitation was sparse, but shortly after 6 p.m. vehicles lined the side of Marble St. and filled the parking area. The shady porch on the east side of the main building served as a stage for speakers, the refreshment table and a guitar-flute duo, while attendees, most of whom clearly knew each other, stood in groups, browsed the refreshments tables or sat at picnic tables in the former railroad yard between the buildings.

Saturday evening was also a festive send-off for Jonathan LaFarge, outgoing studio manager. Speaker after speaker took the mic to express high praise and heartfelt thanks for his help and guidance over the years, one man saying, “Jonathan built this place.” Many were Carving Studio board members; others were carvers, students, or artists in the Rutland arts community.

LaFarge, raised in Manchester, Vt., spoke briefly and fondly of his time here, saying that starting at age 24 as a summer intern, he had spent “one-third of my life here” between 2003 and now. As studio manager he has been the studio’s general factotum—working with interns (“I pushed them to do what they didn’t think they could do”); maintaining the buildings, tools and equipment; coordinating programs; being available to assist students, instructors and artists-in-residence; teaching workshops; bringing the world-renowned West Rutland marble industry alive for visitors—the list goes on.

“It’s nice to see how many people I’ve touched,” he said. “I’ve learned more than I could ever have hoped for, it’s given me a lot to grow on… There are so many stories here from the days of the Vermont Marble Company,” he added. LaFarge spoke respectfully of the oldtimers who stopped by the place where they spent so much of their working lives. Some even showed up to do odd jobs around the place, he said.

Executive Director Carol Driscoll and incoming Studio Manager Tom Kearns met me the next day in the barn-like main building, where a jewelry-making class was in progress at a spacious table. There were the sounds of hammering and excited voices.

Driscoll has been executive director since 1998. CSSC is a 501(c)(3) organization. She explained that CSSC is self-supporting, raising 45 percent of its budget through educational programs and the rest through fundraisers, memberships, program grants, and capital campaigns. “Our goal is to break even every year,” she said.

Driscoll described the informal, “nurturing” atmosphere that prevails here, and the contented buzz around the table and the congenial gathering the day before underscored that. CSSC’s mission is to make sculpture accessible to everybody, she said. The Studio welcomes walk-in visitors, school groups, college independent study students.

Kearns added that kids in particular get to see “how this world got here… The beginning of it is brute force, the final artifact is the end of a long process.” He strongly believes that artistic creation is a combination of individual vision and collaborative effort, saying, “No one ‘invented’ the wheel.” In his view, Western civilization “started with stonecutters.” Programs such as those at CSSC prove “what you can do with a roller and a lever and a chisel,” he said.

New studio manager steps in

Tom Kearns grew up in New York City and spent summers at his family’s cottage on Lake Bomoseen. In 1998 he and his wife bought an old farmhouse—the former Crystal Ledge guest cottage—and “never left.” He had previously operated a fine-art fabrication workshop in Brooklyn and continues with selected long-term contracts. Kearns majored in medieval art history at Fordham University. “I was just a middle-class kid from Queens,” he said, when he discovered art history and “fell in love with it.”

The job of studio manager will keep Kearns busy. He will provide support for the artist-in-residence program which draws carvers from all over the world; handle space rentals for the “independent residents,” who will also share their technical expertise; oversee the studio work; maintain tools, equipment and the site; coordinate with instructors; and schedule the work for four or five college interns, who exchange work for small stipends and access to courses.

Exhibit space spans 108 years

A visit to the members’ exhibit in the former “coping shed” is a visual lesson in how disparate  materials can be married in surprising ways. Metals, stone, print media, paper, glass, found objects–no combination is too far-fetched, subject to the limitations of the material, the technical skill of its creator, and mechanics. The influence of non-Western cultures is often apparent. But whether sublime or far-out, there is always an undercurrent of discipline and design that makes it happen.

But the human history of the place lives on here also, forming an oddly compatible counterpoint to the art works. Driscoll explained that the “coping shed” was where marble blocks were fashioned into architectural trim called coping—the capstone or long top stone for a wall or sill, often with a decorative profile. The shed is built of rough blocks and dates from 1892. The inside walls are covered with graffiti to a height of about six feet, scrawled or carefully lettered in grease pencil or even carved by the long-ago quarry workers—names, initials, memoranda. The dates of the first snowfalls were recorded for 1908, 1912, 1913, 1914, in scattered locations. In three places the same message was written, perhaps by different people: “John McCormick was killed by the train Wed. Feb 5 1908 at 6 pm.” LaFarge added that in another spot, a note recorded that “flake fell, killed 11” in 1893. A flake was a multi-ton slab of stone that occasionally “flaked” off the quarry wall, plunging sometimes hundreds of feet.

The larger of the two buildings was the original company store, which opened in 1854 and sold necessities to the quarry workers and their families. An original ledger book now resides with the West Rutland Historical Society. LaFarge pointed out the blocked-up window, smashed during a labor strike in 1936. The building now houses the indoor classroom, a small seating area, a permanent exhibit depicting the history of the site, smaller three-dimensional pieces, and office space.

Three thousand workers labored here for Vermont Marble Co., whose owner, Redfield Proctor, acquired several independent marble operations in 1892. Twelve quarry pits are on the site. The quarries stopped operating in 1973 when they became inaccessible under hundreds of feet of water in some cases, according to LaFarge. He explained that underlying the West Rutland marsh and the quarry zone is a massive aquifer—a natural underground lake—that required continuous pumping of the pits. Eventually, pumping became impractical and the quarries closed and now furnish some great swimming holes.

CSSC at one time leased, and now owns, six acres at the south end of the quarry zone, with 170 acres behind it still owned by Gawet Marble & Granite of Center Rutland and filled with stockpiled, cut marble. Structural marble is a thing of the past; the stone is now used for headstones, wall sheathing, architectural details, novelty items, interior features such as countertops and tiles, and restoration work.

Sculpture gardens blend tradition and innovation

Sculpture gardens surround the buildings, displaying the work of artists-in-residence through the years. Scattered artworks line Marble Street, both naturalistic and conceptual pieces ranging from the monumental to the intimate, classical to whimsical. Behind the buildings, in the former stone yard, is a world where nature mingles with the products of human industry and suggests that anything is potentially a work of art. Overall, the mood of play is infectious. Poplar leaves flutter above stacks of trimmed marble blocks and slabs, which could as easily turn out to be a piece of sculpture. Towering above the old service road that runs north from the buildings, like some relic from a “Star Wars” set, a massive, rust-coated steel truss structure called a bridge crane provides the backdrop for a series of three-dimensional art pieces.

Back at the studio building, Samm Quiser, a work-exchange intern who just graduated from Castleton University this year, was polishing a pendant of “Etowa” pink marble from Georgia. She explained that this marble was used in Castleton’s old gym building. Her former boss salvaged some sheets of it and gave her one to work with. Carvers at the Studio can also scavenge from the dump piles on the 6-acre site, she said. She began working with stone her freshman year at Castleton while taking part in a carving class with a resident artist. She plans to wrap the pendant with copper wire or solder on a bezel and offer it on Etsy, along with her other jewelry creations.

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