To take an obdurate material and transform it into a work of art is a daunting concept. Perhaps our Stone Age ancestors intuitively understood longevity, as evidenced by the paintings and carvings they left, some of which are over 500,000 years old. Clearly the most lasting pieces of our historical memory are memorialized in stone. The impulse to preserve lived experience has not lessened with time.

Barre and Rutland, two cities with extraordinary stone history, are equally busy building new monuments to create sculpture walks for their communities. Barre calls itself the “the sculpture city,” and its legacy is evident not only in past accomplishments but in the 14 sculptures that comprise the Art Stroll enhancing this city that is set among mountains composed of an even-toned gray granite that is prized worldwide. Rutland is undergoing a “renaissance” and is continuing to commission new works in its famed Danby white regional marble for the new Sculpture Trail, which commemorates its rich and diverse history.

Sean Williams, a contemporary Barre sculptor who has public sculpture in both cities, says, “I’ve long thought of Rutland as my city’s soul mate. Barre and Rutland have always been tied to the stone industry and the tradition of craftsmanship our forebears created.” The contemporary creation of sculpture walks through both cities is a natural outgrowth of pride in their stone history.

Barre Art Stroll

Walking or driving through downtown Barre is a visual adventure through a series of large granite sculptures that intrigue the eye. The Art Stroll is a collection of both historic and contemporary public sculptures. One classic, the “Italian-American Stone Cutter,” has long greeted every visitor who enters Barre from the north side.

It is an iconic public art piece with the model created by Giuliano Cecchinelli, and the sculpture carved by Philip Paini. Cecchinelli, a master sculptor from Carrara, Italy, also designed and carved a tribute to the city’s namesake, statesman “Colonel Isaac Barre,” for Barre City Hall and the “Mr. Pickwick” sculpture for Aldrich Public Library.

Sue Higby, executive director of Studio Place Arts and volunteer project manager of the Art Stroll, has involved a cadre of present-day Barre sculptors in creating new works. The intent is to sponsor sculpture made by the community for the community. Following a public call, selections are made by a committee of professionals who review the “blind” proposals (i.e. the names of the sculptors are hidden). The chosen sculptures are both conceived and carved by the same artist.

Funding is provided by the Charles Semprebon Stone Sculpture Legacy Program that seeks to foster an understanding and appreciation of Barre’s unique cultural and social history, as well as by community supporters. The number of sculptures in the Art Stroll has grown from 3 in 2010 to 14 in 2020.

Higby says, “There has always been a significant amount of artistic talent hidden away in the Barre granite sheds. However, much of the work when finished is shipped away. One of the purposes of the Stone Sculpture Legacy Program is to expose our community members to these talents. It’s celebratory.”

Barre sculptors — skill, sensitivity, humorThe energy of the present generation of Barre carvers is infectious. They are a highly individualistic, independent-minded collection of artists who have been steady participants in the “Rock Solid” art exhibit that has taken place annually since 2000 at Studio Place Arts.

Through the Stone Sculpture Legacy Program, they have had the opportunity to create contemporary works of art out of their fertile imaginations and consummate skill. Contemporary public sculpture’s function is not always to memorialize a famous figure, as so often in the past, but also to engage, entertain, provoke and involve. These sculptors definitely know how to engage the public.

The resulting sculptures are grouped along North Main Street and Washington and Summer streets in downtown Barre. It’s not an unusual sight to see children climbing over “Daddy’s Chair,” by Giuliano Checchinelli II, or see an office worker sipping a coffee on Heather Ritchie’s “Coffee Break” outside Studio Place Arts. Ritchie honors the blue-collar work ethic of the granite workers by carving their tools, a lunch box, and even a folded newspaper hat, a longstanding Carrara tradition.

“Unzipping the Earth,” a 68-foot granite zipper, conceived and carved by Chris Miller, sits between SPA and Barre City Place. SPA and DEW Properties collaborated on creating the intriguing pocket park as part of the walkway between the buildings. The sculpture “unzips” to expose a garden of perennials. The project won the Vermont Public Places Merit Award in 2015.

“Culmination,” conceived and carved by Sean Williams, is the most recent addition to the Art Stroll. It speaks to the rich, multi-cultural history of the people who settled in Barre. Barre’s yearly Ethnic Heritage Festival, “From Many Lands, One Community,” was an inspiration for the call to proposals.

Williams thought of “using architecture as a visual cultural marker that could be reiterated and grouped together to represent a unique community.” “Culmination” features a tall base of rough granite with cut-in openings, which gradually evolves into a variety of miniature buildings sporting Roman and Gothic arches, Greek pediments, minarets and multiple doorways. It honors both the origins and creative work of the many immigrants who contributed to making Barre the diverse and dynamic community that it is today.

Another very original sculpture, “Tree of a Kind” by George Kurjanowicz, features tall cut-out silhouettes of the fir trees ubiquitous in Vermont, which fit together like upright puzzle pieces creating benches within their comforting forms. In Miller’s “Gargoyle Bike Rack,” two comical gargoyles are in a perpetual tug of war. The “Jack in the Box Bike Rack” by Giuliano Cecchinell II has a red steel spiral spring connecting the grinning face and box of the fallen mechanical toy. In Ritchie’s “Big Wheel Bike Rack” a child joyfully rides up a ramp.

The next planned addition to Barre’s Art Stroll will be “Veloce” (Italian for “fast”), representing the cyclist and bicycle as becoming one as the speed increases. Project Manager Higby says that this particular commission “will carry forward the vision of avid bicyclist Charles Semprebon.” It seems that Barre has clearly sped into the future with its new sculptural additions. Semprebon would be proud of what his generous gift has engendered and continues to support.

Rutland Sculpture Trail

Rutland has a related but different history than Barre. Primarily an industrial city, and commercial hub, Rutland is architecturally rich in buildings of brick and marble but until recently there was little public sculpture visible on Rutland streets. Quarrying occurred in West Rutland and south in Danby. Carving took place in the sheds of the Vermont Marble Company in Proctor.

Talk of a sculpture trail had gone on for years between Mark Foley of MFK Properties and Carol Driscoll, executive director of the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center. The spark that ignited the present initiative was Green Mountain Power Vice President Steve Costello’s visit to Rapid City, South Dakota, in 2016, where he saw bronze sculptures of every U.S. president gracing the streets of the city and drawing crowds of tourists.

He returned intent on expanding Rutland Blooms, a citywide beautification program that he had founded, to include history-based public art throughout downtown Rutland. Foley introduced Costello to Driscoll, and the Sculpture Trail triumvirate was born.

Carol Driscoll draws from the Studio’s wide community of national and international artists, to commission sculpture “teams” to work on the individual projects. She uses the time-honored Carrara tradition in most cases, selecting an artist who will design the piece and make a model, and other artists to carve it in marble.

Driscoll says, “I love giving the sculptors an opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and extraordinary skills. When students and community members visit the CSSC and see the plaster models on display, they recognize the sculptures and identify their favorites.”

International sculptorsBoth “Stone Legacy” and the “Andrea Mead Lawrence” sculptures were created by a team of artists headed up by Steve Shaheen, an internationally known sculptor connected to the Carving Studio. His affiliation with the Corsanini Studio in Carrara enabled him to bring Andrea Ingrassia and Alessandro Lombardo from Carrara to do the actual carving from models that he and Kellie Pereira designed.

“Stone Legacy” is situated in the newly created Center Street Marketplace Park, in the heart of downtown Rutland’s “Renaissance.” It features a stone carver, hammer and tool still in hand, leaning against a block, assessing what will be his next step. Funded by Green Mountain Power and MFK Properties, with a 10-ton block of Danby marble donated by Vermont Quarries, the sculpture honors the workers of the local marble industry.

The “Andrea Mead Lawrence” sculpture is a dynamic portrayal of the famous skier descending a steep slope. Lawrence, a Rutland native, was America’s only Olympic skier to win two gold medals in the same year. Sports Illustrated ranks her as a top Vermont athlete of the 20th century.

Subsequent to her racing career, Mead Lawrence became an energetic environmental activist in the West. After her death, President Obama renamed a peak along the John Muir Trail “Mount Andrea Lawrence.” Funded by Casella Waste Management, the sculpture is impressive in sparkling white marble that captures the beauty of the Pico Ski Area that her family founded.

Carving Studio sculptorsContinuing the theme of honoring Rutland’s rich history is “Ann and Solomon Story,” a sculpture that honors Revolutionary War spy Ann Story, a Rutland settler, widowed mother of five and supporter of the Green Mountain Boys. Her son Solomon delivered messages to Ethan Allen at Fort Ticonderoga. Designed by Amanda Sisk, and carved by Evan Morse, with assistance from Taylor Apostol, the extraordinary sculpture was funded by the Costello family in honor of ancestor Evelyn Gammons Costello.

Two important monuments to the role of African-Americans in Rutland history involve the talented local sculptor, Don Ramey, who designed and carved “54th Regiment,” a tribute to Rutland’s African-Americans who were part of the first black Civil War Union regiment. Funded by the Rutland Regional Medical Center, the 5-foot by 10-foot marble relief is stunningly installed on the dark green Verde Antique wall of the Chittenden Building.

Presently, Ramey is working on carving the “Martin Henry Freeman” sculpture as a tribute to the first African-American chosen as president of an American college in 1856. Freeman was a Rutland native and graduate of Middlebury College. Mark Burnett, an African-American himself, and a descendant of members of the 54th Regiment, designed the Freeman sculpture and created the model. It is due to be installed in the spring, and is funded by a trio of local families, the Wakefields, Jennifer and Fred Bagley and Donald Billings and Sarah Pratt.

Community and collaborationThe involvement of the community in funding the sculptures that are transforming downtown Rutland is indeed impressive. “The Jungle Book,” designed and carved by Sean Williams, sits proudly outside Phoenix Books, and is a tribute to author Rudyard Kipling, who lived and wrote in Dummerston. It is funded by the co-owners, Michael DeSanto, Renee Reiner, Tom and Tricia Huebner.

Williams worked at the Carving Studio over the course of summer 2017 to create the engaging 3-foot-wide piece that features the central character Mowgli, the “man-cub” and his animal companions. “Through seven stories, the book teaches children and adults alike about friendship, loyalty, trust, family and the importance of rules.” says Michael DeSanto. Phoenix gets regular requests for books on characters found on the Sculpture Trail.

The most recent addition to the sculpture trail is “Bill W.,” a Dorset native who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Installed in the Center Street Marketplace Park, the team of Shaheen and Lombardo carved it from the model created by Pereira. The sculpture is an over-lifesize face of Bill Wilson on one side, with an open hand on the other, surrounded by a base that invites visitors to be seated. The sculpture was privately funded by three families who have chosen to remain anonymous.

Costello is amazed at the generosity and motivation of the Rutland funders, and hopes that by the fall of 2020, there will be nine pieces in place and projecting one or two a year in the future.

“The trail is about telling some of the local history, boosting downtown and creating community pride, and I think the trail is doing all these things.”

The civic spirit of engagement and support in both Rutland and Barre are what makes these visionary public sculpture trails possible. The number of carvers in stone is a rare resource. In both cities the downtown areas have become focal points not only for the community but also for tourists. Once one sculpture is discovered, the natural impulse is to continue on and discover other sculptural treasures.

“Community and collaboration have become touchstones for success” are Costello’s oft-repeated words. This longstanding Vermont tradition has certainly brought success by transforming the basic elements of art and stone into new works that celebrate history and the human spirit. Long may they live!

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