Jerry Williams and Chris Miller are united in their love of the ancient craft of carving. It is this common love that has brought them together as a team in creating the 14.5-foot statue of Ceres for the Vermont State House dome. This project, and their separate accomplishments, have won them the 2018 prestigious Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, which will be presented by Gov. Phil Scott at the State House Nov. 14.
Carving, a reductive process that was once part of every classical sculptor’s training, has now become the purview of a discrete selection of artists in the United States. Barre, of course, is a mecca of stone carving, primarily in granite. Its community of skilled carvers who work in the monument trade, as well as executing large public art sculptures and making their own personal work, is a unique resource.
The native stone of the surrounding region, and the culture of carved sculpture, drew both Williams and Miller, albeit by different paths. Williams talks of attending the art program at Johnson State College and being the only one interested in learning clay sculpture. It was at a time when conceptual work and mixed media held sway in the art world, but he was interested in learning the basics of sculpture. In order to learn “real” sculpture at the source, he set up an internship with Frank Gaylord, who trained a generation of Barre sculptors. That internship turned into a job and a life in granite.
Eventually, Williams founded his own shop, the Barre Sculpture Studio. He talks of belonging to a “lineage” in the sense of the classical studio system that exists in Carrara, Italy, and that was brought to Barre and to the Vermont Marble Company in Proctor in the 19th century.
Generally, a well-known sculptor would create a model and the expert carvers in the sculpture studios would then execute it. “Youth Triumphant,” a Barre monument depicting a young warrior pleading for world peace, was carved by Gino Enrico Tosi, Enrico Mori and John Delmonte from a model created by famous New York sculptor C. Paul Jennewein. Williams is one of the few sculptors in Barre who creates his own model for a commission and then sees it through to execution in his studio.
Miller began woodcarving independently in 1976 while studying art at Southern Connecticut State University and Southern Vermont College in Bennington. Although he is largely self-taught, he worked with the sculptors Lothar Werslin and Billy Brauer of Vermont to hone his skills in drawing, sculpture, and anatomy. For his first 25 years as a working artist, he carved only in wood.
Living in Calais, in Barre’s shadow, it was inevitable that Miller would eventually carve stone. Finding his way to the studios of several Barre sculptors, he learned the rudiments of stone carving, and since then has been working in wood and stone, doing both public commissions and personal work.
According to Miller, Williams’ classical studies have enabled him to become one of the best figurative sculptors in Vermont. As Miller meticulously carves the Ceres statue in wood, he is constantly taking measurements from Williams’ exquisite model.
Williams is a consummate artist and craftsman, and builds his models from the inside out, beginning with a metal armature, layered over with clay to create a nude body, then layering clothing on that. His knowledge of anatomy underlies the figure, giving it a much more realistic sense than most contemporary sculptors are able to achieve with less rigorous means. Miller’s own anatomy studies enhance the liveliness of his carving so that there is an incredible flow to Ceres’ robes — something that is very evident in the supine form that is near completion at the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre.
Miller’s portraits in wood are incredibly sensitive. The character of the individuals shines through the seemingly obdurate material. Miller is imbued with a love of carving and speaks of feeling relaxed and joyous at the end of a day of work. His portrait piece “Stanley Fitch,” complete with eyeglasses carved on the face, feels like an integral part of his subject’s personality.
The elderly farmer, “Percy,” and the couple, “Howard and Dot,” are more expressive and personal than a photograph or a painting. The character of each person seems alive before our eyes, under Miller’s sensitive strokes. The flow of the lines of carving, all done by hand, follow the form as intimately as a sculptor’s fingers working clay. This is an extraordinary achievement and a real legacy creation for many generations.
Most of Miller’s personal work in granite and marble is figurative. The female form seems to be of endless inspiration to him. He has also joined forces with other sculptors who have an ongoing project at the Millstone Hill Sculpture Park on the site of the old Websterville quarry. There is a plentiful supply of grey Barre granite, and one never knows when one of Miller’s trolls or Hephaestus, the god of fire, might emerge from an old quarry block. Another popular work is a sculptural truck that Miller built, with community support, that resides in Maple Corner, Calais.
Miller doesn’t see much of a difference between public and private work. He approaches them with the same spirit. With personal sculptures shown in galleries, he never knows where they will end up. With a public art piece, the area has to be researched, and the artist has to come up with an idea that is relevant. For one commission in Marion, Iowa, a bike-centric community, Miller designed a bike rack supported by granite gloves carved from the town’s photos. One of his bike racks featuring gargoyles engaged in an eternal tug of war graces Barre’s North Main Street.
Williams’ approach to working with clients on public commissions is a genuinely collaborative one, whether he is working on a memorial sculpture for a family grieving over the loss of their infant daughter or a 10-foot-high granite Teddy bear for Highland Park in Dallas, Texas. His modus operandi is consistently professional, beginning with drawings, moving towards a clay model, then the final execution in stone using diamond saws and pneumatic tools powered by air. For the Barre City and Elementary School, Williams chose to create a collection of freestanding Teddy bears tumbling playfully in one of the sculptural niches at the school.
Williams admits that the challenge of running a carving business and creating personal work is not an easy one. He’s not sure that there is a “happy medium,” and often feels that he is “stealing time” to make personal work. His personal work is often carved granite and mixed media. Two pieces that demonstrate this are “Argon,” a split sphere, combining high polish and texture that contains a line of blue argon gas. “Neon,” a linear piece with a mysterious, mask-like face, is illuminated with a center of red. Williams loves the effect of the light energy contrasting with the density of the stone. Other pieces are always representational, but not figurative. The work “Warm Gun” is a tour de force of softly draped fabric covering a form that reveals itself as a gun only after close inspection.
Williams and Miller belong to a group of sculptors who believe in collaboration. At times, an artist is awarded a commission and will come to Williams to create the model. If Williams or Miller needs help on a larger project, they may bring in one or two other carvers. Large-scale sculpture takes a cooperative effort, and it is this spirit of sharing between Williams and Miller that animates the Ceres project. They both tell of a chance meeting at LBJ’s store in Worcester and discussing the requirements for the Ceres sculpture. It was that informal conversation that led them to the path of creating a proposal together to apply for the commission.
Williams was involved in the early days of the Barre Sculptors and Artisans Guild, a loose affiliation of Barre carvers who were also creating their own personal sculpture. What began as a Friday afternoon gathering to drink beer together at Gaylord’s studio blossomed into a group that showed their work together. Their first show filled Williams’ studio in 1986. Some of those carvers still participate in the annual Stone Show at Studio Place arts.
Williams also participated in the Burlington International Sculpture Symposium organized by University of Vermont professor and sculptor Paul Aschenbach. The intense six-week symposium resulted in a park on the site of the Moran Municipal Generation Station, which endured for 23 years. Local sculptors worked with sculptors from Japan, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Scotland, the Netherlands and Romania to create a people-friendly environment that has been temporarily dismantled and hopefully awaits a second installation in Burlington’s redesigned waterfront area.
Sue Higby, director of Barre’s Studio Place Arts (SPA), has supported the personal work of Barre carvers by hosting the annual Stone Show at SPA. She has also been a key mover in the execution of public projects in Barre, including developing and securing funding for the Stone Sculpture Legacy Program, which was supported initially by the Charles Semprebon Fund. It was Higby who approached Miller with the idea of creating a site-specific piece in a narrow space between Studio Place Arts and Barre City Place. The resulting “Unzipping the Earth,” simultaneously a sculpture and a garden, was designed and executed by Miller, and won the 2014 American Society of Landscape Architects Merit Award for Public Places.
Both Miller and Williams are outstanding examples of the creativity and perseverance that marks sculptors who carve stone or wood. In dealing with an obdurate material, one has to have an eternally flexible attitude — a willingness to work with the stone, not in competition with it — a willingness to bend the carving to follow the flow of the grain of the wood or stone.
Vermont is fortunate to count these seasoned professionals among the ranks of its profuse community of artists. They are exemplars of artists who have followed their individual paths, and have succeeded in creating exceptional works of art in both the public and private sphere. They have given generously to their communities, and richly deserve the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.