About a mile from Lake Champlain in Panton there’s an animal sanctuary, of sorts, that is also the site of a new sculpture studio. Eben Markowski is a self-taught artist who creates life-size metal sculptures of wild animals. It’s a skill that he learned while working with sheet metal in his father’s auto shop.
There are many four-legged residents on the homestead of Eben and Heidi Markowski. This includes nine sheep, four goats, a cow, a cat and four dogs.
They also have six ducks, eight roosters, 15 hens and three pigs.
The Markowskis adopted some of the animals from Shelburne Farms. None of them will be eaten because Eben and Heidi don’t eat meat. They spend thousands of dollars a year feeding and providing medical care for their menagerie because Eben Markowski has a deep bond with animals. This fondness extends back to his earliest memories.
"You know you could go back to my mother’s photo albums, the earliest photos there are of me," Markowski says. "I am holding a frog or a crayfish or a worm."
Eben Markowski is 37 but he started making animal sculptures at the tender age of three. His father, Peter Markowski, relates this story.
"This one day he said to me, "I made a rabbit." "OK, that’s great." And I said, "Well, can I see your rabbit?" So, he opened his little hand and sitting there is an unbelievable small to scale rabbit out of Playdough. He loved Playdough. Oh, my gosh. So, he had that. He had that."
Peter Markowski owns Restoration and Performance Motorcars in Vergennes, which specializes in Italian sports cars like Ferraris. Eben was just 10 years old when his father taught him how to weld. He and his brother loved working on cars, even if, at times, their father didn’t want customers to know just how young the mechanics were.
"My father’d put the phone to his chest and he’d say, "Guys, come on." And he’d shoo us out from under cars because a client may have been coming in and he didn’t want to see two little kids putting a drive shaft into his car," Eben explains.
Markowski’s father allowed him to use the car shop’s tools and work space to make sculptures from metal. Markowski didn’t have a commission for a sculpture of a giraffe but he was working on it any way when a couple pulled in to the shop.
"Former clients of the garage happened to be driving by the shop one day when I was out working and I remember them abruptly pulling in," Eben said. "Fortunately for me, they saw the potential in it and I was completely blown away by their interest in it and their willingness to want to own it."
Markowski’s animals sculptures are stylized but anatomically accurate with an emotion about them. Before the giraffe sculpture was finished, another customer of the family garage drove up and ordered a second giraffe. He’s also sculpted a life-size horse, a dolphin and a gargoyle. His method is to hammer sheets of copper onto wooden forms.
Markowski was able to translate his newly honed sculpting abilities back into the car business, doing body work on automobiles.
"That created my niche in the company that didn’t exist before," he explained. "So, instead of having to say, "Oh, we need to have this door panel made. We need to go to Boston or California to find someone to do sheet metal." I happened to be there teaching myself how to do this but not for cars. I was trying to get away from cars. I was doing it for sculptures."
Markowski was working on a sculpture of a rhinoceros when a rare 1951 Ferrari came to the family car shop.
Peter Markowski thought that his son would be perfect for the project. "We try not to give him the mundane tasks because his head isn’t in it but when it’s a huge challenge or something really off the wall, he’s all about that."
Homer Wells is a painter and tinkerer who lives in Monkton. Wells says "Eben’s powers of observation and mechanical voodoo is beyond belief."
"He’s just a truly gifted artist that not only understands animal forms but mechanical forms and machines and movements." Wells notes. "And it’s just an incredible host of skills."
Those skills were all self-taught. Markowski didn’t go to college. But his art career just got a major shot in the arm. He recently got a commission for a sculpture of a life-size elephant and its calf from a woman who saw one of his giraffes.
Markowski says the elephant commission is a turning point in his career. "This will be one that I will be able to make a living while I do this. My plan is that I’m not going to have to necessarily scramble to find work on the side so that I can afford to build a sculpture for someone."
The elephant commission has enabled Markowski to build a studio at his home in Panton. The true-to-life elephant sculpture, which he plans to do in steel, will start to take shape this month.