Reviving the art of carving marble

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(Host) At one time, some 700 quarries dotted the Vermont landscape, carving out ancient deposits of marble, slate and granite.

By the late 1800s, three thousand people were employed by quarries in West Rutland alone.

But after World War II, the marble industry and the art of stone carving began to fade.

Today, a unique school tucked in the hills of West Rutland is trying to revive that art. VPR’s Nina Keck has more.

(Keck) The first thing you notice when you drive to the Carving Studio is the intriguing assortment of sculptures on display. They dot the landscape like strange flowers of polished rock, twisted metal and sculpted wood. The other thing you notice is the sound.

(Carving sound)

(Keck) It’s like an outdoor dental office for really big teeth. Pneumatic drills, chisels and polishers hum as an edge is smoothed, a surface filed, or a corner cut. On this October afternoon, seven men and women stand in brilliant autumn sunlight. One of them, Boston resident Sarah Rodrigo, gently works a piece of alabaster.

(Sarah Rodrigo) Right now, I’m just using files because of the softness of the stone. Over hear, you can see that line and that’s a fissure in the stone and if I started using the chisels again and really putting pressure on it again, then I might lose another chunk of it.

(Keck) With painting and other kinds of sculpture, Rodrigo says the artist adds material. But with carving, material is taken away. She says that requires a different kind of creativity that she finds both exciting and challenging.

(Sarah Rodrigo) It’s very therapeutic. You’re working so hard on it and at the same time you’re brain is moving so slowly, sort of planning the steps ahead that it’s really fantastic mental and physical process combined and it’s fun. I’m going to whittle this into a pile of dust it’s so fun!

(Keck) The Carving Studio was founded in 1987 by Hubbardton sculptor B. Amore. She says as a student in the early 1970s, most of her instructors dismissed her interest in stone.

(Amore) I called all the monument companies to try and find someone to teach me stone and in fact I couldn’t find anybody. It just infuriated me that there was this prejudice against stone carving. Because people thought that stone was very obdurate and it was really hard and so slow and so hard to learn the lessons of sculpture and these are things that I heard over and over again in schools.

(Keck) So, Amore combed through libraries and taught herself. Eventually, she studied in Italy – a place she calls the Mecca of stone carving. She says the training she got there was amazing and it pushed her to create something similar in the states.

(Amore) “When I started the carving studio, I wanted something where people could really learn marble carving from A to Z.. where they could be exposed to a lot of different kinds of instruction,where they could really see the possibilities of working with stone.”

(Keck) The school ended up in Vermont by chance. In 1986, as a teacher in Boston, Amore says she was planning to lead a three-week stone carving workshop in Italy. But the Chernobyl nuclear disaster forced the group to change plans. A colleague suggested she bring her students to Proctor and work at the Vermont Marble Company. The impromptu workshop worked out so well that Amore decided to offer a similar course in Proctor the following summer. The Carving Studio was born. Three years later, it moved to an old quarry warehouse in West Rutland where it’s been ever since.

(Amore) What could be more natural than having stone carving studio in a place that has nurtured so much work in stone. I mean the marble from these quarries fills Washington DC. Most of the carving that was done in Washington DC was done right here in Proctor and West Rutland. I mean it’s a place where stone was born.

(Keck) Today, more than 200 students and 25 teachers participate in the Carving Studio, the only year round sculpture school of its kind. Like many nonprofit arts organizations, the Carving Studio struggles with the ups and downs of the economy.

Executive Director Carol Driscoll says they’ve managed to stay in the black, barely, with grants, private donations and course fees.

The struggle is paying off, however. Driscoll says five separate buildings in West Rutland have been bought and renovated by artists affiliated with the Carving Studio. And she says those same artists and others like them are helping to reignite interest in an art form that helped shape the history, economy and culture of the region.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in West Rutland.

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