May 062008

May 2008
Stowe Reporter
Feature: Artist Profile


Permanence in a Perennial Landscape

The Life and Work of Sculptor Chris Curtis


Just off the Mountain Road in Stowe, behind the notorious Rusty Nail Bar and Grille, stands a squat, aluminum-grey building, its roof rusted, its parking lot a rutted disaster of dirt and stone. To the casual eye, the West Branch Gallery and Sculpture Park may look like nothing more than an old warehouse incongruently and without thought plopped down in the middle of a field. And that is, in fact, exactly what it is. Or at least that is what it used to be. Its siding is an industrial metal. Its architecture boxy and dull. And yet, inside the gallery and on the rolling three-and-a-half acre lawn out back, the aesthetics are incomparable.

The West Branch Gallery and Sculpture Park is the artistic home of sculptor Chris Curtis and painter Teri Swenson. The couple opened the park in 1997 and originally used the warehouse as a studio. In 2004, they then renovated a portion of the warehouse and opened the gallery. Renovations are now again under way, which will nearly double the gallery’s current space. An undulating landscape of man-made berms, rolling hills, stone patios and a manicured lawn leads from the back of the gallery, down to banks of the West Branch River. Further on, a flood plain of knee high grass and spindly birch tree melds with the distance mountain.

As the name denotes, the West Branch Gallery is made up of two spaces, disparate yet connected, inside and out and separated by a large retractable glass door that stands, floor to ceiling, at the center of the gallery’s rear wall. Over 40 artists now display their work here, and that work varies from the more traditional portraits by artist Susan Hoffman to the Asian-styled, ink and rice paper paintings of Swenson. In the park, 25 sculptures sparsely populate the lawn and range from the powerful steel pieces of Claude Millette to the weighted, stone works of Curtis.

Chris Curtis sits in a small office just of the main gallery. A bank of tall windows faces the park. He turns, on occasion, to glance out across the lawn. He is 56. His clothes are worn and dusted with flecks of granite. His hands are coarse from decades of work. His hair, once a dirty blond, gives way now to a encroaching grey. In another time and place, and one, in fact, not so far from here, Curtis may be mistaken for a quarryman, and it is a comparison he is proud of.

Curtis’s office is cluttered. His desk, several tables and nearly the whole of the floor are cover with the literal rubble of his art—stone pieces still in process, others still awaiting his hand, and others still long ago abandoned to his latest inspiration. A two-foot long, orange object constructed of wood protrudes up and out of the rubble on his desk. It is close at hand. Close enough for Curtis to reach out and touch. What it “is” exactly, is not immediately clear. “This is one of the first pieces I ever made,” Curtis says, “nearly forty years ago.”

Curtis sees himself as in the prime of his life. He considers himself fortunate to have the things he does — the gallery, his studio in Barre, good health and the tools he needs to do his work. He recalls a time, long ago, when he got his first diamond saw blade. It was a moment of great joy, and it changed the work he was able to do. Today, Curtis works with a massive, room-sized, belt-driven table saw, capable of cutting stones that weigh in excess of 16,000 pounds.

The primary medium of Curtis’ work is stone, though he will often venture into similarly timeless materials, such as bronze and stainless steel. When he speaks of his work, he treads cautiously between their “meaning” and their “essence.” Does he work with a particular message in mind? “Yes,” says Curtis, “ sometimes.” But he is quick to dismiss this as being the only criterion through which to value art. Some of his pieces are very much about their meaning, while others can be simply be “beautiful or cool.” He tells the story of a gardener asking a sculptor for the meaning of his work, to which the sculptor replies, “What is the meaning of your flower?”

Curtis says that at times he wishes he could convey to the viewer the importance of the content he has worked into a piece, but, he adds, “There is also part of the intellectual content which is subjective, where people put their own meaning into (the work).” For Curtis, the connection between his art and its meaning is as solid as the stone from which it is carved. It has been said that art is a dialogue that exists between the artist and the audience, and for Curtis, this dialogue is rooted firmly in his philosophy of time and man’s place within in that time. Curtis is not so much a traditionalist saying ‘Look here, see this,’ as he is asking his audience, the viewer, to ‘connect with and understand.’

In many of Curtis’ pieces, the outer edges of the stone are left unaltered, with rudimentary shapes, like circles or rectangles, cut from their centers. Curtis does not, like many sculptors, choose stones that he will then alter in their entirely, creating something new and unrecognizable from the original stone. Instead, he chooses stones that lend to the finished work. He speaks of the stone with an almost religious-like awe, of the millennia it took to shape and form each stone and of the chemical processes and glacial shifts that brought the stone into being. “You walk by stones by the millions on the ground,” he says, “but when you begin to look at them more closely… if you elevate them into people consciousness, they become different objects.”

This is the element of time that pervades all of Curtis’s works. It is a time immemorial, extending as far back as the origins of the earth and on for centuries, if not millennia, into the future. The shapes that Curtis cuts into these stones are the human affect upon that time. He says that he often muses over humans 20,000 years from now mulling over his pieces and wondering what they might have meant — the same way he now muses over sculptures that have survived for more than 25,000 years. “Even at that time, (sculptors) were applying pretty high skill with crude tools and put a lot of effort into (what they created),” Curtis said. “Boy, when I look at that stuff, I get shivers.”

One of Curtis’ more sculpted pieces, “Luna’s Disk,” is a large granite disk set atop a flowing base of bronze. It is nearly six feet tall and stands on the crest a small knoll, set apart from the center of the park. Its base was created by liquefying bronze and then spraying it into shape, as if spraying paint. The result is that of a drapery like fluidness to the hardened metal. The disk is reminiscent of the small jade disks Curtis saw in museum in Chicago more than 16 years ago. Two circles are cut from the disc, one large center circle and another smaller satellite off to the side. A long channel opens the center circle to the outer edge of the stone, which Curtis explains is a representation of fertility, evident, he hopes, to any person past, present and future who has experienced the magic of birth. Where the sculpture stands and set against the back drop of wispy spring clouds, “Luna’s Disk” evokes a feeling of isolation, not lonely but solitary, like an image of the virgin and her child— the circle and its satellite, the life of one wholly dependent on the other.

Another, more crudely defined piece by Curtis is one titled Garnet in the Rough.” When approaching the stone from the center of the park, the pieces appears to be little more than a massive, three foot stone stood on edge. Curtis rubs his hand over the stone and points out the pebbled-sized chunks of maroon garnet that protrude from the surface. Time, again, is an important element in the piece, namely the thousands of years it took for the stone to form, forever trapping the garnet within it. As one moves around the stone, however, Curtis’s impact upon it is startling. Facing away from the park and out of immediate view is a large, open wound in stone, the inner stone polished smooth. The dark, earthy tones of the outer stone stand now in sharp contrast to rich, velvety blue interior, evoking a sort feminine eroticism—the trapped garnet now like freckles in the blue-smooth skin.

Toward the back of the park stands another of Curtis’s work:“The Portal, a towering 12-foot by 4 foot slab of green granite stood lengthwise on its edge and set against the back drop of the river and the flood-plain forest of slender birch trees behind. The outer edge of the granite has been left as it was found, abraded and coarse. Down the center, a long, slender rectangle has been removed, the inner edges of the hole polished smooth. It is one of Curtis’s more rudimentary sculptures, and yet there is something about it that encapsulates the whole of his artistic philosophy. The piece is massive. Immovable. Out of place yet evoking a sense of permanence. Without time, Curtis explains, the stone would have never formed, and without man it would have never stood, never been disturbed, never been venerated as work of art. It is a timeless as the river behind it, yet beautiful, now, in this time, because we are here to see it.

This powerful sense time is captured yet again, and perhaps unwittingly, in another of Curtis’ pieces. The work is the “Window,” a large round stone with a scoop taken out of the top and side, as if by a giant melon baller. What remains is a polished wave of stone, with the outer surface of the stone left coarse. Imbued, as one can’t help being, with Curtis’s powerful sense of time in all his work, there is one particular aspect of this piece that catches the eye. It is Curtis’ signature, a small and subtle “C. Curtis ’06,” carved near the bottom of the stone. Stone lasts forever, Curtis tells us. His pieces will live on, reflective of man’s temporal place in the millennia of time. To us the ’06 means something, its sets this stone, this sculpture, firmly in the history of our lives, personal and real, connecting us to it in time and place, perhaps even in emotion, as we reflect upon our place in time. And yet, what will it all mean for others in 500, 1,000, 10,000 years? How many ’06s will have come and gone?

It is, perhaps, in understanding this contradiction of time and in grasping the humble richness of it implications, that one a better chance understanding, as Curtis wishes us to, the depth of meaning he carves into all his work. As Curtis says, “People say that we are in this together. Well, we are in this together. We are in this with people who have been dead a long time, and we are paving some kind of path for all our unborn generations.”