Whale Tails Return to Randolph | Live Culture

Whale Tails Return to Randolph

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Installing "Whale Dance" by Jim Sardonis - BRIDGET HIGDON
  • Bridget Higdon
  • Installing "Whale Dance" by Jim Sardonis
With a panoramic mountain range as a backdrop, a beloved sculpture came home, in a sense, to Randolph today. “Whale Dance,” a new work by local artist Jim Sardonis, was unveiled at noon just off Interstate 89’s Exit 4.

“Reverence,” a similar sculpture by Sardonis, was originally sited on the land in 1989 and remained for a decade. When the farmland was sold to developer Jesse "Sam"  Sammis in 1999, the sculpture was moved to a spot along I-89 in South Burlington.

Thanks to a group of local fundraisers,  the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Vermont Community Foundation, Randolph residents got their whales back. Sardonis was commissioned to make another pair.



About 40 people, including members of the media, stood in the green field nearby to watch the installation process. Spectators shielded their faces from the 86-degree heat with sun hats and umbrellas.

“I don’t care about shade,” said Sharon Rives, a resident of Braintree and a producer of Vermont Pride Theater at the Chandler Center for the Arts. “All I care about is this view.” She spread her arms wide, pointing toward the Green Mountain vista.

The crane arrived at 9:30 a.m., and the first whale tail was lifted off the truck an hour later. The crane suspended the sculpture in mid-air as installers worked to line it up with the prepositioned concrete base.

“Whale Dance,” which stands at 16 feet tall, is the largest work Sardonis has ever completed, he said. Unlike “Reverence,” which is made of granite, the new sculpture is bronze.

“Bronze is strong, so I could make things bend and twist and lean a little more than I could with the stone,” Sardonis said. “I could make the whales dance.”

The artist said the original idea for his whale sculpture came to him in a dream in 1984.

“I was standing on a beach looking out [at the ocean] and saw these two whales’ tails emerge from the water,” he said. “I woke up thinking, I’d like to make that.”

Eric Sakai was one of the first people Sardonis told about the dream. Sakai came to the unveiling on Friday to support his friend and the project, he said.

The two men met in 1986 when they both joined local band Second Wind. Sardonis is the lead singer; Sakai plays the bass. (He's also the dean of academic technology at Community College of Vermont.)

“The location in South Burlington doesn’t fit his vision as well as this site does,” Sakai commented. “The sculpture has been missed for the past 20 years, and now it’s finally come home.”

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said the whales' relocation in 1999 was a big loss for Randolph.

“The sculpture was a surprise. You came off the exit and suddenly these tails were popping out of a field,” he said. “I drove by it many times and always smiled to myself.”

The Preservation Trust and other organizations worked to buy back the land starting in May 2015, according to an August 2018  article in Seven Days.

Sammis had planned to build a welcome center, hotel and residential complex on the site, but agreed to give up the land if the community could raise $1 million in two months.

“In just 57 days, we were able to raise the money needed to conserve the land,” Bruhn said. “Over 500 donors from all over the state contributed.”

Marjorie Ryerson, a photographer, editor and former Vermont legislator who lives in the Randolph area, said the fundraising volunteers became a family and used to meet in her home.

“We wrote letters and asked people on the street for donations,” she said. “I remember one woman handing me $3.63. All the money she had in her pocket.”

At the unveiling, Ryerson wore a white T-shirt with a colorful painting of the whale tails printed on its front.

“This was the original T-shirt from nearly 30 years ago,” she said. “I dug around in my closet this morning to find it.”

Jessica Taffet, who moved to Randolph in 2014, never had a chance to see “Reverence” in its previous location, but she said she was happy a new sculpture has been installed in the space.

Taffet is the co-director of Randolph Community Orchard, a food-security nonprofit that's now the steward of the property. Previously, she was a member of Exit 4 Open Space, a grassroots organization that helped raise the funds to reacquire the land.

“It’s so important that this land is now open for public recreation and enjoyment,” Taffet said. “And with the growing threat of climate change, it’s important, now more than ever, to conserve farmland.”

Around noon, when both tails were mounted and the plastic coverings removed, the sculpture could be viewed in its full glory. The bronze shimmered in the sunlight, giving the works the wet, glossy look of real whales.

“You can just imagine the whales underwater, snuggling up and dancing,” Bruhn said, smiling as he sat in his wheelchair underneath a pop-up canopy. “Most days, I have the best job in Vermont. And today is a great example of why.”

Correction, July 22, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Jim Sardonis' band. It is Second Wind.

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