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Body Works

For Winooski sculptor Leslie Fry, home is where the art is


Published May 1, 2006 at 5:13 p.m.

It's springtime, and Leslie Fry's garden is abloom -- with human-like sculptures that, artistically speaking, have one foot in the botanical world and another in ancient architecture. Or medieval culture, or the animal kingdom. It's an eclectic mix, part fantasy and part metaphor. Fry's works create a sort of mythical surrealism, where human-looking skin, bone and sinew meld with leaves, roots, tree limbs and animal features. The combined effect bridges the gap between the human and natural worlds, between physical and psychological landscapes.

Fry, an accomplished, Montréal-born artist, has owned a Winooski duplex with an expansive yard for 14 years. The grounds are replete with large sculptures and objets d'art that either don't fit inside her crowded barn or simply don't need to be confined indoors.

In one corner stands a large, welded-steel dress shaped like a cat's head. Later this season, the dress will burst into a bright floral pattern, when the vines growing on it bloom. In the center of the lawn stands a tall but simple metal sculpture of a woman's body -- the "mother wicket" for a set of smaller croquet wickets that are also shaped like the feminine form, Fry explains. And outside her nearby barn sits a jumble of ancient-looking ruins -- concrete gargoyles, sphinxes, pillars and ziggurats. All bear some resemblance to human, plant and/or animal features: claws, faces, fruits, torsos.

Fry is best known for her large public sculptures, in the United States and abroad. Her pieces have appeared in Burlington's Firehouse Gallery, the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida, Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montréal, the Kunsthaus in Hamburg, Germany, and the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris.

But despite their large scale and outdoorsy themes, Fry's pieces can work equally well indoors. In fact, lately she's been moving toward designing smaller-scale sculptures more suitable for homes, gardens and small businesses. It's a process she calls "artistic intervention" -- that is, going into an empty space and transforming it into something aesthetically unique and special.

Many Burlington residents are no doubt familiar with Fry's larger pieces. In 1999, she created the garden of concrete sphinxes and lions in the Pomerleau Neighborhood Park, on the corner of Shelburne Road and Home Avenue. Adjacent to the bus stop outside the Price Chopper supermarket, the circular garden features vine-covered columns, cobblestone walks and small sitting walls. It serves as an oasis from the commercial cacophony of Route 7.

Less well known but more thematically complex is the sculpture Fry created in 2003 for the Mermaid House at 84 North Avenue in the Old North End. The mermaid sculpture juts from the building's façade and incorporates themes related to the building's long history. During the excavation of the Mermaid House site, workers uncovered the bones of soldiers from the War of 1812. They also unearthed a stash of coffee pots, suggesting that the site was once used as a military supply depot during the war.

Fry incorporated these themes by designing a mermaid wearing a hat from a soldier's uniform of that period; to commemorate the supply depot, the mermaid is holding a coffee pot. Because the sculpture faces Lake Champlain, her hair is composed of leaping lake perch. The mermaid's tail fans into a scallop shell, a nod to a more recent tenant of the property: a Shell gas station. Fry's one lament is that there's no plaque on the building explaining the symbolic significance of all these features.

Her most recent public piece was a series of wall-relief sculptures commissioned by the Pompano Beach Branch Library in Fort Lauderdale. Installed last year, the sculptures combine the themes of nature and human knowledge, with pompano fish leaping from a sea of letters and numbers.

Though the work was artistically a success, Fry admits that the process was hugely bureaucratic and laboriously time-consuming. Each sculpture was created only after a number of community outreach meetings, which occurred at four different libraries. She also had to develop two sets of designs for each library, and work with six different project managers. In all, the design alone took two years to be approved.

Today, Fry still applies to calls for artists from around the United States. But she says she's developed a newfound appreciation for smaller projects and more personal, commissioned works. "The same skills that go into something big can go into something small," she says.

Fry's own home provides a glimpse into her more intimate creations. Hanging in her living room is one work in progress: two knot-like sculptures that reflect one another from opposing walls. Vaguely resembling reclined human bodies, or infinity symbols, the pieces comprise sheets of paper on which Fry had jotted down her thoughts and daily "to-do" lists. She's also thrown a few lottery tickets into the mix. "When you think about it, that's what a lot of people's lives are -- lists and dreams," Fry explains. "How do you get them together so your life isn't just lists?"

Most of her works are meant to be touched -- and to touch the people who commission them. Whether she's designing a piece for a large public museum or a small business or home, Fry says, she tries to incorporate the architecture of building, the natural contours of the land surrounding it and, most importantly, the personality and character of the people who work or live there.

This is evident from a new artistic direction on display in her living room: air-conditioner covers made of plaster molded from empty cookie wrappers. As Fry confesses, "I don't drink much or do drugs, but I do like my cookies."