William Faulkner’s famous line — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — applies at least as well to Barre, Vt., as it does to the author’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Reminders of bygone eras are everywhere.
Until last year, for instance, the downtown lot alongside Studio Place Arts held a 120-year-old building, most recently the site of the Coins & Hobbies Shop and a Brooks Pharmacy. Before that, notes SPA director Sue Higby, the structure — torn down in 2010 — was the home of Gorman’s, a sweets and tobacco shop fondly remembered by Barre old-timers as a spot to court and spark.
Directly across the street lies Depot Square. Now little more than a parking lot, it was once Barre’s version of a piazza, says Higby, where, 80 years ago, the mainly Italian “master carvers would sit smoking and critiquing one another’s work.”
The SPA impresario is paying homage to this past — and helping ensure it remains in the present — by seeding the former Brooks lot adjoining the gallery with five granite sculptures made by contemporary Barre carvers.
Prominent among them is “Daddy’s Chair,” a one-ton block of white stone that’s been perfectly contoured to a sitter’s back and buttocks by Giuliano Cecchinelli II. A sign invites visitors to the month-old sculpture park to take a seat and make themselves comfortable.
Nearby lies “The Supplicant,” by Sophie Bettmann-Kerson. It’s a female form carved in a prone, prayerful position, hands extended and cupped to hold the birdseed that the artist considers an integral part of her piece.
Gampo Wickenheiser’s “Brothers From Machu Picchu” uses slate slabs projecting from a granite base to suggest an Incan headdress. “Key,” by Jerry Williams, is exactly what its title indicates: a gigantic granite key laid horizontally on a stone pedestal with sides chiseled into chunky undulations. In “Crumby Art,” carver John Hickory riffs on the psychedelic cartoons of R. Crumb to create a set of angles and curves that, Higby says, evokes Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” cartoon.
These pieces were painstakingly lowered into place by an octogenarian crane operator, Francis Tash, and a younger volunteer, Joe Calcagni, whose ancestors established the Granite Corporation of Barre more than a century ago. Like the carvers, these two men are rock stars who “would not want to do anything second rate,” Higby says. “People are really proud that this is happening here.”
The sculpture garden is likely to be a temporary installation, however. The city now owns the 18,000-square-foot site, and its leaders want to construct a three-story, $8 million building that might house a grocery store, gym and offices. Higby, who is using the lot with permission from Barre officials, says it’s OK with her if the sculpture park move eventually gives way to a multipurpose structure, though she plans to keep adding pieces — perhaps including a monumental work — over the next year or two.
The five pieces currently on display are for sale, but Higby isn’t taking commissions, so “all the money rolls back to the carving studios,” she says.
Is she worried that a white granite armchair will present too tempting a target for taggers? Higby says she’s “nervously optimistic” that all the pieces will remain graffiti free. She’s installed two security cameras to deter vandals, but she’s relying more on the personal connections that run deep in Barre.
“Everybody here has a grandfather, an uncle, or at least a friend of a friend who carved or works in the quarries,” Higby says. Besides, she says, “community members who grew up with beauty don’t damage beauty.”