Below is an excerpt from a recent speech given for the dedication of “Virginia Dormire,” the dry stone sculpture I constructed on a Southern Connecticut property in 2009.
I’ve been asked to talk about sculpture’s place in the history of art, and dry stone’s place in art making, today. Anyone who has taken an art history class in the past 100 years can probably remember being introduced to the “Venus of Willendorf.” The tiny, carved stone figurine has been considered the world’s oldest statue, until recently. In 2008 a 3” ivory statuette was found by archaeologists in a German cave. Radiocarbon dating showed that this female figurine is at least 35,000 years old, making it 13,000 years older than the “Venus of Willendorf.”
Who made the first sculpture, and when? While that’s a question archaeologists would like a definitive answer for, it’s a question that anyone with an interest in art, or philosophy, or comparative linguistics might find intriguing, as well. Imagine a person long ago taking up a handful of clay and shaping it into what was to become the first object of recognizable human form. That act may have sparked the beginning of abstract thinking which in turn led to the development of language. It may be the artistic ability of a single, early human that I have to thank for my being able to communicate here today, through speech. To him or her I owe a debt of gratitude, for sure, but being a typical 21st century guy, I have to ask, “What has Art done for me lately?”
Art took a back seat to the sciences in the twentieth century. Penicillin and rocket engines made the big headlines. One might wonder if we’ll ever see another flowering of the arts such as there was during the Renaissance, for instance. Through the commercial glare of contemporary culture it may be difficult to see the many acts of art taking place around us. They’re out there, though, and I believe their numbers are growing. I take heart in the multiplicity and diversity I see. The production of art represents society’s true health and vitality.
While I can’t speak for all facets of the creative spirit that are now alive and at work, I can comment on those I know best. In the realm of dry stone construction there’s a lot going on all over the world. To illustrate just how pervasive it is, I offer three examples, using only artists and craftsmen having in common the first name; “Andy”.
Australian sculptor, Andrew Rodgers is creating “Rhythms of Life”, the largest contemporary land art undertaking in the world, forming a chain of 46 massive stone sculptures, or Geoglyphs, around the globe. The project has involved over 6,700 people in 13 countries across six continents.
In 2009 British mastercraftsman, dry stone waller Andrew Loudon created One World Garden in Chelmsford, England to commemorate the centenary of the International Scout Jamboree. The main feature of the garden is a pool with a half domed cave. The stonework radiates from a central point to form a remarkable sunburst pattern. Andrew was awarded the Dry Stone Walling Association’s Pinnacle Award for that achievement.
Andy Goldsworthy’s work has received worldwide acclaim. The artist’s commissions have included pieces for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, NY. All of these pieces include dry stone constructions. In a recent interview in The Daily Telegraph Andy Goldsworthy said that he has taken dry stone walling and made it into high art. Since its construction in 1998 by a team of UK wallers, the Storm King “Wall that went for a Walk” has gained recognition as a stone wall icon, right up there with Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China.
It would be easy to dismiss a handcraft that requires no tools as being primitive. After all, the act of putting one stone on two is as basic as it gets. It’s even plausible that dry stone walling was the first method used by humans to create a built environment. To make the world of today we’ve moved far beyond the simplest that physics has to offer; gravity and friction. But I think it would be a mistake to leave something that has worked so well for so long, behind us. Stone is in our bones and in our muscle memory. A dry stone construction can stand for hundreds of years. It can be the physical link that represents the psychic bond between generations in a community.
Stone workers are not the only ones to use stone in their creations. For ages, poets have mined rock for metaphor. In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost famously asks why “good fences make good neighbors.” He classifies mending wall as “just another kind of out-door game,” a sentiment I wholly share. His poem “The Birthplace” speaks to the connection stone can make between generations. In it a man looks at his family history on a New England side-hill farm with these first lines -
Here further up the mountain slope
Than there was every any hope, My father built, enclosed a spring, Strung chains of wall round everything, Subdued the growth of earth to grass, And brought our various lives to pass.
Working with stone, on the land, has an appeal that reaches back to the same human impulses that shaped the long-lost ivory figurine. Over the past 35,000 years, the desire to interpret our surroundings in a personal way hasn’t really changed. The earth’s crust has been shifting and shaping itself for millions of years, including the relatively short time humans have stood on it. Perhaps the urge to do the same; assemble stones in a relationship to one another, is an expression of solidarity with that age-old process. Fitting stones together is a natural way for us to fit in with our ever-evolving, place on earth.