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Flights of fancy: Top sculptors exhibit new works at Brookgreen

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Dale Weiler of Tryon, N.C., made a special delivery to Brookgreen Gardens last week. He completed the five-hour drive towing a U-Haul trailer containing a carefully packed crate protecting his sculpture of a snowy owl in white marble in time for Saturday’s opening of the National Sculpture Society’s 81st Annual Awards Exhibition in Brookgreen’s Rainey Sculpture Pavilion.

The show has been at Brookgreen for the past 15 years, and Weiler said it’s entirely fitting. “It always takes my breath away when I come here,” he said. “No matter how good you are feeling about yourself, you come here and get humble really quickly. Visitors have no idea how impressive this is, and it’s not just the number of pieces but the scale of them. A lot of people don’t appreciate what it takes to cut a stone. You see some of these monstrous pieces. That was back when we didn’t have power equipment. Having done this for a number of years, I feel the pain of those people who had to do all that hand work. It just takes forever, and to get that detail with stone is just remarkable.”

Though many of the pieces in the 81st annual National Sculpture Society show are small, arranging them with the 20 animals on one side of the pavilion and 28 human figures on the other was a chore for Robin Salmon, Brookgreen’s vice president of art and historical collections and curator of sculpture, and her staff.

“Even though we have photographs and dimensions,” Salmon said, “it’s difficult to plan where to place things.” Sculptor Deon Duncan’s bronze figure of a swimmer, “Blue Lotis,” was not as large as she thought it would be. A bust of pilot Amelia Earhart arrived with its own pedestal, so it stood twice as high as she expected.

Earhart is one of a number of sculpted portraits in this year’s show, joining Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Dickens, biologist E.O. Wilson and inventor Nikola Tesla. There are some unique materials, Salmon said. A three-piece work by Tom Silveroli of Maryland is made of urethane and painted. She pointed out “Jack,” a ceramic clown’s head sitting on a spring. “Kind of wild,” she said.

Not all sculptures arrive undamaged. Salmon pointed to the tip of a woman’s nose in a bronze named “Torrey” by Karina Furhman of California as an example. There was a small mark. “We can camouflage it so it won’t look funny,” Salmon said. “Shoe polish is amazing.”

Jeff Hall, manager of galleries, and associates Preston Moorhead and Julia Mills took great care unpacking the crates containing the sculpture. They will have to reverse the procedures to send the pieces back to the artists when the show closes Nov. 2. The staff does a condition report on each one as it’s opened, sometimes taking pictures as a reminder of how the artists bundled their creations in layers.

Brookgreen coordinates with Coastal Transfer and Storage of Georgetown to transport the sculptures after finding it too time consuming to receive the crates separately. The company collected the shipments and brought a truckload to Brookgreen the Monday before the show opened. There are always some artists, Salmon said, who “mess up” and ship directly to Brookgreen.

Others, like Jay Goldstein of Allentown, Pa., with his walnut “Flamingos” and Weiler, want to do it themselves. Goldstein was at Brookgreen when it opened Tuesday, and Weiler stopped Wednesday on his way to Dallas. Weiler came to sculpture late in life — after a career as an engineering consultant and a stint as a Navy pilot. His father, a professional illustrator in New York, warned him against becoming an artist. Weiler didn’t get any of his father’s drawing and painting ability and didn’t discover his sculpting talent until his wife told him he was “dying on the vine” and sent him to a stone sculpting course at the Maine School of Art. “When my hands touched stone,” he said, “that was it. There was just chemistry.”

Weiler said if he looks at a piece of stone long enough, he will see the sculpture. It took him three years to see the snowy owl in the piece of white marble that broke off a corner of a block intended for a monument in Washington, D.C. “Once I could see it,” he said, “I could go after it, but until I see it I just don’t touch it. Then it’s just a matter of removing the stone that shouldn’t be there.”

Weiler said he envisioned the owl’s wings in the stone first. “I didn’t know quite how the head was going to be,” he said. “Sometimes I begin with the head in one direction and can see it turn in the stone. Sometimes the shape of the stone tells me. Other times there are veins in the stone, both spacial and color. You’ve got a lot of time to change your mind, within reason, because it’s a subtractive process. Once you take it off, it’s gone. I just wait for the stone to tell me.”

The exhibit will be on display in the Rainey Sculpture Pavilion through Nov. 2. A jury will select the prize winners, and they will be announced, along with the People’s Choice Award, near the show’s conclusion.

Updates: This version was changed from the Aug. 21 print version to correct the spelling of the title of Furhman’s sculpture and to remove a reference to how the work was damaged. She said in an e-mail that the cause of the damage is unknown.

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