CHARLES WELLS, Sculptor
This is a rough draft in Essay form, of my recollections of the time Charles and Diana Wells were living in Vermont. It was my pleasure to get to know them, to see early stages of Wells' work emerge. Details of lives get lost in time, so I thought to put this together now, perhaps even thinking that at some future time it may be used in a general study of the remarkable Art which Charles Wells has been doing for many decades now.
It was an early spring afternoon sometime in l968, I was setting out on the front lawn of my house on the Morgan Horse Farm Road (Weybridge Vermont), some polychromed steel sculptures which I had just finished, when a blue VW MicroBus with California plates stopped on the road. A tall, lean man stepped out, inquired my name, and said that he had been sent by Professor Reiff in the Middlebury College Art Department, who felt that I was the person he should see.
The van was stuffed with all sorts of bags and boxes, some more stuff strapped on top, as at the end of a long journey. Charles Wells introduced himself as "Wells" (nobody ever referred to him otherwise) and it was to be a while before I knew his prenomen was Charles or that he was known in his college years at Amherst as Chuck. He was tall, the very image of a Civil War General with a great mustache, tousled lanky locks, a vertical look which let his jeans and shirt hang rather than wrap around him. We went to the house for coffee, and his purpose unfolded.
He had come from California to work with the native marble of Vermont. He had been an English major at Amherst, then worked for a while as an apprentice with Baskin at Northhampton from l961 to l964.This was his introduction to drawing, etching and starting some work in sculpture. He then landed a visit to the American School at Rome with the intention of learning marble carving, stayed there for two years l964-5. Untaught in this craft, he went around to shops where men were carving, watched them and asked where he could get tools like theirs which were special to the Italian trade. With these he attacked a huge block of stone in the school courtyard, slowly learning how to remove parts chip by chip and get into the mass of the rock. In sculpture he was self-taught, which is often the best way for a serious artist, perhaps the one way to avoid being a pawn to art-history or a slave to your teacher's style. Wells had no intention of being either!
The Art Department had sent him to me to help him find a place to get settled and started at work. We cruised around looking for a house to rent, finally found one at the end of the little street which veers off from behind the Bristol town Library. The house had a large unused barn to go with it, within days Wells was at work on some great chunks of wood which quickly began to emerge as figures, faces. Then he got marble from the Vermont Marble Company, which was not yet a Swiss based industrial agglomerate grinding marble into fine powder as a filler for plastics. They sold him the broken chunks within which he saw possibilities, soon it was pounding and chinking all day every day as pieces emerged into view. He worked slowly but steadily every day for a two year stay in Vermont.
Diana came to Bristol right away, their house was small and old, the kitchen basic and nothing more, because it was the rigorous work they were there for. Village kids liked to gather around the barn doorway watching this odd occupation, but Wells needed privacy so he put up four sheets of plywood around the front and the kids went away. The next year he discovered the charm of working out in a remote field, where he could feel the air all around working with almost no clothing on, maybe nothing at times, his jeans hanging on a branch nearby. He thought some kids returning from school hid behind the trees to watch him, but was never sure and paid no attention.
I was interested in the basicness of his style and work habits, clunking with a steel block hammer and thin pointed chisels, not unlike a primitive man working carving with a stone hammer or a chunk of flint.........while he was evoking pieces of great sophistication, forms and faces of ineffable imagination and subtlety.
But it was not all work,. Wells was a most most sociable man when he could spare time from work. Among his minor amusements he had a way of "talking" in cat-language. He would start with a strong "meeeouw" and then mutate it into words and phrases so perfectly that you heard cat-voice on the one hand, and perfectly understandable sentences on the other. He also had a curious ability to imitate the voice of a very old lady, and I recall him answering wrong phone calls with an aged, crackling country-voice, Vermont accent and all. One cold day the housecat came walking in meouwing strongly, but no sound came forth: Laryngitis felica. Wells pondered a moment, then queried the cat: "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?", one of the best quips I ever heard. In fact Wells had an odd offbeat kind of personal humor, he really was different from other people, which may well be one of the keys to his style in sculpture. He and Diana glued up on the kitchen wall cutouts from the newspapers into a vast collage of wit and bewonderment, which excited attention and laughter from all. I think the wall was never photographed, I believe a major loss to the artist's oeuvre withal.
Two years was enough, then they were off to Italy, where I visited them a few years later in a remote village near the marble quarrying areas. My son was in college, an art major and wanted to see the marble valley and its workers, so we headed off early one fall to Castello where the Wells lived. His studio was down the valley at Pietrasanto, which Wells told me was named after one Giocardo di Pietrasanta, not the Holiness of Marble as American apprentices in carving who came to that famous region, might have assumed. We stayed with them for a few weeks in a great old stone mansion, which had probably never been warm for two hundred years. An old woman brought a wire-tied bundle of faggots every few days, which blazed instantly in the kitchen fireplace, and we had an hour's warmth while we ate. Then it was quick under the covers for the night. Wells had a studio down the hill in town, it was beside a shed filled with plaster models of saints and martyrs which had been used for "pointing" up marble copies for the churches of the world. This was all now an art-graveyard after the Catholic Church ordained that Mass could be done in the vernaculars, and art could be non- traditional and even abstract "Modern".
Slowly the carvers lost a little ground, but there were still plenty of saints to be carved, and the marble from there was so fine and the craftsmen so skilled, that sculptors from all over the world were sending their pieces down to be worked from scale models in stone. There were international carving students too, some Americans, and we dined with them at a certain ristorante once a week where I learned at last that the English "water-closet", mysteriously turned into French "duble-vay-say" without any meaning, was here simply "gabinetto". The Italians have a way of being direct and descriptive.
Wells was working in the gentle fall sunlight to the west of his studio- room, he had just finished a lovely girl's face which had all of that restrained pensiveness which characterizes his work. I have not seen it or a photo for over thirty years, but can recall its aura exactly. It was this sense of a personal atmosphere in his work which Wells was after, which is why he worked slowly and thoughtfully, always using hand tools in favor of the much faster air hammers. He needed time to think, to ponder and this was done best in phase with the slow business of removing marble ounce by ounce. Actually marble is not hard to carve, it is the art which is hard to carve out of the marble.
Wells had bought a little house on the mountainside, went back and forth annually from there to his father's place in Pennsylvania from l969 to mid l976, when his father, the author of "Between the Lines" from The Wells News Service, died. Settling back in this country, Wells entered a period of "henge building", outdoor sculpture oriented to the site, the surroundings and the celestial movements, and this along with printamking occupied him largelt through l980, when he moved back to stone carving. I reached him early one fall while there in Pennsyivania, and asked if he would do a one month Winterterm course at Middlebury College as an introduction to carving marble. I had an idea that one of those one- month projects which Middlebury College offered would be great for a course in marble sculpture, which had never been taught here or actually anywhere else in the East. So I put in a proposal to the Curriculum Board, which was accepted, and then set about getting the project in order. The Vermont Marble Company was agreeable and gave us two truckloads of pieces of irregular size, which is what a sculptors wants rather than sawed rectangular blocks. The odd shapes often suggest an inner form and this is where the carving wants to start.
We had to consider proper stonecarving tools, which are not available in this country. Italians have the best carving tools, with a hammer of completely soft steel weighing a pound to a pound and a half at the head. This drives a chisel, which is slim and forged out to a long, hardened point at the working end. But the hammering end must be formed into a small hardened cone, which the soft hammer drives inexorably without slipping, loss of force or any ringing sound. People in this country use hard hammers which slip badly on the rounded- over chisel heads, producing an annoying and acoustically dangerous ringing. So we had to get sets of tools in the Italian manner made in time for the winter session. My son John was then a student and learning blacksmithing, so he agreed to make up thirty sets of hammers with five chisels apiece (two points, which is the basic tool, a flat, a claw and a rounded flat). In fact twenty eight students signed up, so it all came out right for tools.
But then there was the problem of a suitable studio space. As at all colleges, I was told that absolutely nothing was available. But I had a suspicion that there might be some unused, undiscovered location and began to prowl around with keys and flashlight. It turned out that beneath the large hall where formerly the whole college dined decades ago, there was a strange room which an older employee told me had been the "potato room". It was in a basement, laid out with rough sawed 2 x 4's as a floor with one inch spaces between, letting air pass up from an earth floor below with just the right moisture for storing a winter's supply of potatoes. Unused for decades and completely forgotten this had great possibilities for a studio, so the boards were ripped up and after some hand leveling a concrete floor was poured, lights added, and this became a first-rate permanent art studio.
I had the 2 x 4's put back in the new room, brought in two Skilsaws and five pounds of 16 d. nails with hammers, and in two days the early students and I had put together fourteen tables of four foot length suitable for two people work on. Those were massive tables which could support two hundred pound blocks under percussion with never a quiver.
Winterterm began and the students were there examining their strange tools, touching their rough marble blocks gingerly, and at last learning the art of flaking off half inch stone chips with a single, concentrated hammer blow. We had them get gloves with fingers cut short but the thumb intact, help against the stonecarver's chance blow which leaves the thumb joint raw and red. Band-Aids also were of help before the fact, if used in time.
This was a time of learning, work with infinite energy, sore muscles in the forearm and wrist, and some bandages on thumb joints of course. The sound of twenty people thumping away with the dull thud of the Italian tools filled the room and spilled out through the high windows. People came to watch a while, but everyone was busy and they went away. This was a new experience for the students and for the school, a hands-on introduction into this very ancient craft.
Wells took a corner for his workplace, put a cloth draped around the side to give himself a little privacy, and started work on a six hundred pound chunk which a dozen of us helped him get into place. He worked slowly, cautiously, obviously thinking a great deal while the chisel was shipping away excess material here and there. After a few days a face began to appear at the center, it would in the next days become a woman's face, delicately contoured and just beginning to emerge from the stone. While I was looking at it one day he remarked that he always left a lot of stone behind what he was carving. If something went wrong with a nose flaking off, he could go deeper into the stone and recarve, which also gave him a chance to think more closely about the whole project.
When Wells went to lunch at the college dining room, a group of students always gathered around his piece, watching the progress and remarking about the careful and intuitive way he was working. When he came back he would walk around the room and touch each student-piece, talk a little about it and make a few suggestions, passing easily from one table to another. It would seem that he was not really "instructing" the student. But he was a powerful presence just by his being there, especially by his working along with the students in that room day in and day out. His teaching was done by his personal presence, his atmosphere, and above all by the work he was doing among them. It was as if they were in the atelier of a fifteenth century Italian master sculptor, allowed to watch as long as they kept their hands busy working on their own pieces. This seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, the highest level of teaching. One might call it in Chinese manner the "Teaching-No-Teaching- Method".
This is a serious comment and must not be lightly taken. There is an omni-present danger in teachers producing students who imitate the Master, which either ruins their output forever or takes long years to eradicate. This is a constant danger in the teaching profession, which very few can manage to obviate. Wells never fell into this teaching trap, nor did Middlebury's printmaker David Bumbeck who also found ways to avoid printing out students in his image. This is a hard row to hoe for the teacher who is paid to teach his knowledge, everything he knows and has learned ---- but not his style.
This was only a one month course, the students were at work all day every day and many far into the night and weekends. Several went on to become professionals in sculpture and a few in architectural stone carving. At the final review of work done, half had produced (from scratch, mind you!) objects of some interest, a few pieces were beautiful. For others it was an eye into the nature of stone, what it is how it is worked, and what things are possible with it. If their work was not remarkable, at least they learned how to use their hands with tools and chip off some pounds of marble with confidence. All were enthusiastic, all loved the work and the sense of studio activity with dust everywhere and chips covering the floor and the continual thud of hammers on chisels. Years later whenever I meet one of those former students and we talk about Wells, that old sense of enthusiasm is there, perhaps stronger like whiskey from being well aged.
A few years later we did another session, but in a different room which had an entirely different ambiance. We had two typical college studio rooms, flooded with light from high windows, and in a sense it was easier to see the surfaces and finish of the pieces as they were being worked. It was a shift from an underground cave which resonated the atmosphere of an ancient workshop, to a bright and light modern world where all was in clear view. But the work was much the same, again about thirty students working on smaller pieces of marble which we found easier to manhandle. One of the problems with marble is that if the piece is too large and heavy is it forbidding to the beginner, but if it is small and convenient it will move around under the hammer blows and be skittish in its own dance. So there is a middle ground here as with all things.
We had an interesting participant, a Scot who had traveled widely and finally settled comfortably near Middlebury after years in the construction trades. George was a compact man in his sixties, he had learned stone cutting in his youth, this being an essential part of traditional British building skills, and he never got over smiling at these odd New England houses all made of sticks and clapboards, entirely too flammable he would say again and again. No wonder there are no buildings here from the fifteenth century as in the Isles- --- and he would give a hearty laugh thinking this over to himself. I invited him to participate in the course since he knew a great deal about basic stone cutting techniques, so he came with his bagful of ancient tolls, set up with a large piece on a table, and started to work. He certainly showed our students how to make the chips fly, but after a week their work was starting to show an idea, a character, whereas his was quickly cut into but faltering when he considered the design. He was much amused by this, and said frankly that after all he was a workman not an artist. But he was a great encouragement to the students, who also got a good insight into Scottish working conditions half a century ago through the eyes of a then boy apprentice.
We were moving a large piece and George was helping when I noticed he was breathing hard. He admitted he had a heart condition and we asked him to go easy, so he continued as cheerful adviser and witty class humorist. A little later he put together his packet of tools, said he should probably rest a little more each day, and in a year he was gone, with all his knowledge of stone-craft which is so fast disappearing.
Figurative sculpture is hard, you have to have a natural sense of it and be a keen observer of figures and especially faces or it failsabysmally. We encouraged our students to go at it any way they wanted, not be ashamed of simple forms (consider Brancusi....) or geometric designs. But a few worked on figures and faces, and some of these were better than we expected. I took home a square block and one Sunday morning mounted it in the chuck of a large metal turning lathe I then had, working the soft stone with carbide tools easily. I decided to create a visual black hole of some sort, drilled deep into the block and with a boring tool feathered the hole out so it fared smoothly into the top flat surface. It seemed very interesting at the time to me as I worked it, but when I brought it to class nobody seemed to like it much, and I was soon of the same mind. I saw that it was too much idea and far too little intuition, which is one of the things the slow pace of hand carving elicits. That was a good lesson for me, everybody has to learn something in a class of this kind.
Most of our students left their work in a claw-finished state, which is traditionally acceptable and quite beautiful in the way it catches light. If we had a longer sequence I would have liked to proceed to smoothing with aluminum oxide stone in fine grits, then to working down with fine white grits in liquid form, and finally polishing to a reflecting finish. But this is not for every piece. Wells likes to leave some areas in the rough, as they come out under the point, almost looking like a Greek sculpture which the artist tired of and abandoned, or a Renaissance piece which was never completed. Eyes in sculpture are terrible problem, the Greeks sometimes inserted a slip of polished granite, or outlined the iris with an incised line, some moderns drill a tapered hole to mimic the diffusion of light inside, but none of this works well. Wells often crisscrosses the whole palpebral or lid region with light chisel marks, which lends a meditative and restful thoughtfulness to a face, a mist over the eyes. A few of our students, in desperation over the eyes on their piece, tried this and it solved the immediate problem, but this must be used carefully.
What did the students who did not really succeed artistically, actually learn? First they learned that there is such an art as stonecarving, which they could enter at the basement level mastering a few essential techniques. In an academic world where almost everything except the sciences is word-based and talkative, this was a healthy lesson about something non-verbal and tangible. Working stone requires sheer work, assiduity with no idea of quitting even when the arm muscles are sore and the fingers blistered. Most students never have an experience of this kind, and I believe it is an important part of a person's total education.
Second they were in close proximity to a well known master of this art, they worked in a sense under his shadow. This was a rare opportunity to see an artist who prizes his creative privacy greatly. But Wells went right ahead with his work in our semi-public workroom, so for this one month his work techniques, his hesitations and cautions, and especially his rethinking and reworking were on display. I think this was an important keyhole view into what is means to make a work of art, far more important that the teacher's instructions and friendly encouragement. I am sure the experience of working near an experienced artist under daily working conditions, was something none of the students in our class were going to forget.
So much fine natural stone is found in many parts of this country, that it is a shame that stone-carving is a rarely taught field in the arts. Each area has its own geologic history and its own kinds of rock, from layered slate which is wonderful for shallow reliefs with incised lines, through the limestones and marbles which carve well and can take a fine finish, to the glass-hard granites which entice with their spectral displays of colors, but can only be worked with carbide tipped tools and a maximum of hard effort.
Clay is so easy to work that a piece can be shaped up in hours, most schools favor plasticine as fairly clean in the studio and reusable, but simple terra cotta without glaze is an ancient material, cheap and easily fireable to last for millennia. I love clay, but it is such a quick medium, the results come so easily! Carving stone is the sure antidote to those who exceed the speed limits artistically, it makes you work hard and slow, which is the matrix for deep thought.
Life is short, art is hard, and the sculptor's primary business is to persist for decades at his work. Too often artists go to teach at the the schools as a way of making a regular living, a very understandable matter since one can starve as an artist as well nowadays as in centuries past. But for those who settle into academic ways, there is danger. The teaching which pays the bills assumes a stronger role than the intuitive processes of creation, which take much time with slow results. Far too many artists flee to Academe in order to survive, but find they are mired down in the competitive, political, and often boring world of Academe.
An ideal solution would be to get independent artists to come to the teaching world for short bursts of contact, work in their own way and at their own pace without interference from Deans for compliance to a grading system or appointment to that most deadly of human activities ---- committee work! If they come briefly, do what they do in their own style whether traditional or outrageous, and then go away, we have their presence without cramping their work. These courses which Wells did at Middlebury College fulfilled that promise perfectly, we got a good introduction into the art and also the way this Master worked, but he went back to his own world quickly without having to bend to the academic conformities.
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