Today, when you walk into West Branch Gallery, the first thing you see and hear is a massive stone fountain created by Chris Curtis. Mountain Lake, 39.00″ x 96.00″ x 54.00″ is carved out of a 9400-pound granite boulder from Elmore, Vermont. The fountain rises up out of a raised bed of smooth stones and one wonders how, in the middle of the gallery floor, it works. Where does the water come from? How is it piped through this one immense rock to pool into its polished bowl above, and then to spill over a graceful curve on either side onto two polished stones below? And then the water disappears! Where does it go? And the cycle of water pooling and cascading never ceases.
How this is done shall remain a mystery, which lends to the sculpture’s graceful power. The grandeur of this water feature is unexpected in an interior space. We know the sound of a woodland cascade, but it doesn’t belong inside. We know the regal solidity and permanence of glacial boulders in nature, but in our home? It’s this dichotomy that elevates Mountain Lake to a work of art that surprises and captivates all our senses. The interior lighting suggests the play of sunlight on water, but when placed outdoors, the change of light throughout the day will only add to its brilliance.
In order to make this fountain, Chris had to think in the language of the Earth. “Here is this 500 million year-old rock,” he said. “It has gravitas. The rock and water have a life cycle. As the Irish writer John O’Donnell wrote, ‘Since the beginning of time, stone and water have had a very long conversation.’ I too had to have a conversation with this stone to create a vessel for water. I had to have respect for the object. After all, it is unfathomably old.”
There are many more sculptors today who work large scale in metal and steel rather than in stone. It makes sense; rock is difficult to maneuver, and takes time and expensive equipment to excavate and sculpt. The tools required to cut through a 9000-pound block of stone are vastly different than cutting into clay or wood. Walking into Chris Curtis’s studio in Barre, Vermont is to enter a colossal stadium of giant tools: cutting wheels the size of trucks, enormous drills and compressors, contour saws with diamond-tips, massive grinding wheels, immense polishers, and overhead cranes able to lift thousands of pounds. “I’ve broken many drill bits trying to drill through stone. Diamond bits are the way to go.”
Born in Vermont, Chris Curtis graduated from the University of Vermont in art and science. There he studied carving with renowned sculptor and teacher, Paul Aschenbach, who urged Chris to work with stone. “I didn’t want to do that at first because working with stone was too slow. I was young and wanted things to happen fast. But Paul told me, ‘You’ve got to think glacially with stone.’ That appealed to me and helped me find context in the continuum of time,” Chris said.
Today Chris likes that permanence. He enjoys rambling over the hills of Vermont in the quest for the perfect stone. He will go up to a farmer working in his field and ask if he can buy some of the farmer’s rock. “They look at me like I’m crazy, but hey, I help clear their fields of rock and pay them for it!” He’s found stone for his sculptures all over Vermont.
Through the years, Chris Curtis has received many commissions; benches, fountains, memorials, freestanding outdoor sculptures. “Working with a client involves chemistry and trust. And, I have to like the idea of the commission. With the client, it is a marriage of visions.” And because it is important to have a broad vocabulary in sculpture, Chris also carves wood, welds aluminum, forges steel, and works with clay and plastic.
Skilled craftsmanship is important in the finished product because many factors are at stake sculpting in stone. Marble can degrade badly in weather. Temperature fluctuation, especially ice, as well as UV light and acid rain are especially grueling. Stainless steel is very durable, so Chris uses that for the piping of water for the fountains. Another difficulty with working in stone is the cost of transporting the material to and from his two studios, one in Barre and the other behind West Branch, as well as the finished piece to its final resting place. “I had to truck a piece to California recently which cost a lot of money. How to finance this privilege of making art has always been a challenge for me.”
Influenced by the artists Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi and William Turrell, Chris Curtis has found a unique voice with the primordial plinths of stone. In his Barre studio, there is a gorgeous Blue Cheshire Quartzite block waiting for his vision and deft skill. Using CAD, as well as pencil and paper, Chris Curtis will start the design journey needed before making the first cut into that stone, creating his well-articulated edges and true curves. “The glacial till we have here naturally in Vermont is fantastic,” he said. “And having the facilities and tools for working with this ancient stone is rare and a blessing. My work is here for a long time, and I like that.”