The Story Begins in 1968
"OK, now what?!" Or so I imagine the words of Paul Aschenbach standing in front of over twenty monumental sculptures.
He'd gathered artists from all over the world - the United States, Austria, Japan, South Africa, Germany, and Yugoslavia - to create these huge works of art in marble and concrete. What's more, it was not only a grand sculpture project. This was a great vision of the power of open minds and communication at the height of the Cold War when the political world was rife with fear and closed borders.
Now with all these sculptures completed, where to put them? Too big for most museums.
Aschenbach was a sculptor and an associate professor of art at the University of Vermont. He brought together all these fellow sculptors in what became known as the Vermont Sculpture Symposium in 1968, 1971, and 1990. The first two would result in what is now called 'Sculpture on the Highway', the largest sculpture park in the world!
The Vermont Sculpture Symposium was inspired by a worldwide movement known as the International Sculpture Symposium. It was founded in 1959 by the Austrian sculptor Karl Prantl who also participated in the first Vermont symposium.
As noted in Wikipedia,
This initiative grew from the need to facilitate communication and exchange between members of the international sculpture community. It was also rooted in Cold War tensions, which lent a particular urgency to the need for cross-cultural dialogue on a person-to-person basis. The first international sculpture symposium took place in an abandoned stone quarry in Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland."
Prantl organized several sculpture symposia in Europe and elsewhere including Japan, Israel, and Canada.
Supporting Vermont's symposia were grants from the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Their funding was matched with goods and services provided by two regional industrial benefactors, the Vermont Marble Company (1968) and the concrete manufacturer S.T. Griswold & Company (1971).
Marble and Concrete
Twenty-two sculptures were created during Vermont's first two symposia. Some were sold according to an agreement among the artists, including a sculpture by Clement Meadmore. One was damaged beyond repair during a later relocation effort. The remaining sixteen were placed at rest areas up and down Vermont highways I-91 and I-89 totalling more than 300 miles.
Half are marble created in the first symposium. The other half are reinforced cast and applied concrete created in the second symposium.
Giving back to the community is important to me. One of my pro bono projects is helping the Vermont State Curator, David Schutz, conserve these important artworks.
The first step was to inspect the condition of each sculpture. This assessment would be the groundwork for grant proposals David and his team would soon submit. The largest and most prestigious grant, 'Save America's Treasures', would provide resources for conservation.
Some sculptures need to be moved. Some need foundations. All need to be cleaned. Cracks, chips, and graffiti need attention. The good news is that they're all in remarkably good condition for 50 years old. With timely and proper attention, they can last another 50 years and beyond.
The Adventure Begins
So off I went to find these huge objects. Some were difficult to locate, obscured by forest growth, blocked by fencing, or in areas that are now closed to the public. At times, bushwhacking through the forest, I felt like Indiana Jones! Eventually, I found them all.
Next up, creating the conditions report and plans for restoration and on-going maintenance. The goal, as explained by our State Curator, is not to bring these sculptures back to their original condition but rather to delay the natural deterioration for as long as possible.
The first priority is to move a few. Some are too close to a roadway, or in locations susceptible to vandalism, or in areas that are now inaccessible to the public. The second priority is to give them all sturdy foundations. Next, fill cracks since the freeze/thaw cycle of Vermont weather causes the most damage. Each year cracks get a bit wider and longer.
Another major concern is 'sugaring'. This is a kind of degradation to the surface of outdoor marble. The cause is weather, acid rain, pine needles, bird droppings - just about every outdoor condition. Marble is simply not a great choice for outdoor sculpture. Over time, smooth marble surfaces turn into tiny rough grains of stone the texture of granulated sugar.
Other needs can wait a bit longer if necessary, such as chip repair, coating exposed rebar, removing graffiti, cleaning off moss, dirt, and mold, and installing signage.
- Restoration of Maya Lin Sculptures in Istanbul
- Dusting the Buddha
- Sculpture Restoration in London
- Graffiti Removal in Vermont
- Fountain Restoration in Lisbon
- Unusual Pool Tile Art Restoration in Manila
Signage of some kind is important not only for interpretation, but also for preservation. Research shows that some kind of label next to outdoor art reduces vandalism. But signage right next to these works is a problem. Signage was not the artist's original intent. Many symposia artists felt that signage and even titles impede a viewers encounter with art, an idea articulated most famously by Susan Sontag's 1966 collection of essays 'Against Interpretation'. So we'll have to give further thought to this issue. Maybe signage at the beginning of a long path leading to the sculpture? We'll see.
VTrans to the Rescue
Then a pleasant surprise! The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), our state highway department, got wind of our efforts and offered to help. Now we're working with VTrans on another large grant which will take care of moving sculptures, creating foundations, and improving rest areas. We plan to begin this critical first stage in preservation when Covid subsides.
The plan is to move some of the sculptures to high-use rest areas to reduce the risk of vandalism and for maximum public access. Others will have their current areas cleaned and improved.
Grant applications will be submitted in 2021 and 2022. If we're lucky and all goes as planned, work will be completed by the end of 2025, including exciting interpretive programs at rest stops, welcome centers, and websites.
In the meantime, we're organizing 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway', and invite you to join! We are a group of the original artists, their family members and friends, and interested citizens gathering to support the project. Please join us by contacting me with a comment below or emailing me directly at email@example.com. All are welcome to join in this exciting project!
These sixteen sculptures are an important piece of Vermont history. They hold a unique place in contemporary art as works of significance and value that must not be neglected.
Update: August 2019
The niece of one of the sculptors, Erich Reischke, just contacted me! She read this article and is coming to visit Vermont this fall with her sister to see their uncle's artwork.
Also, one of my clients, the Office of Cultural Heritage (CH) of our US State Department, just offered to review our conservation plans. CH is a small team of incredibly talented art conservators who travel the world caring for the vast collection of art in our embassies and ambassador residences. They're a wonderful group of people and I'm thrilled to be working with them!
As one of the members of our group recently remarked, there's a lot of positive energy gathering around this project. The stars are aligned!
Update: October 2019
Our group continues to meet, visit the sites, and plan for their preservation. We're focused on several grant applications for funding, such as the federal ‘Save America’s Treasures’ grant and a couple of state highway grants, one of which we have already received for planning. So, we are gathering all our notes and estimates – wish us luck!
We just met with two sisters who are nieces of Erich Reischke. They came from California to see his sculpture. Byron Breese, Director of our volunteer 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway', and I, spent an afternoon with them at their uncle’s sculpture, talking and reminiscing.
They shared memories of Erich’s fascinating and unusual life – living on a commune, becoming a Sikh, shunned by his family, and then later beloved.
Yesterday Byron and I traveled to Northampton, MA, about 2.5 hours drive south to meet halfway, one of the remaining original sculptors, Peter Ruddick, who drove up with a friend from New York City where Peter has an art exhibition. He lives in California.
We spent three hours listening to memories of his upbringing in England during the WWII, his teaching career in Oregon, then at the Pratt Institute in New York City, and then Goddard College in Vermont. He spoke at length of his recollection of both Vermont symposia. Each one lasted about two months. He spoke about the artists that influenced him most such as Louise Bourgeois and especially, for him, Alberto Giacometti. I was particularly enthralled since I'd recently restored a Bourgeois sculpture at our ambassador's residence in London, and Giacometti is my all-time favorite!
Peter supports our plans for foundations and interpretation for all the sculptures. His contribution to ‘Sculpture on the Highway’ was thought to be untitled but he informed us that it’s ‘Sextant’. He explained the influences behind it - climbing over bunkers and looking thru machine gun sites left over from the war in England as a child.
He explained that he and the other artists were involved in choosing the location and exact placement of their pieces. For him the circle of 'Sextant' framed the mountains in the distance and the diamond framed cars on the highway and parked at the rest stop. We plan to move this sculpture and Peter enjoyed our suggestion of the Sharon Welcome Center where it could once again align with a view of the mountains at one end and the highway at the other.
Plans are also afoot to reconstruct a missing sculpture by Kishida Katsuji who is still alive. It was destroyed years ago while trying to move it.
All of these remarkable pieces are 50 years old in 2021. To mark the occasion we’re considering special events such as another symposium, national and state Historic Register designation, the reconstruction of this piece, and other exciting possibilities.
Update: March 2020
A local reporter from 'Seven Days' called me. He saw this post and wanted to know more about 'Sculpture on the Highway.' He mentioned that Kate Pond participated in these symposia and that she lives close-by. So began my adventure with Ms. Pond!
"What Is the Large Metallic Structure at the Border in Highgate?" is a wonderful article about the work of the prominent Vermont sculptor Kate Pond. She and I are in conversation about her memories as a student of Paul Aschenbach and Clement Meadmore, prominent players in "Sculpture on the Highway'. The article mentions a third Vermont sculpture symposium organized by Paul Aschenbach in 1990. Sculptures from this symposium can now be seen in Battery Park in Burlington.
More about Kate as our conversations continue.
Update: August 2020
We got a grant! A small 'Scoping Grant' from VTrans to establish costs to plug into a larger VTrans grant application. This is the first, hopefully, of many more successful grant applications! It's one of the four grants we're going after. Had to reapply for the other three. This delay is a blessing in disguise since now we're adding support from artists, family members, art organizations, and other interested parties.
We've discovered that the symposia resumed about 20 years ago in Maine. That symposium resulting in 34 sculptures found in cities and towns along 200 miles of the northern Maine coast from Castine to Eastport. Known as the Maine Sculpture Trail, five consecutive symposia were founded by the Maine sculptor Jesse Salisbury who just joined our 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway'. We'll be exploring these connections as well.
Update: February 2021
Our big federal grant application to 'Save America's Treasures' has just been submitted. It's such a strong application with contributions from so many over so much time. It's brought many wonderful people together. We should hear in several months - wish us luck!
Our 'Friends' Director Byron Breese just found this video of Karl Prantl who passed away in 2010 at the age of 87.
Update: September 2021
Fabulous news! We just received a 'Save America's Treasures' grant! And for the entire amount we asked for. I'm dancing as I type! This grant is entirely devoted to cleaning and restoring the sculptures.
We're not stopping here! Soon we're set to submit the equally large grant application to VTrans to move sculptures, place them on foundations, and upgrade their rest areas - a huge and costly endeavor.
We continue to track down friends and relatives of the original artists. We found Doug Griswold whose father was the owner of ST Griswold Company (later sold to SD Ireland) which donated concrete and work space for all of the second symposium artists. Doug was just out of college having worked at his dad's company since he was 11. He was assigned to assist all the artists. We can't wait to gather and share his stories.
Concrete was an experimental medium for art in the early 70's. Doug made himself available daily to the artists to problem-solve in the creation of their sculpture. We just had the first of many zoom calls with Doug and one of the many interesting memories he shared was that he spent a lot of time trying to convince the artists to look at concrete as a new medium rather than the medium they were used to. He said he didn't succeed with certain artists and you can tell from the pieces they created. For example, Meadmore designed his sculpture like he did his metal sculptures, the Ramirez piece looks like the wood he's used to, and Graves carved a large block of concrete as if it was stone. Others were more successful such as Sylva, Ruddick, Uher, and Floyd. Fascinating!
These meetings are being recorded. Soon we'll make them available on our new website being created pro bono by the premier website development team of Midnightson Designs.
Update: April 2022
We just submitted two more grant applications. One is for funding to create a website to accommodate all of our many needs including fundraising. The other is for the costs of interpretation such as signage and audio-visual displays at the rest areas where the sculptures are located. We will hear about these applications in June. Stay tuned!