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 gathered artists from all over the world to create these huge works of art in marble and concrete. What's more, it was not only an ambitious sculpture project. This was a grand 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, where to put them? Too big for most museums.
Aschenbach was associate professor of art at the University of Vermont. He brought together fellow sculptors on three separate occasions 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!
Aschenbach's events were inspired by a worldwide movement known as the International Sculpture Symposium founded in 1959 by the Austrian sculptor Karl Prantl who 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 which matched 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 along 400 miles of Vermont highways I-91 and I-89.
Half are marble created in the first symposium and 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 for grant proposals David and his team plan to submit. One of the grants, 'Save America's Treasures', seeks federal money for conservation.
Some sculptures need to be moved. Some need foundations. All need to be cleaned. Cracks, chips, and graffiti need repair. 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 I felt like Indiana Jones! Eventually, I found them all.
I created assessments and plans for repairs and on-going maintenance. The goal, as explained by Vermont's 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 those that 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 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.
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. 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 to move sculptures and create foundations. 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 enable visitors to walk around them. Others will have their current areas cleaned and improved.
Grant applications will be submitted in 2020 and 2021. If we're lucky and all goes as planned, work will be completed by the end of 2023, including exciting interpretive programs at rest stops, welcome centers, and websites.
In the meantime, we're organizing 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway', a non-profit group of the original artists, their family members and friends, and interested citizens to join us in advocacy, fundraising, and brainstorming. Please join us by contacting me with a comment below or emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 and would like to see their uncle's artwork.
Also, one of my clients, the Office of Cultural Heritage (CH) of our US State Dept, just offered to review our conservation plans. CH is a small team of incredibly talented art conservators who travel the world repairing 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 now 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 who heads our volunteer group, 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, Peter Ruddick and his friend who drove up 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, too!
Peter supports our plans for signage and foundations for his sculpture and all the others. His contribution to 'Sculpture on the Highway' was thought to be 'Untitled' but we discovered that it's 'Sextant'. He explained the influences behind it such as 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, so we're considering ways to mark the occasion, 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 received one of the four grants we're going after. Had to reapply for the other three. This 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 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. So we'll be exploring these connections as well.
Jesse has joined our 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway.'
Update: February 2021
Our big federal grant application to 'Save America's Treasures' has just been submitted! Very exciting! 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 by May - 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 requested. 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 an equally imprtant grant application to VTrans to move sculptures, place them on foundations, and upgrade their rest areas - a huge 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 sculptures. We just had the first zoom call 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, Ramirez's piece looks like the wood he's used to, and Graves created a large block of concrete as if it was stone. Others were more experimental such as Sylva, Ruddick, Uher, and Floyd. Fascinating!
These meetings are being recorded. Soon we'll make them available on our new website created pro bono by the 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!
Update: November 2023
Lots to tell! First, legal eagles in our Vermont State bureaucracy - God love 'em! - deemed it necessary to contact remaining living sculptors or their next-of-kin to request that they donate the sculptures to the state of Vermont. The purpose of this effort is to settle any question of ownership. That is underway and the good news is that the response is positive.
Meantime, no further grant is needed by VTrans. They love our project so much that they've agreed to provide whatever improvements to each rest area where the sculptures are located. Thrilling plans include accessible paths, signage, foundations, landscaping, and much more!
Our website at SculptureontheHighway.com, generously donated by Midnightson Designs is being updated and soon to be a source of regular updates for our growing worldwide group of 'Friends of Sculpture on the Highway'. Join us!
And finally, consultation and planning proceeds so the exciting conservation work funded by the federal 'Save America's Treasures', and the site improvements by our highway department can finally begin this coming spring.
Update: Feb 2024
Exciting news! A 'lost' Aschenbach marble sculpture has been found. I ventured down to Proctor on other business yesterday with the marble museum. First time I've ever been there, so the museum guy graciously gave me a tour of the museum which is just fascinating, but that's another story.
Biz done, I asked him about SOTH and he recalls seeing some of the sculptures over the years during highway travels. So I told him all about our project. Well, we spent more time talking about SOTH than our original business. He shared local contacts for first-hand accounts of memories of the marble symposium in 1968 which was held right there in the field in front of us - the symposium lasted over a month there.
Then he said to me that I should go across the street and talk to an engineer from Omya which now owns Vermont Marble Company and all the marble quarries in VT, some still active.
So I find this guy and ask him about the symposium. He says, 'Follow me!" He takes me to the back yard and shows me a huge half-buried mound of marble, clearly a sculpture because you can see carving tool marks, not just quarry marks. He said the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) wanted to dig it up 2-3 years ago, but something happened and it never came about which may have been a blessing in disguise since a previous effort by AOT to move a sculpture resulted in its destruction! Anyway, I got excited and he said I should sit down because he had something else to show me. He took out a thick manila folder with dozens of large black and white photos of the symposium! In perfect condition. They were images of all the sculptures in-process with artists working on them, as well as finished pieces clearly identical to the ones we have plus others! Among them were several pictures of the un-buried version of the sculpture out back, even one with Aschenbach standing right next to it!
So now we know where it is with proof it's Aschenbach's. Strange that someone in AOT already knows - I'd like to know how they know? And why did Aschenbach bury it? Why didn't he place it along the highway like all the rest? Maybe he didn't like it? My museum guide thinks Aschenbach had other reasons because he was known for doing strange things with his sculpture! Like what??? He didn't know...
So now we have lots of contacts to follow up with, photos to scan, new mysteries to solve... The adventure continues and Byron and I will keep you all posted. And a very special thank you to Joel Blumenthal from Omya, the real hero of this story, for his huge part in connecting all the dots, for sharing his invaluable information, and being so generous with his time.