Rhythm and Groove: Meet Heather Ritchie, AVA’s new stone carving instructor

By Tom Haushalter

Stone carver Heather Milne Ritchie loves to observe that moment when her students find their way into a piece of granite.

Stone carver Heather Milne Ritchie loves to observe that moment when her students find their way into a piece of granite.

“You can see it in their face and the way their body moves,” she says, referring to the repetitious nature of chiseling little by little into so unforgiving a material. “When they start seeing the groove they’re creating, it’s verification that their effort is actually making space in the stone. That’s when it starts clicking.”

She has learned over 20 years in the craft that finding the groove—both carved and embodied—matters more than muscle strength. “Carving is less about brawn, more about the rhythm.”

And endurance. And patience. “You don’t have to be strong,” she adds, “but you have to be willing to stick with it.”

Ritchie’s own beginnings with stone go back to a college internship with the Vermont Historical Society, during which she got to put both her love of history and her art skills to use. “Back then we didn’t have digital cameras to shoot artifacts, so I was drawing the items to catalog them,” she says. Her tasks broadened when she was given the opportunity to curate a showcase of old Vermont stone carvers—a rich tradition with substantial roots in Barre, VT.

“As I did the research, I became genuinely fascinated by stone carving,” she recalls. “But I never thought it applied to me.”

After college, Ritchie was living in New York City (“on a friend’s couch”) when a woman from her internship reached out to her about a granite carver back in Vermont who was looking for an apprentice.

The apprenticeship, funded by the Vermont Folk Life Center, would put her side by side with celebrated sculptor George Kurjanowicz.

“It was springtime in New York, and the city was starting to thaw—and smell,” she says, so almost on a whim, she packed up and headed back north to Barre for her first real foray into stone carving.

Ritchie found the production-driven environment of Kurjanowicz’s studio immediately challenging. “It was really hard,” she says. “The material, the tools, the process—it was hard. And unlike any kind of sculpture method I’d done, it was all about removal, having to see what needed to go away.”

Heather Ritchie's stone carving class

In spite of being, at the time, the only woman there—for which, she says, she “got a bit of heat”—her tenacity and deep inner drive sustained her through the apprenticeship. And it was how she picked up those virtues of rhythm, endurance, and patience.

“I know what a challenging material granite is for someone considered weak or who doesn’t have the brawn for it,” she says, “because that’s how I felt for the first 10 years. But I kept at it and did my job.”

Ritchie’s body of work includes a series of sculpted bookends and torso fragments that are powerfully feminine (“a combination of hard material and softer content [that] people find titillating”) and explore the human form’s complicated individuality. “In life, love, and struggle, we all share similar states,” she says, “but to each of us the form is unique.”Heather Milne Ritchie sculpture

Heather Ritchie stone carving

Heather Milne Ritchie Sculpture

As a woman in the field, she says, “I definitely feel like I’ve broken ground, and I hope other women confide in me to help them navigate this space, though I don’t know if I can make their journey overall any easier.”

She brings a hardened philosophy, if you will, to the workshops she has begun teaching in AVA’s Bente Building this winter. “I cut through the wishy-washy of making art. I want my students to learn good methods and the basic techniques on the way toward having a creative experience.”

Because although she admits it’s not the most “touchy-feely” medium, Ritchie believes firmly that there’s something very special about working with stone.

No one says it’s going to be easy, but for someone who likes a challenge, all the hard work with this hard material offers lots of reward.

Read more about Ritchie and explore examples of her work on her website.

 Sign up now for Ritchie’s weekend-long “Michelangelo Madness: Introduction to Stone Carving,” running January 25-27. Open to adults and teens.

Photos by Michael Seamans and Jack Rowell


The Inner Child in a Hunk of Wood: Meet Jay Singh, AVA’s New Woodworking Instructor

By Tom Haushalter

Jay Singh teaches woodworkingJay Singh’s journey to becoming a fine woodworker is undoubtedly a metaphysical one, with its fair share of transcendent turns of luck, and it begins in the 1960s in Kent, Ohio, where he owned and ran, quite literally, a metaphysical bookshop.

On May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen opened fire on Kent State student protesters, Singh was out of town. Though when he was finally able to return home, driving slowly up Main Street toward his shop, he recalls his strange fortune: “Every store window was broken, except for mine.”

The university closed soon after, and so, as a result, did his bookshop. But he’d already begun tinkering in metals with Ohio friends who were silversmiths. So when he packed up and moved to Vermont to join a spiritual community, later heading off to build a log cabin in the woods of Maine, Singh was certainly “crafty and artsy,” he says, but was yet to fully discover why.

Eventually meandering to Santa Fe, New Mexico, he found himself at the checkout counter of a lumber store reading a brochure for the woodworking program at the local community college. “And I was like, whoa, I want to do that.”Jay Singh wood sculpture

But the nature of the universe made him wait. He took the brochure home and filed it away somewhere. “One morning, about a month later,” he says, “I woke up and suddenly had one really strong thought: I need to find that brochure.”

Lucky he found it, because the woodworking program’s open house was the very next day. He went and was immediately hooked, going on to earn a degree and then becoming an instructor at the college.

Singh’s formal training emphasized precision, especially in furniture making, but his inclinations were always less linear. “I started taking classes in the art department and experimented with design that was more creative,” he says.

Going from fine furniture to free-form wood sculpture, Singh still draws on the formal training. “My sculpture tends to be really tight, but there’s a freedom there.”

Jay Singh woodworking class
There’s metaphysics in that freedom, too. An effortless, meditative, even childlike sense of presence envelopes his time in the workshop, which accounts for Singh’s very simple reminder to himself: “The adult Jay never enters the studio.”

After more than a decade in Santa Fe, where Singh carved out a successful period of producing and selling his sculptures, what convinced him to move to the Upper Valley, he says, were the sources of the most rewarding spiritual experience in his life: his grandchildren. And now, when he isn’t spending time seeing the world through their wide-eyed, unfiltered lens, he’s often in his studio at AVA Gallery.

Starting in January, Singh will offer an introduction to woodworking in AVA’s Bente Building, and it will begin with the fundamentals of fine woodworking, before deepening into concepts of texture and design, shaping and color that students can bring to the pieces they’re creating.

Jay Singh wood sculpture

And if he’s being honest, Singh says, “I expect at some point that my students will touch fire in this class.” By that he means that transformative moment when the creative process itself consumes you. “After each class, I want them to think, wow, I can’t wait to get back in here.

Students will gain both the technical knowledge that goes into woodworking as well as, Singh hopes, “a pointing in the direction toward that source inside you,” which can transform a hunk of wood into something useful, beautiful, and possibly out of this world.

Sign up here for Jay Singh’s class, Wood Sculpture I, and explore other woodworking offerings at AVA this winter.




Welder for Life: Meet Jimmy Martell, AVA’s New Welding Instructor

As welder for Dartmouth College, Jimmy Martell often finds himself in pretty tight spots. Among any number of labor-intensive tasks, he repairs the pipework for the enormous underground steam system that supplies heat to the campus. “Yesterday I spent six hours in a spot no bigger than a cardboard box, ten feet underground,” he says.

Martell has been welding for 35 years, most of those running his own business near his home in Wilmot, NH, and the last six years with the College. “I cut my teeth on construction welding, and that became my niche.”

This fall, Martell begins as an instructor for AVA’s introductory welding classes, an opportunity that sort of fell into his lap. An acquaintance on campus who knew about his work suggested he apply for the position. “She kept telling me, ‘AVA needs you!’” he recalls. “A couple weeks later, she came back and told me she went in already and gave them my name.”

If a little unexpected, the opportunity lets Martell scratch a longtime itch. “I’ve had a yearning to teach for some time,” he says.

Except, he insists, “I’m no artist.” His primary objective is to introduce the basic, critical techniques of welding—to be learned before self-expression and improvisation can factor into any trade or craft. “And it takes time. The first thing I’ll say to my students is that you have to make a conscious decision to be patient enough to learn all aspects of welding. It can be physically demanding, and there’s no instant gratification.”

If not instant, Martell knows that gratification, when it comes, is long-lasting. “One of the greatest rewards for me,” he says, “is when I see old customers of mine, and they say, ‘Remember that truck body you built years ago? I’m still using it! It’s still going strong!”

By committing to learning the techniques, students also stand to gain a new appreciation for welding in everyday life. “Think of all the things surrounding you that you use. Welders built most of those things. Cars, buildings, furniture.”

And Martell hopes it inspires students to create their own functional, durable, and beautiful objects. “To be able to share this skill and expertise—it’s a treat after all these years.”


CLICK HERE to explore and sign up for welding and metalworking classes offered for teens and adults at AVA!


Speaking in Steel: Meet Sabrina Fadial, AVA’s New Metalworking Instructor

Sabrina Fadial, AVA's new metalworking instructor

Sabrina Fadial, blacksmith artist and one of the newest metalworking instructors in AVA’s Bente Building, found her way to the craft by mistake.

“It’s a lesson for why you should always leave yourself open to new possibilities,” she says.

Living in North Carolina in 1997 and wanting to expand her creative skill set, she had signed up to take a glass-blowing workshop. “But a week before the class started, they called to say they’d overbooked it and asked if I’d be interested in a blacksmithing class instead. I said ‘sure!’ And it was life-changing.”

Fadial soon sought out more metalworking workshops, set up a studio near her home, quit her job at the high school, and focused full-time on producing and selling her work. In 1999, she decided to deepen her knowledge even further and enrolled in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in Montpelier.

“Rhododendron,” 2011. Permanently installed at the Linda Candler Memorial Garden  in the Brevard Music School, Brevard North Carolina

Her journey led her next to Oakland, CA, for about a decade, before she was drawn back to VCFA as the new assistant director of the visual arts program, then later as director of alumni relations. The work was meaningful but eventually kept her from creating. “I needed to start making things again,” she says, “because I’m a miserable person if I’m not making. I knew I needed to carve out space and time for it, to work with intent.”

In 2017, to mark 20 years as a blacksmith, Fadial opened her own studio, which adjoins her home now in South Barre, VT.  Stevens Branch Studio, she says, is “a creative incubation space” that offers classes, mentoring, and short-term artist and writer residencies. Some programs are specifically designed “to empower women and girls through textiles and metal arts.”

She believes it’s the perfect medium through which to express feminine strength as beauty. “Beauty has become so marginalized and commodified in this world,” says Fadial. “By documenting endangered beauty—in nature, in women—we can reclaim and rescue it from those margins.”

“Wildflower,” 2015. An indoor and outdoor sculpture temporarily installed at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

And she brings to AVA that firm belief that bending steel is for women as well as anyone. To the newcomer who’s unsure about embarking on a medium that involves extreme heat, large equipment, and heavy materials: be patient. “The hardest thing is learning to be comfortable wearing welding gear and how to move around in it.”

As for developing one’s welding skills, it’s akin to learning a new language and appreciating how uniquely you can express yourself that way. “I can say things with steel that I can’t say with cotton or with words,” Fadial says. “The more languages you know—in art, in anything—the better you can communicate whatever you’re trying to say.”


Read more about Sabrina Fadial and her work here.

Sign up for Sabrina’s “Steeling Nature” workshop or explore all metalworking classes offered at AVA this fall!

The Lives of a Mayfly: In Studio with Maggie Kundtz Joseph

By Tom Haushalter

Just through the door of one of AVA’s private artist studios, I find Maggie Kundtz Joseph in front of an oversize canvas adding brisk strokes of a watercolor pencil to a painting.

The studio is flooded with natural light through large windows, overlooking rooftops of historic downtown Lebanon. The high ceiling opens up dimensional possibilities for large works. And the wood floors are as creaky and pliable—as steeped in the history and character of the building—as you would hope. Simple and spacious, the studio naturally inspires.

Occupying this space since 2013, Kundtz Joseph has made it her own—an apparent reflection of the artist’s restless, diversiform vision. The large canvases lean three or four deep against the easel. The walls, too, are nearly floor-to-ceiling in painted works that she has decided, for now, are complete.

Kundtz Joseph’s interests are far from canvas-bound. She shows me a smattering of small sculpture objects placed throughout the studio. “They’re like my inner children,” she says.

The sculptures, a form called assemblage, are composed of various found objects—several include the eerily expressionless heads of miniature ceramic dolls—that Kundtz Joseph has gathered over time. “I know where all these objects come from. I have boxes full of random stuff,” she says. “My kids know it’s not beneath me to show up at the dump to search for interesting things.”

These assemblage, among painted canvases as well as clay-formed vessels and metal sculptures, begin to describe Kundtz Joseph’s resourcefulness and versatility as an artist.

She studied painting and photography at the University of Michigan, but it was for field hockey, in fact, that she was recruited and received a four-year scholarship. Athletics may have competed for her time and attention then, but, she says, “I knew pretty clearly that I was passionate about two things. Field hockey and art.”

After college, Kundtz Joseph traveled a bit before landing in Maine at the Maine Media Workshops and focusing more fully on photography. “Being immersed with the people there was just so great. And I ended up staying in Maine after I got my master’s, which somehow made my parents worry that I was off joining a commune.”

A hunger for more dynamic subject matter led her—and her camera—to New York City, where she was soon navigating the vibrant gallery culture down in SoHo, working as a freelance photographer, and brushing elbows with many of the idols of the art world.

“Ironically, I didn’t make much art in those years,” she says, reflecting on her typically 15-hour work days. “But I really learned the value of hard work, and it was so full of rich, visual experiences and fueled who I was.”

The art happened nevertheless, and something of an artist’s persona also took shape during Kundtz Joseph’s years making photographs in New York.

The alter ego mayfly was born. She explains: “A mayfly lives for two days. It emerges, it doesn’t eat, it reproduces, then it dies. And the life cycle continues. As an artist, I love the idea of impermanence. In a way similar to French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who sought to capture ‘the decisive moment,’ I try to capture those ephemeral moments that dissolve into time.”

She adds, “So much of my art is about transformation and transition, about the circle and completion. And mayfly encompasses all of it.”

Her prevailing themes followed mayfly into motherhood, all the way through her family’s transition, in 2009, to the Upper Valley. But as many artists come to know too well, the demands of raising children can quickly displace any chance at making art. For a period of a few years, her output slowed considerably.

“It wasn’t until my kids were toddlers that I realized, if I don’t make art now, I’ll no longer be me,” she says. “And if I’m not making art, how will they see me? I decided I have to honor and live into my persona, into my art.”

She remembers setting up a little room in her house with an easel. “And I just painted. I started small because I knew time was finite, so I could finish it. I felt like I’d accomplished something.”

Mayfly’s renaissance, let’s call it, has come with a fresh notion of what propels her art. “Now I’m more fed by the process than I am by finishing—or showing—something,” she says.

A studio at AVA has afforded her that luxury of time and space, and pieces need not be complete for mayfly to know progress. Each canvas, each little assemblage is a practice, and it’s done when it’s done.

Being at AVA has even inspired her to branch out beyond the studio. Every week now, mayfly leads toddlers and their caretakers in Community Arts Open Studio (CAOS), and she co-facilitates classes in the Senior Art Program. The great pleasure in teaching, she says, is “providing and nurturing that safe space where you can unfurl the authentic artist within.”

This year, too, she tried welding for the first time. Taking a class in the Sculptural Studies building, she says the new metalworking skills “have opened the possibilities for a number of pieces, which weren’t possible before.”

Taking her journey into account, having “cell-divided a billion times,” several iterations beyond even that restless New Yorker snapping photographs, mayfly feels like she’s just getting started.

“I’m so grateful to be in this space, practicing my art, which has been building up in me for years.”