By Tom Haushalter
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.”
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.”
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
By Tom Haushalter
Jay 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Your first sign that something unusual—possibly wonderful—was going on around Lebanon’s Colburn Park on Saturday, December 1 might have been the one that said: “Caution: Horses.”
Horse-drawn carriage rides, which were one part of the city’s holiday celebration, also featured visits with Santa and the park’s official tree lighting. Not far from the bundled crowds, far cozier and just as bright, AVA Gallery hosted its annual Holiday Exhibition and Open House, offering a relaxing, art-filled opportunity to welcome the season.
Right as you walked in, peace greeted you. Yes, a wall with handwritten messages of peace, all hung from twine, encouraged visitors to leave a message of their own or to take one as they went. And exploring AVA further, a sense of peace followed you, through every room on every floor, where chance after chance to engage with local art and artists seemed to be waiting.
Overheard at one point in the long first-floor hall: “AVA is like a real-life Advent calendar today.” Each doorway opened to some new delight.
Entering the main gallery you found a beautiful showroom and marketplace with an inspiring variety of artworks by staff and member artists, from painted canvases and sculptures to handmade ornaments and fine jewelry, all available for purchase—a sale that continues seven days a week through December 24, guaranteed to be the most pleasant holiday shopping experience anywhere in the Upper Valley.
A steady stream of visitors wove in and out of artist studios on the second and third floors, welcomed in by the artists displaying works-in-progress up close as well as finished pieces for purchase. A piano recital in the Library sent music throughout the second floor, and venturing to the top floor, you might have discovered the small exhibit of artwork created by children in Allison Zito’s weekly after-school workshop.
In the classroom studios, festive art waited to be made, whether collage ornaments or handmade cards. For the slightly more courageous, in the warmly lit North Studio, AVA faculty artist Karl Neubauer offered to sketch your portrait—that is, if you could sit very still for 20 minutes.
Heading next door into the Bente Sculptural Studies Building was like stumbling upon Santa’s Little Village, where children and grown-ups alike tinkered and toyed with everything from lumps of clay to hot metal.
Santa’s little elves were everywhere. Roger Goldenberg and his trusty apprentice, AVA’s marketing manager Alicia Bergeron, showed off a metal-manipulation process called hot forging and steel inflation. Nearby, Dudley Whitney and Chris McGrody gave a hands-on tour of woodworking implements. Stone-carvers Sandra Silverang and Heather Ritchie shared their workshop, and David Ernster and Karen Earls invited visitors to sink their fingers into clay.
All day and into evening, the holiday spirit gathered and swelled throughout AVA, as outside the horse-drawn carriage made its loop around town. Gathering coats and mittens and purchased art before departing, many paused once more at the wall of peace, to breathe, to read new messages that had been added, to take a little peace with them as they went.
Photos by Michael Seamans
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!
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!
By Tom Haushalter
The longest day of the year could have gone on forever, as far as we’re concerned.
A golden light and pleasant temps presided over AVA’s second annual Summer Solstice Party on June 21, as more than 150 community members joined us to celebrate several achievements and milestones over the past year, including the first anniversary of the Bente Torjusen West Sculptural Studies Building (affectionately the “Bente Building”) and the generous donors who made it possible.
With food and drink provided by Three Tomatoes Trattoria and Salt hill Pub in Lebanon, partygoers freely explored the Bente Building, moving among works-in-progress in the Kelsey Stone Carving Studio, getting up close to state-of-the-art equipment and live metalworking demos in the welding studio, and mingling on the adjacent open-air Terrace Studio.
Since its opening in Fall 2017, the Bente Building has welcomed 85 students into its new sculptural studies program, and 12 new sculpture instructors have joined AVA’s faculty.
Outside the building, before gathered onlookers struck in awe, ceramic artist David Ernster demonstrated a pottery-making technique called raku, which involves a rapid heating and cooling process that gives the pottery unique and unexpected colors and surface patterning.
Andrew Garthwaite, Chair of AVA’s Board of Directors, took to the microphone to honor and acknowledge the many donors, members, staff, volunteers, bequests and benefactors—“so many moving parts”—that came together to make the Bente Building a reality. The process from start to finish to this one-year anniversary, he said, “embodies AVA’s mission of ‘Branching Out, Deepening Roots’ in the community.”
Board Secretary Jill Mortali highlighted three significant legacy bequests—from the Middleton family, the Hollister Art Trust, and the Leede family—totaling more than $400,000 and going to support capital and operating needs as well as scholarship funding.
Capping off the many causes for applause, AVA Executive Director Trip Anderson publicly thanked the area individuals and organizations who donated equipment and their expertise to the new building. Special acknowledgment was made to the Osgood-Hilles Charitable Trust for donating the Terrace Studio, Bill and Betsy Peabody for the building’s solar panels, and to William Dunn for the lobby where anyone can “Enter and Create.”
A painting by Bill Peabody—an encaustic painting of a sailboat, titled “June”—was presented to the Bente Building’s architect, Stu White, whose other love is sailing.
Before the evening, too, sailed on along a light breeze and conversation, Anderson summed up the occasion with an important call to action: “Help us celebrate AVA’s vital role in our community. Help make Lebanon and the Upper Valley an arts anchor. Help make art part of our everyday life!”
Photos ©Michael Seamans