BY KATHERINE LAZARUS

WEST RUTLAND –– Nora Valdez and her five students at The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center want everyone in Vermont to sit down—that is, on their limestone bench, the newest in an installation as part of the Stone Bench Project that Valdez runs out of the West Rutland non-profit.

MYA MURPHY AND her grandfather John Morris, both from Long Island, has travelled together for the last four summers to The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland. Morris has been coming to the center for the past 20 years.

The project’s goal is to craft a stone bench for public use that is unique to each of Vermont’s 251 towns. It’s been going since 2009, with the first bench donated to the West Rutland Town Hall and others in Pittsford, Castleton, Brandon, Burlington, Middlebury, Rutland, Fair Haven, Poultney, Proctor, and Clarendon. So far, they’ve crafted a total of 11 benches in with this latest work dedicated to the Chittenden library.

This year the project ran from June 28-July 9 with the group selecting a theme for the bench’s design, doing the prep work, and carving the stone with each student having a hand in the process. The student participation in the project is sponsored by the United Way of Rutland County as well as through contributions by members and friends of The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center.

Among the five students working on this year’s bench were returning students Milo Pioviano, 16, Riley Quesnel, 14, and Mya Murphy, 13, as well as newcomers, Emily Sunderland, 15, and Johnathon Eno, 14.

Murphy is back for her fourth consecutive year, though this is the first year she is working on the bench project. “This is a really cool place because there’s art everywhere,” she said.

From Long Island, Murphy is an honorary local — as the program is primarily for local students — through her connection with her grandfather John Morris, 74, who also lives in Long Island but has been coming to the West Rutland carving studio for the past 20 years.

WITH THEIR FINISHED bench to be set at the Chittendon Library in the fall, from left to right: Mya Murphy, Milo Pioviano, Nora Valdez, Riley Quesnel, Emily Sunderland, and Johnathon Eno.

“The camaraderie is my favorite part,” Morris said. “Sooner or later, you need to pick up and move a heavy rock and you can’t do it alone.”

Reflecting on the beauty of collaboration, Morris recalled, “I was working on a life size piece of Mya jumping in a quarry and her right foot fell off. Well, everyone came over and helped with a way to cover it up. If I don’t know something, Nora does, and she’ll pitch in…. It’s the same with everyone.”

Valdez, who gets ample praise from students she works with, has been driving up from Boston each summer for the past dozen years to teach at the carving center and sculpting studio and loves the collaborative spirit of the art and programs there. “It’s a great thing because we work together, which is unique in art. It’s everyone’s piece, so the ego has to stay out. I like that a lot. It’s not only a lesson for art, but in life to get along and communicate, which is important.”

THE PROCESS

The bench program began as an annual exchange project in Peru, South America, way back in 2005. It was led by Valdez, an international award-winning sculptor from Argentina, and sponsored by the West Rutland studio that also offers workshops, residencies, exhibitions and events. In 2009, the project morphed into something young people could be involved with, which was then established of using the benches as a way to engage local communities and expose them to Vermont’s heritage that is rich in quarrying marble and limestone and sculpting and carving that into building materials, such as the huge columns that front the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., or any of the thousands of other monuments and buildings that Vermont marble has contributed to around the world.

“This is part of their heritage,” said Executive Director Carol Driscoll of the Vermont students, adding that the student names are carved in limestone next to each bench, and noting that limestone is young marble — marble having been a major player in the early economy of the state.

“This is a part of Vermont’s identity that a lot of people don’t realize,” he said. “There is a long history in marble, not just with sculpture but in the growth of the area, that was one of the biggest economic factors alongside agriculture” that helped develop Vermont’s early cities and towns. A one point the Proctor Marble Company was the largest marble company in the U.S. and employed over 5,000 people.

This year, the teenagers chose to make a space dragon bench that will rest outside of the Chittenden library and which will be placed in the fall.

Studio Director Tom Kearns observed that the project  “is always a lot of fun. It’s pretty amazing to see five or six people who’ve never done this before cooperate to pick a theme, a final design, and work on parts that suit their strong points.”

Students are encouraged to add their own touches, like Sutherland who carved little dragon eggs and a pocket under the bench—the dragon—where she placed them.

To become part of the program, students in the West Rutland area fill out an application by writing a short essay detailing how they will benefit from participating, what skills they have, and previous art experience. Once accepted, the teens arrive for a two-week crash course by Valdez in carving — everything from drawing sketches and deciding on a final model, to carving a clay model, to moving onto the literal ton of limestone out of which they create their masterpiece.

From head to tail, kids are given different jobs depending on their skill with more practiced students working on the face and hands and newer students sanding and carving planets, but everyone has a chance to try everything.

“Valdez is an incredible teacher who sees when the light goes on and lets student go,” said Driscoll. “She gets them to the point of seeing it and the carving is much easier from there.”

EMILY SUTHERLAND, 15, in the early stages of the project carving the moon.