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The Viles Arboretum Symposium: The Little Arboretum that Rocks!
David Sywalski
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The Viles Arboretum Symposium: The Little Arboretum that Rocks!

Visitors in search of interactive, hands-on education are nothing new to the Viles Arboretum. It’s been a viable entity for 31 years. Moreover, the arboretum offers six and a half miles of trails as well as the second longest wetland boardwalk in Maine, consisting of beautiful botanical collections that run the gamut from incredible flowering plants to research collections — a coveted feature for the many that visit for bird watching, photography and education. Now, with its first sculpture symposium under its belt, it is the place to be for those seeking contemporary stone sculpture and, additionally, one of the most significant reasons to visit.

Viles Arboretum Executive Director, Mark DesMeules and wife Dale Cameron DesMeules. “It was a shoestring budget but we covered all the bases and there was not a single glitch during the entire process.“

“My job is to make Viles Arboretum thrive by being a place that people want to visit time and time again,” explained Executive Director Mark Desmeules.

“The way you built a site that’s worthy of that, is to incorporate a whole host of components into the experience; so our job, within the context of our mission as an arboretum, is to provide a unique experience for as many types of people as possible.”

Miss Glenn Swanson carving her way into Viles Arboretum and Maine history.

A Concept Worthy of Action

The concept of art blended with botanicals was relatively new for the arboretum, and began with a suggestion from Artist, Bill Royal in 2012, while placing a sculpture (The Storm) he’d created for benefactor Elsie Viles, to honor her late husband. After placement of “The Storm,” Mark Desmeules and Bill just looked at each other thinking — Hmm, what if?

The idea quickly grew while garnering support by fellow Artists, Dan Ucci and Andreas von Huene. The three (Bill, Dan and Andreas: The Three Musketeers) made a commitment to support all contributing artist with all things necessary, including heavy equipment. 

Artist Isabel Kelly seated on her massive Granite block, before starting to shape it.Amazingly, just a week later, the Musketeers showed up with a boom truck and five sculptures, and by fall of 2012 had managed to place fifteen sculptures on their foundations with five more waiting for spring thaw. Essentially, this group, while adding sponsor’s Jamie and Kathleen Carle (J.C. Stone, Jefferson, Maine), became the art team. The stage was set for success — and so were the new sculptures.

Miss Isabel Kelly getting into it. Mark DesMeules: “Every single artist, hands down, said, we’ll be there, we’ll work and, yes, we’ll do the best job we can to interact with students.”A huge body of work by fifteen Maine artists now had a secure home and, better, a steady flow of visitors to appreciate them year after year.

Artist Lise Becu, a Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium veteran, is shown with her latest sculpture. All stone was supplied by J.C. Stone of Jefferson, Maine.“I never realized that the real missing link for the art community was a public space to exhibit their art,” continued Mark. “So the connection was a perfect one, and the artists were thrilled. Six months later I was in awe of the acceptance by the public of the art. It was amazing. People would photograph their children with the art. Some even came in asking, ‘What is this — this is beautiful! How can I contact the artist and find out more?’ Since then, we’ve had about 20,000 visitors.

“In the beginning, I thought a symposium would be a great idea as long as we could incorporate a component for grade school students. I knew that art was a missing element these days with all the cutbacks in school programs. Art, in terms of financial support, always seems to be the first thing to go in schools, but in my mind it’s the first thing that helps children develop critical thinking. I felt art would be a unique opportunity for Maine teachers and students to have a private audience with nationally known artists.

“That was in January of 2014, and we were looking at a date during September. To be honest, I thought that wasn’t enough time to plan something — there’s a lot of moving parts, but thanks to the team along with J.C. Stone, the group immediately said they’d sponsor it and give us all of their notes from their last symposium! From there it all fell together, and that’s what led to the symposium.”

Twelve Artists — Ten Days

Approved by the Viles Arboretum Board of Directors, the artists, in conjunction with sponsor, J.C. Stone, picked a date and began working backwards to figure out what was needed to put their vision into play. The three, including Kathleen Carle, began the artist selection process as well as planning the logistics.

In a sense, the proposed symposium was not an arboretum event — it was an artist event,  partnership and a collaborative amongst the artists that attended, said Mark, adding, “There was a selection process for attending artists that included certain parameters for the new art team to consider. One of those parameters was to make sure chosen artist were good teachers and willing to work with the public and engage the students. That was a primary criteria that we wanted to see. Of course safety was our biggest concern. We had a safety person on site every day checking out potential hazards and reminding people.”

The artists showed up eager, and the spectators came in droves — and as the chips flew and dust spewed, hundreds of wide eyes watched the miracle of hammer and chisel and sweat, turn tons of raw stone into pounds of precious art — original thoughts became original art in ten autumn days.

A Perspective of Past and Present Symposia by Artist, Andreas von Huene

In considering models for sculpture symposiums, it is easy to start with the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium. There, the participating artists receive a competitive stipend which ensures that the artists can make a living for the duration of the event. Each project then goes to its predetermined home. Every one of this series of symposiums produces amazing works — in only six weeks! Balance that against the opportunity to create a large piece on your own and sell it on the open albeit limited market, and you’ll see the choice and the challenge.

“The J.C. Stone symposiums provided a kid-in-the-candy-store site, beautiful stone, access to large saws, heavy equipment and food! Most importantly was the encouragement to try something bold. Ten days was just long enough to get into a serious project, and often even to finish it.

“The Viles Arboretum Sculpture Symposium model was derived from its predecessor at JC Stone. It also had a host organization providing some of the necessities, but by contrast, the artists retain ownership and control of the art he or she creates.

This first symposium at Viles Arboretum was even closer to a cooperative arrangement. J.C. Stone again graciously provided much material while other donors helped with housing, portable compressors, generators and a lockable shipping container for sculptors’ tools. The sculptors themselves provided and shared crane trucks, plumbing, hoses, and tools. Interestingly, this symposium generated a great deal of sharing and discussion amongst the artists — not always easy when deadlines loom. ”

A Rockin’ Future

Executive Director, Mark Desmeules: “The artists said, ‘We believe in what the arboretum is doing, and we want to support that’. They also committed to leaving their pieces to build our collection to further enhance the experience here.“According to Mark, the Viles Arboretum Board of Directors has already approved the arboretum grounds for a similar event during September 2015. “The event was flawless, and the end result was terrific, so the art team is busy working amongst themselves and submitting grant proposals, because next year they would like to see a stipend for the artists. Sponsors J.C. Stone, R.M. Davis, and Maine Home and Design, will also be coming back; they were quite pleased with the results.

“Changes next year include building on the educational aspect of the program. One of them is integrating a workshop for the school students so they can have a hands-on experience while creating a sculpture themselves to show their family. That’s a great way to connect their experience with our artists and the process of creating art, and makes the educational offering much richer.

“We are working with the Maine Stone Workers Guild on that. They are very interested in being part of our next event and are trying to get someone on site for next year. Going forward, we’ll also be working with some foundations in hopes of being able to provide travel money for the schools that may not have the bus travel budget that they’ll need.

Artist Dan Ucci taking a short break from making chips and dust to pose. Dan, an accomplished artist, is also a fabricator and master mason. Look for a feature on Dan’s work in an upcoming issue of the Slippery Rock Gazette. “Be it stone, tools or media coverage, we are enthusiastically ready to respond to anyone willing to work with us to make the next annual symposium an even bigger success.

“I’ve recently returned from J.C. Stone because Jamie and Kathleen called and said they had some stone for next year’s symposium. I was floored when I saw it! It is absolutely beautiful material! Slabs and chunks of different colors. Some large—some small. It’s incredible! Of course Dan Ucci has offered his boom truck. All these people and companies that are giving so much and putting in blood, sweat and equity; this tells me we are doing the right thing. This is the magic of being part of this group.”

Attending Artists of the 2014 Viles Arboretum Sculpture Symposium

Lise Becu, Lance Carlezon, David Curry, Isabel Kelly, Paul Kozak, Hugh Lassen, Bill Royal, Glenn Swanson, David Sywalski, Dan Ucci, and Andreas von Huene.

For more information please visit the Viles Arboretum website www.vilesarboretum.org.

Peter J. Marcucci has over 25 years of fabrication experience in the stone industry

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