The Mountain Times

°F Wed, April 23, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Stone Revival showcases the art of sculpture

Story and photos by Greg Crawford

Stone Revival is the name of the gallery and studio of M. Julian Isaacson, a gifted sculptor who works primarily in marble, but also in wood. He also produces tiles molded from his original sculptures. His business card reads: "Interior & Exterior Hand-carved Imperial Tiles, Fine Art, & Architectural Enhancements," which covers it quite succinctly. Isaacson will be hosting an open house at Stone Revival on October 6-7 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. with many works on display.

Isaacson is a self-taught sculptor born into a family of artists and musicians, so creativity is deeply imbedded in his genes. Now, there are some who attach more value to where someone went to school than to any actual ability they might have. While colleges and universities may provide the tools and specialized work spaces essential to gaining proficiency in certain pursuits, ultimately, they only confer degrees; they do not confer intelligence or talent. The fact is, everyone is self-taught, in a sense. A teacher really only facilitates; it is the responsibility of the student to actively learn. There'll be a quiz in the morning.

As a youngster, Julian Isaacson originally gravitated toward painting, but it soon became apparent that he was colorblind. Genes can certainly be fickle; make the kid creative, then make it so he can't tell red from green. Go figure. Anyway, thus it was that he found his creative outlet through sculpture.

Sculpting in marble, or any other material, for that matter, is not an undertaking for those seeking instant gratification. Freeing an image from the surrounding stone takes time and patience. Lots of time and patience.

The techniques for doing so have not changed much for thousands of years. Just like the long-forgotten sculptors of Mesopotamia, the masters of the human form from the Greek Hellenistic period, and Michelangelo, Julian Isaacson uses mallets, chisels, and rasps to create his masterpieces. Interestingly, he says that wood is, in some ways, the more challenging medium. Different woods respond to the sculptor's chisel in different ways. Softer hardwoods, like butternut, have a tendency to chip and splinter more readily than, say, maple. So a sculptor must modify his techniques to accommodate the specific characteristics of the wood beneath his hand. Many different woods are represented in the relief sculptures on the walls of his gallery.

But Mr. Isaacson really loves to work with marble, a metamorphic rock of calcite, dolomite, or a combination of these carbonate minerals. During the Precambrian and Paleozoic Eras, the microscopic skeletons and shells of marine organisms fell to the bottom of the vast seas. As this organic detritus accumulated, it formed limestone that was subjected to immense pressure and heat over many millions of years. Plate tectonics gradually pushed these ancient sea beds around to form the mountains of Greece, Italy, and other regions where marble deposits occur- including Vermont. The product of those geologic forces has been the favorite medium of sculptors for millennia. Incidentally, much of the marble that graces our nation's capital came from Vermont.

The marble of the Mediterranean region is more often a pure white, making it ideal for large sculpted figures. Vermont marble is more likely to feature the delicate veining so often associated with architectural applications, and, of course, the exquisite coloration of the Rochester Verde Antique marble quarried only a few miles north of the Stone Revival studio and gallery.

This is part of the reason that Julian Isaacson came back to Vermont. He and his lovely wife, Lee Ann, lived on the Left Coast for many years, both in California and in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, they decided that, instead of bringing the mountain to Julian one or two rocks at a time, it made more sense to bring Julian to the mountains from whence came the source of his livelihood. A friend told him of the late Bill Gilderdale's old gun shop on Route 100 in Stockbridge, a deal was struck, and Julian set up shop.

Isaacson has a particular affinity for bas-relief sculpture, and many of his panels tell a story, or at least suggest that there is a story behind the image. He is also a proponent of what he terms "functional art." The counter in his gallery consists of three marble panels, the longest of which is a little over five feet long, by two feet in height. The triptych depicts an Indian running through the woods among deer. The top is a single polished slab of the aforementioned Rochester Verde Antique marble, and the entire assembly is supported by a custom-made steel frame that allows the piece to be disassembled, should Lee Ann wish to rearrange the furniture. The thing must weigh a ton, literally, so it'll probably stay right where it is for the foreseeable future.

The notion of functional art, something you can admire for its aesthetic appeal even as it serves a more prosaic purpose, is also a major selling point for those who don't have room in their parlor for a humongous statue. The possibilities are limited only by one's imagination.

Julian Isaacson is dedicated to making his art accessible to all. If potential customers have desires that exceed the limits of their pocketbooks, he will work with them to find a balance agreeable to all. He also installed a window in the gallery through which patrons can see his workspace. Children who visit are fascinated by the fact that hammering on a rock can produce a work of art.
The clay tiles that Isaacson casts from molds of his stone carvings are another way to make his art more available and affordable. These tiles are also another form of functional art, as evidenced by the elegant fireplace surround displayed behind his magnificent counter.

Creating three-dimensional art has been an essential part of human history since our most ancient ancestors first realized they could do cool stuff with opposable thumbs. The graves of Neanderthals contained small stone carvings, and the Cro-Magnons who eventually displaced them were masters of beautiful and highly stylized art and sculpture. Art is (not to put too fine a point on it) essential to a rich and fulfilling life. No one's education is complete without it. Those who may scoff should be reminded that the team insignias on your hats and jackets were created by… that's right. Artists.

The uninitiated may well wonder, where does one begin when sculpting an image? Surprisingly, it doesn't necessarily begin with a block of marble, though a piece of marble may sometimes scream, "Carve me into a poodle!" More frequently, though, that first spark of inspiration begins its evolution as a sketch, which is refined to make the most of the particular stone from which it will eventually emerge.

Once the basic outline of the subject is transferred to the stone, the sculptor will begin by removing, or "pitching," unwanted areas, (anything that is not poodle) with a pitching tool, which is a heavy chisel that can have a pointed or a broad, blunt end, depending on how much material is to be removed with any given blow of the mallet.

Once the general shape of the subject has been roughed out, smaller chisels are used to refine the details. These may be toothed, or claw, chisels with multiple cutting edges. As details are formed, rasps and rifflers further refine subtle shapes like the folds of fabric, or curls in the locks of hair.

Finally, the piece is finished by polishing. Progressively finer abrasives, starting with a coarse sandpaper, and ending with an extra fine emery cloth, will give the sculpture a beautiful sheen that brings out the color of the marble, and reveals subtle patterns in the grain. Often, both rough and smooth surfaces are combined to convey the sense of the varying textures of a single subject. Now that's one fine lookin' poodle!

Stone Revival will be hosting an open house on October 6-7 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Julian and Lee Ann Isaacson are gracious hosts. The studio is located at 1354 Route 100 in Stockbridge, just a short drive north of Killington. It is a barn red building on the right next to a 300 year-old maple tree on the edge of a hay field. Everyone is encouraged to attend. For more information, call 746-8110, or visit