Hot and Very, Very Heavy

Michael McGillis is at the Franconia Sculpture Park, standing in a pile of cut-and-scattered wood. He’s wearing shorts, heavy work boots, and a straw hat, and is looking sweaty and overwhelmed. His work in progress, Paper Cut, isn’t really turning out the way he’d planned.

He began by digging a curving trench; in his mind’s eye, he would then lay cut wood horizontally on either side of the trench, so that people could walk through it and feel like they were parting the Red Sea, only they’d be parting the trees, stacked like cordwood and towering over their heads. “People become the cutters themselves,” notes McGillis of his original vision. A visitor would feel enveloped, overwhelmed—kind of how McGillis seems to be feeling now.

He and his helpers don’t dig for long before they hit the water table. So much for the deep trench. He also isn’t able to get as many of the white and red oak and ash trees as the project required. As the installation is developing now, you’ll have to be really short to get the total experience. But all of his sculptural installations seem to have gone this way, McGillis admits. “It’s about improvising.”

When McGillis is finished, you won’t be able to really see the installation from a distance because it will blend in with the landscape. But up close, as you walk into it, the experience will be quite different. Like some of his other pieces, McGillis will paint the ends of the trees an unearthly, iridescent color. “Maybe a blue,” he says. “I want it to be a bright, almost impossible space.”

Which is exactly what Franconia is for the artists who travel there to work for various periods of time and at various points in their careers. Some, like McGillis, who is here on a Jerome Foundation grant, have already built successful careers as sculptors. Others are moving toward that goal; still others are just getting started.

I had pictured a summer at Franconia as the sort of bacchanal for sculptors that the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference is supposed to be for writers. But here McGillis was, actually puzzling over his art and trying to get his project done so he could go home to his wife, toddler, and newborn.

His work is one of the first pieces to be installed on Franconia’s new site. After renting land for eleven years, the park will soon have a permanent home on its own land, down the road about half a mile from its current spot. John Hock, Franconia’s founding and artistic director, works tirelessly to keep what one of the interns calls “a sculptor’s paradise” thriving. Somehow, he’s hooked up with Slumberland, which has entirely furnished the new house where the sculptors will stay with items including leather couches that are sure to get plenty of use in the coming months. The Jacuzzi (which came with the place) has already been the site for a number of physics experiments. It’s a two-person tub, but it turns out you can actually get about eight people in it. Of that water-displacement exercise, Hock says with a snort, “We proved that water flows downward.” Aha. This is what I was waiting to hear.

Back at the original park, Coral Lambert comments matter-of-factly to a passing middle-aged guy who’s covered in dust and powder: “You’re dirty.” Indeed, this place is a beehive of filthy sculptors. Getting ready for the hot metal pour the next day, the artists are taking turns breaking up the old radiators and theater chairs that will become tomorrow’s art, and putting the finishing touches on their molds.

Tonight, they will stay up as long as it takes to get their projects ready for pouring. How early they rise on any given day “depends on how much you’ve had to drink the night before,” smirks one of the interns, but tomorrow they’ll all be up early. Which is not to say you can’t both work and play hard. I go on a cold-beer run with Melanie Van Houten, a faculty member at St. Kate’s who is spending part of the summer here by helping out and working on her own stuff. Tomorrow, she’ll be “mold captain,” in charge of lining up the molds and orchestrating the pourings. Everyone who goes anywhere near the molten iron, the temperature of which ranges from 2,750 to 3,000 degrees, will be wearing heavy leather and work boots.

The fruits of all this labor will be on display in September, when Franconia hosts one of its last shows on its current grounds. The mid-career artists really do seem to be working on their art, and while they might enjoy an occasional moonlit skinny-dip in the nearby St. Croix River, it’s up to the interns to keep things carnal. I happened to walk in on two of them while making my way to what I thought was the bathroom. After knocking, I opened the door and found the artists covered in sheets from the shoulder down, engaged in a pleasant mid-afternoon conversation about sculpture and form, no doubt.

But of course, art is an exploration of the human experience. One good-looking young man explains the process of drilling holes in the molds for pouring and venting. “There’s a lot of heat and pressure building up,” he says.
And sometimes you’ve just gotta blow it off. I overhear stories of late-night underwear dancing (a male intern wears a leopard-print thong for such occasions), and a particular evening spent underneath a large sculpture. “There were a whole bunch of us,” says one artist-in-training, “and we were butt naked and playing the trombone.” So that’s what the kids are calling it these days.