In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. Andrew Nemethy is a veteran journalist and editor who lives in Calais.
When it comes to work, Richard Erdman may have found the perfect gig.
Most days he commutes just a few steps, from the elegant, three-story red-brick 1829 house where he lives to his sculpture studio on a spacious 88-acre parcel on the rural western side of Williston, far from the hubbub of mall land.
Five or six times a year, he commutes a bit farther: to Carrara, Italy, where his flowing, abstract visions are transformed into stone under his exacting guidance, carved by some of the best craftspersons in the world. Working steeped in the ambiance of a province where Roman quarries date back some 2,000 years, he’s surrounded by white limestone hills and has time for “mangia” and vino amidst the lush landscape of the Tuscany region.
Not a bad way to make a living: It’s La Dolce Vita meets Green Mountain gringo, a delicious pairing born of an exuberant love of marble, a passion sunk deep into his mental bedrock as a boy. Drawing inspiration from geology, history, an art degree and his Vermont upbringing in the marbled hills around Dorset, Erdman has now spent almost four decades of his life mining a remarkable, resourceful and prolific vein of creative energy.
At 61, Erdman guesses he has created more than 1,000 sculptures, large and small. He is well aware he’s living the dream: Doing what you love, in landscapes you love, whether it’s the Green Mountains or the hills of northern Italy, not far from Florence and the Italian Riviera.
Does he pinch himself now and then? Yes.
“I’m just a humble sculptor. I’m honored to do this,” Erdman says, showing a visitor around the post and beam former machine shop that has been converted into his studio.
With its two big garage doors rolled up on a sunny day, he works looking out on his house, fields and the barn where his wife Madeleine Austin raises horses and provides a home for the University of Vermont equestrian team. Looking in, the tall-ceilinged studio is cluttered with photos, sketches, models, tools, and the tables where he ingeniously creates small-scale wire-mesh and plaster models – “it’s not a technique you learn. I kind of invented this” – that eventually emerge as sculptures from massive stone blocks he hand-picks in Carrara.
Scattered throughout on pedestals are some of his completed sculptures, abstract forms that take wing and flow into myriad shapes, all waiting to flow out to galleries and buyers around the world. An attached office houses two employees who help handle his expansive worldwide business.
It’s a modern paradigm that Vermonters sometimes have to go outside the state’s boundaries to forge a living, even as they choose to live here to forge a wholesome life. Erdman is a paragon of the paradigm. He’s a Burr & Burton and UVM grad whose parents ran a ski lodge called Erdman’s Eyrie near Bromley and Stratton ski areas, where he honed skills that made him a two-time NCAA All-American at UVM. Erdman says his Vermont upbringing with his two siblings not only cemented his bonds with the Green Mountains, but created the sculptor he has become.
“I’m a risk-taker business-wise, and as an artist,” he explains. “We grew up watching our parents create their own lifestyle, not for money, they didn’t get rich doing this,” he says, and his parents gave the kids a lot of freedom as long as they met their family responsibilities. “That allowed us to become individuals and to pursue what we were good at,” he reflects.
Skiing the mountains, diving off marble quarries in Dorset, spelunking in caves in his boyhood formed the adventurous person that Erdman remains today – and enabled the creative adventure that informs and drives his art. That spirit is what inspired him to head to Carrara after UVM and plunge as a novice into the world of marble, establishing a connection that has only grown stronger through the decades. Though he jokes that he “was the only one stupid enough” in his family to try to make a living by going into art, it turns out to have been a smart decision.
Though hardly a household name in Vermont, he’s sent his sculptures of marble, travertine (a speckled, colorful form of limestone) and bronze to 50 countries around the world and had works shown in more than 140 solo and group exhibitions. They’re sold at prices starting in the tens of thousands of dollars to prestigious corporate sites and museums. In 1985 – through a ski shop connection – he got a commission to create the largest travertine sculpture in the world, a mind-bending 25-foot long, 16-foot high work carved out of one 450-ton piece of stone that stands as the signature piece at the PepsiCo Sculpture Gardens in New York. From Korea to Switzerland, New Delhi to Singapore, Florida to California, Erdman’s signature sinuous forms now capture the eye, often paired with a watery setting, equal parts mystery and suggestion.
The words in catalogs stumble in describing what he does with stone. Unlike the gray solidity and realistic forms that characterize Vermont’s famed granite, Erdman’s ideas are all about defying gravity, convention and possibility. His sculptures are shape-shifting, fluid, effervescent and aspiring, often Mobius strips of one continuous form that makes you wonder, “how did he possibly carve that into stone.”
By working in abstract forms, conjuring shapes that seem an impossibility, Erdman says he seeks to capture both “adrenaline and inspiration,” leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about each piece – and him to test the limits of sculpture and his imagination.
“If you’re not pushing yourself, then to me you’re not fully alive,” he explains. “To me the whole focus is on the sculpture. It’s not about me; I’m just making the thing.”
With wavy brown hair going gray, a lean physique and rugged aquiline features, Erdman has an exuberant mile-a-minute, stream-of-thought way of talking and a kinetic style that makes the word “outgoing” seem understated.
Talk with Erdman for long, though, and behind the polished surface of success, familiar streaks of Vermont show through. He’s an artist humorously wary of trusting his good luck, and loathe to tout his good luck. Erdman lives by a very Vermont motto of count your blessings and keep your nose to the grindstone, or in his case, stone grinder.
“You never rest on your laurels,” he says. There’s part of him deep down that still fears he’ll look up and discover a mirage – which provides, he admits, a good piece of his drive.
“I tend to shy away from the easy route. I shy away from the bunny slopes, because who wants to do the easy thing,” he says. Whether it’s art or recreation or just living, “I find that we’re most alive when our senses are fully engaged.”
His artistic life is balanced by an important grounding in friendships and all the outdoor pursuits that offer respite from his immensely scattered responsibilities as designer, sculptor, salesman, marketer and publicist. He skis, bikes, paddles, sails and is a renowned practical joker, never far from an irrepressible adolescent energy. His art and way of life are flip sides of the same coin, he explains.
“Life isn’t just working eight-to-five in the studio. It’s the rest of the day. Those things are important to creativity itself,” he reflects.