In This State: Jim Sardonis’ whimsy writ large

Jim Sardonis

Sculptor Jim Sardonis sits on a pear sculpture he calls "Mrs. Bartlett" outside his studio in Randolph. He is the creator of the famous whales' tails sculpture called "Reverence" alongside I-89 near Burlington. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

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 writer from Calais. He can be reached at [email protected]

Sculptor Jim Sardonis likes to think big – which in his chosen field, means he deals in tons like most people weigh ounces or pounds.

For Sardonis, whittling away at a piece of stone that weighs as much as two tractor trailer rigs – about 40,000 pounds – is nothing unusual.

His art, though, is anything but usual, eschewing the conventional contemplation of granite or marble mausoleums and headstones, plinths and pedestals. Instead, Sardonis sees in stone a reflection of the natural world and playthings for humans – and a playground for his imagination, if you can imagine something that weighs 10 or 20 tons as being whimsical.

There is no doubt that in Sardonis’ hands, it is.

He’s sculpted blocks of granite into dogs and great auks, dolphins and polar bears, owls, doves, seals and otters, and ventured into the inanimate world, carving fruits, fiddleheads and ammonites, a spiral fossil whose shape allows for interesting artistic perspectives. He captures them in ways unexpected or with a twist, both conceptual and physical.

The natural world has been his playground ever since he was a child growing up in New Hampshire. Reflecting it in stone and sometimes bronze was a, well, natural progression.

“As a kid I was constantly catching snakes and frogs and turtles. I was always fascinated with nature,” he says.

While they may not know his name, in Vermont just about everyone knows his work: He’s the creator of the whales’ tails diving into the sea of grass off the northbound lane of I-89 outside Burlington, near exit 12. Standing 13 feet high and carved from 36 tons of black granite, the tails have been turning highway heads for more than a dozen years.

In fact a bit too fascinated, he ruefully recalls. Growing up in the outskirts of Nashua, N.H., he dispatched a lot of creatures, especially birds, when he got a BB gun, and later as a frequent visitor to Vermont, with a .22 caliber rifle. More than four decades later, he still feels those thoughtless escapades, and in a sense his sees his carvings as a “memorial” to those creatures.

A soft-spoken man, Sardonis, who began sculpting while at Exeter and then Oberlin College, is now 61 with a full head of wavy graying hair and a remarkable resume that exemplifies a rich Vermont genre: Artists whose work is widely known and recognized, though their name may not be. His sculptures are spread around the East Coast at colleges and universities, aquariums and hospitals, private homes and galleries. For years, a foot-high marble dove he sculpted was given as a Global Environmental Citizen award by Harvard Medical School to such glitterati as Al Gore, Prince Charles and Harrison Ford at a lavish fête he enjoyed attending.

While they may not know his name, in Vermont just about everyone knows his work: He’s the creator of the whales’ tails diving into the sea of grass off the northbound lane of I-89 outside Burlington, near exit 12. Standing 13 feet high and carved from 36 tons of black granite, the tails have been turning highway heads for more than a dozen years.

“I’m always surprised by how many people are aware of those, even down in Boston,” he says.

Created in 1989 for a wealthy patron in his hometown of Randolph, they spent 10 years in Randolph before they had to be moved because the owner sold the property.

His first effort in granite – a “summer project” started when he was an art teacher in Montpelier schools that took him three summers (and a mere bagatelle at only 10 tons) – is equally well known. It’s called “Father and Son,” but most folks know it as the hippopotamus sculpture in the little park next to the famed floating bridge in Brookfield’s Pond Village. For more than 30 years it’s entertained children who climb and jumped off the two intertwined granite creatures while swimming in Sunset Lake.

Bronze model of swimming retriever

A small bronze model of "swimming retriever," which Sardonis used to create a 12-ton granite dog for a veterinary school in North Carolina. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

His latest large whimsy continues a prominent theme flowing through his work, which is water. It emerged from a huge 25-ton block of unusual Brazilian yellow granite he located in Beebe, Quebec, which he rescued from a mundane future as granite countertop slabs. He spent a year turning it into a swimming golden retriever, its mouth holding a seven-foot bronze stick that doubles as a sitting perch.

The sculpture was unveiled last fall at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine to honor a wealthy benefactor who had six goldens he dearly loved. Picked from 37 proposals, he won the commission with a return to his whales’ tails water idea, combined with the joy of a dog at play, the happy retriever showing only its 5-foot high head visible in a “pond” of grass.

Cutting and chiseling down the 25-ton block to a 12-ton dog head and figuring out how to attach a seven-foot stick to the mouth sturdy enough, he jokes, to support a bunch of “drunken frat boys” was a complex task. He did the work at Northern Mausoleum in Barre, which had a crane big enough to handle the massive granite block, including inverting it at one point for carving upside down.

Almost immediately after it was unveiled, people were sitting and climbing on the sculpture – which is exactly the kind of interactive and tactile art Sardonis envisions.

“I’ve designed a lot of them specifically for children to climb on,” he explains.

The idea of families at play percolates in his mind and throughout his carvings, whether depicting a pod of dolphins or pair of bears, owls or otters. That emanates from his own upbringing in a big Greek family of five children with a lot of aunts and uncles.

“Family’s just always been central in my life and relationships,” he says.

He works in a small carving studio attached to his old hillside farmhouse not far above Route 12. Outside sit two more examples of his conceptual art-as-playground thinking: A pair of dark granite pears nestled side by side, offering a place to sit, and due to some subtle carving, a reminder of a human torso with a prominent butt.

“I call it ‘Mrs. Bartlett’,” he quips.

Sardonis may become a little more familiar to Vermonters because documentary filmmaker Holly Sanders, also of Randolph, followed the year-long process of creating the swimming retriever and recently began showing the film around the state.

Inside Sardonis’ rambling old house a visitor walks through a museum-like world of his natural whimsy, extensive talents and love of art in myriad forms. It’s filled with stained glass windows, paintings and photos on the wall, and the beautiful small-scale models he often casts in bronze before he tackles a large piece. He also makes jewelry in silver and gold, and interesting “light forms,” translucent sculptures lit from inside. (Sardonis’ extensive work can also be seen at his website “Natural Forms” at http://www.sardonis.com/).

Leaping frog in bronze

Sardonis is best known for big granite sculptures of animals but his talents extend to smaller works as well. This leaping frog in bronze sits in front of a piece of Italian Carrera marble he plans to use in his studio in Randolph. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

While his sculptings writ large in stone necessarily lack fine detail, his bronze models are finely wrought and exquisitely detailed, revealing a breadth of skill and the depth of his concepts. His statue of Samuel de Champlain for Champlain College, cast in bronze and installed in 2009, shows off that more elaborate side of his art.

At 61, with a back he recently aggravated, he is more aware today of the hard work and “drudgery” that come with his craft, and at the same time cognizant what a gift it has been to be able to spend a life following his muse, translating into granite and marble and bronze his passion and own ideas, creating both a long-lasting legacy and joy for other people.

“I am aware more than most people how difficult it is to survive. I feel privileged and fortunate and proud,” he says.

Sculpting tools

Tools of sculptor Jim Sardonis trade site in his carving studio, attached to his house in Randolph. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Andrew Nemethy

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  • Thor Schulte

    Hello Jim,
    I love your work! I would like to talk to you about carving a memorial for my mother-in-law. I am recently out of the country. How can I contact you through email?If you are not available, is there another sculptor that you would recommend? Thank you. Thor

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