Friday, September 14, 2018

Trailblazer: John Van Alstine

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer. Read more here.

World-renowned stone sculptor John Van Alstine’s interpretation of nature’s interaction with the manmade world extends from his art to his home to his appreciation of the world around him.

Large-scale abstract sculptures of found stone with steel and bronze surround and occupy many of the six buildings on his nine-acre complex — the former Adirondack Lumber Company mill along the Sacandaga River.

The property, once his summertime studio, has, over time, transformed into his home and “world headquarters” for his studio and studios for the marble and granite work of his wife Caroline Ramersdorfer.

The buildings are bordered by a spectacular sculpture garden of both artists’ works—twenty pieces in all — and beyond them, the banks of the Sacandaga. The curved and fluid stone and metal figures provide both a contrast and a complement to the natural surroundings.

It’s a perfect setting for a wedding. And it’s where Van Alstine and Ramersdorfer, who met in 2002, when they both were part of an international symposium for working artists in Kettering, Ohio, married last September.

And, counting his and Ramersdorfer’s working studios, Van Alstine has been told by author and historian Donald R. Williams the complex may be the oldest continuous commercial site in the Adirondacks. The property won an Adirondack Architectural Heritage Preservation award in 2000 for its adaptive reuse.

Van Alstine bought the old lumber mill in 1987 and moved there in 1992, raising two daughters there who both attended Wells Central School. Before coming back to the Adirondacks, just down the road from Gloversville, where he grew up, Van Alstine taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Maryland, and later worked out of a studio in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“I really feel I’m back at home, making a loop and coming back to the Adirondacks,” Van Alstine says.

Adirondack landscape references — round mountain landscapes, stone with flowing steel depicting rivers, and a confluence of nature and human-made structures, which he calls an interaction, not a struggle — can be seen throughout Van Alstine’s work as well as the influence of mythology, boat forms, river references, aeronautics, calendars and movement. Almost all of his sculpture lifts heavy stone — or metal — in the air, “loosening it from the gravitational pull to the earth.” He doesn’t change the stone, but combines its natural shape with metal, letting the “spirit of the stones” guide the piece.

Boat forms, particularly guideboats, are inspiration — the vessel form as a metaphor for passage, he says. Antlers and horns cast in bronze represent his “taxidermy period,” and Labyrinth’s Trophy includes an oar purchased from an Adirondack Museum antique sale.

This is artwork that requires a truck. And a crane. And Van Alstine has both.

He finds raw stone from Ausable Forks and from quarries at the Vermont-New York border and brings it home. It helps to have storage too. His warehouse stores pieces of slate, nose cones from airplanes, fuel tanks and well wings. He has a welding shop on the property.

The idea of Sisyphean Circles shows up in many of Van Alstine’s works, a reference to the Greek myth Sisyphus, the king forced to push a stone up a hill as punishment. The stone rolls back and he has push it up the hill over and over again. These pieces for Van Alstine are a little like self-portraits — lifting stone with cranes, moving stone to the top, starting over.

“It’s not the punishment, it’s the process,” he says. “As an artist, it’s that creative process that’s important. The final product embodies the process.”

Van Alstine’s career is being chronicled in the book American Vistas: The Complete Works of John Van Alstine, to be released in summer of 2019 with major retrospective exhibitions to follow.

It tells of his story and the evolution of his work. He left teaching in 1986 with the sense he “could make things people wanted to buy” and his career received a significant boost by being curated into a major show at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The sculpture he does today was inspired by a mishap. He was working on a marble carving that fell and broke. He salvaged the two parts and pinned them in opposition in Falling Stones. It was a turning point. Now he never alters the found stone in his sculpture.

“That accident turned out to be the best thing that happened,” he said.

Drawings and smaller sculptures help him work out ideas for his bigger projects. In some cases he has specialty fabricators build sculptures from his models.

Among these larger pieces are the Funambulist (tight-rope walker) he created for Michigan State University and the Rings of Unity — Circles of Inclusion that he made for the Olympic Park in Bejing China for the 2008 Olympics.

With the help of Noah Savett, he created Tempered By Memory, a 911 Memorial in High Rock Park in Saratoga Springs, dedicated in 2012. That sculpture was originally planned to be placed on Broadway in the middle of the city, but controversy over the piece stalled the unveiling and it was ultimately moved to the High Rock Park, a better spot for the work, Van Alstine believes. Such controversies are not new for him.

“It’s partly because most people aren’t tuned into what sculpture is, especially abstract,” he says. “They don’t understand, so they lash out — ‘our tax dollars at work.’ ’’

So Van Alstine tries to research the area where a sculpture is going and come up with connections that will speak to the people there.

He built a twelve-by-ten-foot granite sculpture for Billings, Montana, on the Yellowstone River, that mirrored the geological nature there. He also creates calendars with his public sculptures marking the winter and summer solstice.

“The calendar is in our DNA. It touches a nerve with people,” he says. “Artists help people see things they look at all the time but don’t really see.”

Photos by Mike Lynch, courtesy of John Van Alstine.

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Tracy Ormsbee is the publisher of the Adirondack Explorer. When she’s not working – and it’s not black fly season – you can find her outdoors hiking, running, paddle boarding or reading a book on an Adirondack chair somewhere.

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