Whistle while you work

East Montpelier sculptor coaxes sound from lumps of clay


East Montpelier artist Mary Stone works on a small clay fox sculpture in the studio of her home recently. The fox, like her many other clay animal sculptures, are functioning whistles. Video: to see Stone make a chickadee, visit bit.ly/StoneWhistles. STEFAN HARD / STAFF PHOTO

East Montpelier artist Mary Stone works on a small clay fox sculpture in the studio of her home recently. The fox, like her many other clay animal sculptures, are functioning whistles. Video: to see Stone make a chickadee, visit bit.ly/StoneWhistles. STEFAN HARD / STAFF PHOTO

When Mary Stone makes whistles, she uses a thin paring knife to smooth the clay, a nail set to make the eye imprints and a large darning needle.

The last is to punch the precise holes and cut the channels that determine the pitch and tone of the notes that sound when you blow into the animal sculptures she creates in the workshop of her East Montpelier home. Those tools, a little water, paint and brushes and a modest, knee-high kiln she keeps in an alcove, are about all she needs for a business that feeds both financial and creative needs.

“It’s great to not have a lot of equipment,” Stone said.

Stacked in bins and on shelves are the inventory of bears, lions, birds, giraffes and dogs that she sells online, at art shows and in a few shops. Many are multi-note “ocarinas,” an ancient family of enclosed wind instruments. Others are tiny, one-note whistles you would attach to a key chain.

This morning, she formed a simple chickadee from porcelain clay. Cutting off a few ounces, she rolled the hunk into a ball and began rotating it around a finger, making a simple pinch pot that would form the hollow body of the bird. Gathering the open end into the tail, she shaped and smoothed the pale model, adding a lump for a head and punching the holes that would form the sounds.

Moving the still-wet whistle to her lips, she sounded out the first five notes of a major scale, closing her eyes to listen. She tunes the scale by ear, and admitted she doesn’t know what the pitches are. It wouldn’t matter anyway — firing the sculpture in the kiln shrinks it by as much as 15 percent, raising overall pitch. Experience has taught her, however, the notes will all change equally, keeping the “do — re — mi — fa — so” intact.

“I’ve learned so much by doing it again and again,” she said, reinserting the pin to smooth the edges of a hole, explaining it sounded a bit breathy. “I do think the porcelain has a more ringing sound (than other clays). It may be psychological. … It has a nice clean sound.”

A Vermonter who grew up in Northfield, Stone said she studied geology at the University of Vermont, and always thought math and science would set

A small collection of East Montpelier artist Mary Stone’s clay animal whistles. STEFAN HARD / STAFF PHOTO

A small collection of East Montpelier artist Mary Stone’s clay animal whistles. STEFAN HARD / STAFF PHOTO

the tone for her career. She was torn, however, between geology and the love for the ceramics she learned taking occasional art classes. She struck up a friendship with a woman named Delia Robinson — daughter of noted Indiana pinch-pot whistle maker Mildred MacKenzie — who taught her the craft. It was a stroke of luck, she said, and adding sound to sculpture made it all “make sense.”

Early on, she referred to nature photos frequently, trying to capture realistic portraits of the animals. Now, her approach is more expressionist.

“It’s not a replica I’m trying to do. It’s an attitude and a general feeling of the bird or of the fox or chicken,” Stone said. “Now I feel I know the creatures I’m making and I can give them their own character without trying to be too cute about it. But they still sometimes surprise me.” She works a fairly structured day, juggling dog walks with the shaping, glazing and firing. It’s a schedule that allows her to indulge another love — cross-country skiing; her family’s property connects with the Morse Farm Ski Center trails.

Stone has also been closely involved with the main store where her whistles are sold, serving as board chairwoman for the Artisans Hand in Montpelier for nearly 30 years.

“It’s an important store in Montpelier, and it’s an important store for producers,” she said.

Artisans Hand store manager Jill Pralle said Stone’s whistles continue to be a top seller, and they appeal to all kinds of people. She guesses it might be the connection with the natural world.

“Vermonters especially love animals things. Tourists, too, of course,” she said.

Pralle added that Stone is a grounded, insightful person with a genuine love for the store, which features the work of craftspeople from all over the state.

“When I was new as a manager, I really looked to her for a lot of advice,” she said.

Stone is married to Chris Stone, president of Stone Environmental of Montpelier. They have three daughters no longer living at home. She likes to reiterate that her career has been a happy accident, one allowed her to find a creative outlet that is simple and very satisfying.

“It just makes people happy. … I make things not just to sit on the shelf. They want to be picked up, and they make music.”

Learn more at marystonewhistles.com.

david.smith @timesargus.com

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