Tim Lehmann is the current sculptor-in-residence at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland. This is a prestigious position that is offered to only a few residents every year. For the past two years, the Montpelier resident has worked at Barre Sculpture Studios as an assistant, alongside Sean Williams, in executing several large commissions in granite. Sean Williams, who carved the “Jungle Book,” which sits outside Phoenix Books in Rutland, introduced Lehmann to the Carving Studio and suggested that he apply for a residency.
Lehmann learned granite carving in Barre but was already a proficient sculptor in marble and limestone. He received his training in Austin, Texas, from Joseph Kincannon, a master carver who had received his own training at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Lehmann is a skillful sculptor — equally at ease with finely chiseled detail lettering and fanciful, graceful forms inspired by the natural world.
In fact, he has used his residency to carve an exquisitely complex elecampane leaf in Danby marble. His working title for the sculpture is “Elfdock,” which is the vernacular name of this member of the sunflower family. He has completed numerous drawings and clay models of this unusual leaf, gathered at the end of winter when it is gnarled and twisted but still graceful. Lehmann likens the convex and concave forms to a landscape of hills and valleys. He can even see its relationship to the graceful drapery of classical sculpture.
Lehmann’s excitement and enthusiasm for carving is palpable. He enjoys researching occult and magical forms, as in “Talisman,” and is planning a series of relief carvings using these themes. It seems that his destiny has brought him to two of the major centers of America’s stone-carving world, Barre and West Rutland. Perhaps it was written in his genes, as he is the inheritor of his great-grandfather’s brick mason’s tools. The Carving Studio has honored him with an entire month in which he can engage in his personal sculptural expression. He has made excellent progress on “Elfdock” and hopes to have it close to completion by the time his residency ends July 17.
B.A: How did you get involved in carving?
T.L.: I came to carving in a rather roundabout and unexpected way. Nothing about sculpture or stone carving even entered my mind until I was living in Austin, Texas, a year after I finished my masters at Harvard Divinity School in 2012. I was taking a single year off from my firmly set academic track to just live and take a break. I was working at a café in downtown Austin and found myself needing something more stimulating.
Two of my friends worked for an artist that collaborated with a stone carver on a fireplace. One had heard that this carver was looking for apprentices. Internally, the idea of an apprenticeship “pinged,” and then the strange idea of stone carving “pinged.” I had done drawing and painting earlier in my life, and even initially intended to major in painting as an undergrad, but years on I had never thought of returning to any art seriously, and certainly never thought of working three-dimensionally.
I dropped by the studio shortly thereafter and found Holly Kincannon and few carvers working on these limestone monoliths for the first Bill of Rights monument in the United States that was headed to Arizona. I quickly learned that Holly’s husband and master carver Joseph Kincannon was in the hospital with some fluke temporary paralysis affliction and that they, in fact, needed an experienced or professional carver.
I’m not particularly outgoing, but something made me offer to do volunteer work. I did some simple tooling and cleaning on the monument, and a few weeks later Joseph returned, and through some extended pestering and finagling, I was granted an informal apprenticeship when he had the time to do so. I continued to weasel my way into the studio and was granted work on a large limestone fountain the following spring-summer.
That really got the ball rolling, though it did take some extensive on-the-job instruction and patience on Joseph’s part. Through the first piece, I hit my stride and was hooked, and I made the hard decision to abandon my academic plans.
B.A.: You’ve worked in a variety of stones. Do you have a favorite?
T.L.: So far, I’ve had the most experience with Texas limestone, and a variety called Lueders is my favorite. It has a relatively tight and even grain and can hold a hard edge for details.
Marble might quickly be unseating that, though. It’s, of course, harder and more durable than limestone, but it can worked using similar methods to limestone. It has a funny way of holding and dispersing natural or artificial light differently that I’m hoping to use to my advantage in future projects.
Granite is a pretty daunting stone, but I’ve been fortunate and privileged enough to observe skilled carvers like Jerry and Sean Williams work a variety of granites, and I’ve seen that with the right technique, you can achieve nearly the same detailed results as limestone and marble, and it lasts forever. Mostly I want to keep working with as many different and interesting stones as I can.
B.A.: I’m particularly struck by the carving, “Lore,” which is a 3-feet-high slender book. I find it to be rather mysterious and feel that there is more to it than meets the eye.
T.L.: I’ve always loved old weathered things, especially books. It has that wabi sabi aesthetic that I find so enchanting, that sense of experience and wisdom, of having been formed and manipulated by raw circumstance. I initially just wanted to make a weathered leather book out of stone, as a challenging carving experiment. I went for details like water warping, bent pages and corners, and other imperfections.
When I scaled it up lengthwise on a lark, I was charmed by its imposing presence and I knew it had to stand straight up and be slotted into another stone like the sword in the stone. Set with the moss at its base, it appears to be growing. The cultural reference to the Arthur story and it being a growing book makes me think of myth and lore.
Most knowledge and wisdom is accrued and passed on; it’s forever growing larger, and in combination with oral tradition; it’s kept in books. What I specifically like about “lore” is that it has that folksy, apocryphal flavor to it. A lot of people roll their eyes at things like superstition or wild tales, but I am drawn in by them, and feel that, like myth, there’s wisdom embedded in there.
I believe that it’s important to question the grounds of our knowledge and to not outrightly reject fantastic tales. Perhaps they’re symbolic or metaphorical, but the allure feels like they’re hinting or pointing to something bigger. The sheer longevity of some lore fascinates me, and at the very least, offers a profound window into human nature, of what we value or fixate upon.
B.A.: “Talisman,” what I call “All Seeing Eye,” is another fascinating carving. What does it mean for you?
T.L.: I’ve had an obsession with occult and alchemical symbolism for a long time, and I’m just now beginning to translate it into stone. Images like the all-seeing eye in the pyramid or triangle, en-haloed and flanked by serpents has immediacy in its allure for me that I haven’t quite parsed out yet, and I’m not sure that I ever fully will. But I like that — its riddling nature.
I feel there are internal references within me that I am being pointed to when I look at it, and images like it. The use of symmetry and singular focus, of frozen radiance, really draws me in. I can sit here and explain the traditional meaning of each symbol for you in an academic way, but I feel that’s missing the point. The tradition of occult and alchemical symbolism and imagery is meant to work on you, but in your own internal language and realization.
Part of the meaning and purpose of the piece was the challenge of transferring symbols and esoteric design motifs into a shallow relief carving. All of this was carved by hand and was a technical challenge for me, where there was only ¾-inches of material to work with. That gave me focus and required a lot of patience, delicacy and precision. I want to continue to work images and symbols like this into stone because stone has a power and presence unlike any other material.
B.A.: What are your favorite forms to carve and what inspires your most meaningful sculpture?
T.L.: Most anything is a delight for me to carve. I’m always looking for something new or challenging or out of my wheelhouse. But I do have my propensities. In addition to the occult imagery and symbolism mentioned above, I am fascinated by natural forms and the common patterns found throughout our world. The circulatory or braided river pattern is so lovely to me, and that essentially boils down to (pun intended) the movement and flow of water. The way that water flows leads to the most pleasing of curves and lines, and as I said, the pattern unifies our world. It’s everywhere. The piece I’m working on right now, the withered elecampane leaf, has the pattern as well.
For the first paid carving work I ever did, “Sea Garland,” we did these largely improvised sea-themed garlands, and we had Ernst Haeckel’s “Art Forms of Nature” on hand as inspiration. Emulating some of those forms and studying natural patterns really hooked me, and those things translate so well into stone.
If we’re talking about human-generated forms, I am an unabashed Art Nouveau lover. Nothing beats the curves and flourishes of Art Nouveau motifs when it comes to carving. They’re a pure joy and the chiseling movements are very comfortable and fluid. I also like technical carving, but I understand it’s not for everyone. I do like being challenged though, so I try to open myself to appreciate more simple and abstract forms on occasion. Like the work of Brancusi.
B.A.: What is it like to be at the Carving Studio as a resident?
T.L.: The Carving Studio is an incredible resource and I feel so fortunate and privileged to be working here and experimenting with my own personal work. Not only does the studio have absolutely any tool I could possibly need, but there is plenty of wonderful Danby marble and other interesting stones at my disposal.
It’s so incredible to be able to work independently throughout the day, and to get to do that in such lush and beautiful surroundings. There’s inspiring sculpture absolutely everywhere on the grounds, and abandoned quarries and marshes. I’ve never worked in a place quite like it.
Of course, my experience this summer is a bit of a break from the norm, in that COVID and quarantining have completely disrupted the normal flow of things here. Where there would be rotating workshops, and other visiting artists from out of state and small crowds, there is just me and the studio manager and staff. I’m bummed that I couldn’t have that fuller experience, but I also cherish solitude and the focus it affords me. It feels like a sculpture hermitage in a way, and that’s a very special experience.
B. Amore, a regular contributor to Vermont Arts, is herself an acclaimed sculptor and founded the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in 1987, remaining only in an advisory capacity.