State House statue team gets to work

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo State curator David Schutz, left, meets Wednesday with local sculptors Chris Miller and Jerry Williams, right, after the pair were chosen as the winning team to create the new sculpture of Agriculture for the top of the Statehouse dome.

MONTPELIER — Granite sculptor Chris Miller will return to an old medium – wood – after winning the contract to carve a new statue to adorn the State House dome.  Miller has teamed up with Jerry Williams, of the Barre Sculpture Studio, who will produce a 1/4 scale model of the 14-foot statue that will be based on Larkin Mead's 1859 figure that first adorned the State House.  The new piece will be the third iteration of the State House statue, originally titled Agriculture. Mead carved his statue in the shape of a woman holding a sheaf of wheat and a legal scroll. At a later time, the statue was called Ceres, after the Roman goddess of agriculture. After the statue suffered rot from water damage, it was replaced in 1938 with a folk-art replica by former sergeant-at-arms Dwight Dwinell that became known as Ceres II. It, too, rotted and will be replaced with a new statue as part of a $2 million renovation of the State House dome that will include re-gilding the dome with 24-carat gold leaf. Work on the dome is expected to begin when the Legislature adjourns, and will last through November.  The old statue is drying out in a state warehouse and will be restored and preserved before being put on display, possibly in the Vermont Historical Society Museum on State Street.  Miller and Williams heard recently that their bid to replace the statue had been accepted by the state. They returned a letter of intent that needs to be accepted before the contract price for the project is released.  In the meantime, Williams has started work on three identical clay models of the statue at his studio on Blackwell Street in Barre. Miller will use one as the guide for the 14-foot statue, one will be on display in the State House and the third may go to a museum. Miller will carve the wooden statue at the Barre Granite Museum, where he works on other monument and statue work, including the recently-installed entrance monument featuring the arms of a granite worker holding a hammer and chisel. There will be opportunities for the public to watch both Williams and Miller at work in their studios. David Schutz, curator of state buildings, said the goal is to have a live video feed in the State House lobby showing Miller carving the statue. There will also be a commemorative display of the two previous statues and reference to the new statue on display in the State House lobby, Schutz added.  Schutz said he was "thrilled" with the selection of Miller and Williams to produce the new statue.  "I'm extremely confident that we're going to end up with the very finest replica of Larkin Mead's statue that we could obtain," Schutz said.   Williams is relying on Mead's original drawings and old photos of the original statue to build the model that Miller will use to guide his carving.  Williams noted that Mead based his statue design on the classic, Hellenistic, flowing drapery favored for Greek and Roman figures that was popularized during the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s to introduce beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. "It's a period piece," Williams said. "It's really good that they chose Vermont people to do this project. What we're about, winning the bid, is that we were a team of sculptors, not restoration people or people that repair things, but people who create things," Williams added.  Miller started out as a woodwork craftsman and then switched to granite because it allowed him to produce much larger works, although he continued to work in wood as well. The State House statue allows him to do both.  Miller stressed that the project was "an equal partnership" with Williams. "It's a perfect match," Miller said.  Miller said he would use a certified, sustainable, dense central American mahogany that would be both water- and insect-resistant compared to the pine wood used for Ceres II that acted like a "sponge" and contributed to its decay. The statue will also be hollow in the middle, allowing the wood to "breathe" and reduce the risk of water damage, and be half the weight at 2,000 pounds. Wood was the choice for the original statue because the delicate dome could not bear the burden of a 14-foot granite statue that would weigh 20,000 pounds, Miller said. The new statue will be treated with epoxy resins to keep out moisture, and then an epoxy primer and white paint will be applied, he added.  Miller said he was honored to be carving a piece of such stature to adorn one of the state's most important buildings.  "I certainly feel the weight of that responsibility," Miller said. "I'm honored that they chose us and we're going to work very hard on doing as good a job as possible."  stephen.mills@timesargus.com 

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