Carving a Career in Natural Stone: A Conversation with Chris Miller

by | Nov 30, 2020 | Educate

An earlier version of this article appeared in the September 2020 edition of The Slippery Rock Gazette. Reprinted with permission. Photos courtesy of Chris Miller and assigned copyright holders.

 

If you’ve ever explored the beauty and charm of small-town Vermont, chances are you’ve visited Vermont’s state capital, Montpelier. Located just a stone’s throw from Montpelier is the town of Calais, the home of the Kent Museum and the Robinson Saw Mill. It’s also the home of the renowned Chris Miller Studio.

Chris Miller is a seasoned veteran with hammer and chisel who has been creating art since childhood and sculpture since 1976. Mostly self-taught, Chris was influenced by many local artists, including the late Billy Brauer of Warren, Vermont, and the late Lothar Werslin of Sandgate, Vermont. It’s noteworthy to mention that Chris’ studio is conveniently close to the Rock of Ages Quarry in Barre, Vermont, an area known as the “Granite Center of the World” for well over a century. Chris loves the granite from this area. Ask him about Barre granite and he’ll readily tell you why he loves it.

 

Lessons Learned, Experience Earned

Chris opened his first studio at age eighteen, exclusively doing wood sculpture. However, he soon turned to natural stone. “I had always wanted to try stone, and a few years after opening the studio I went to visit the Vermont quarries. What’s the old saying: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’? So, after many years of doing exclusively wood, it was nice to try a different material and the techniques used to carve it, and it was a great mid-career challenge to add stone to the mix. There’s also a lot more work in the stone-sculpture world than in the wood-sculpture world.”

Chris has an extensive wood working and carving room in his barn, as well as an area for stone, but is only set up to work on projects up to about one ton. When doing larger scale work, he uses two different studios in Barre that he rents, he explained.

“For the big projects, there are forklifts, bridge cranes, saws, sandblasting, and all the great stuff needed. I tend to work big when I can, and having these tools is pretty wonderful. Because of my back, I try not to work on anything small anymore, because if it’s a hundred pounds or less, I tend to pick it up and move it! When I’m working in Barre, if it’s six, ten or twenty tons, I just wave the crane guy over and it gets moved.”

Chris works with both granite and marble. “I do much, much more granite than marble just because granite is much more durable, and there are more applications. If it’s an indoor figurative thing, marble is really good for that, but if it’s going to be outdoors for years and years, you’re going to want it to be granite. Both soft and hard stones have their qualities just like soft and hard wood. With hard wood you can do finer details better, and with soft wood you can move a lot faster. It’s the same with stone. Some people will suggest the idea for a sculpture, and I’ll know immediately if it should be in granite or marble, because each material also lends itself better to different subject matter. It’s also nice to go from granite to marble to wood and back again, just for a feeling of variety.”

It’s all about finding the right stone for the right project. “I use different stones for different projects, but I’m a big fan of Barre Gray granite, especially the dark gray. The grain is tight, it’s predictable, and it carves really well. Some of the softer granites are more difficult to carve, whereas some dark granites have larger grain and bigger pieces of quartz or feldspar. They are beautiful to look at when they are polished, and when used in carvings that have a broader form, these colors can work out very well. But when you’re carving something with a lot of detail, the colors and patterns can compete with the design. If you’re carving a face or something with fine detail, you don’t want the stone to compete with the design you are working on.”

 

Know Your Client’s Needs, Understand Your Market

Vermont has a program called Art in State Buildings that’s promoted by the Vermont Arts Council. Each year they grant several commissions for any number of buildings that the state is constructing. Six years ago, Chris was a team leader for one of these commissions and put together a group of four sculptors for a project in the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. “We wanted to design something that would interact with a very vulnerable psychiatric population in the hospital, so we designed all these therapy animal sculptures, and put them throughout the hospital. We did seven, and from what I heard later on from the staff there, the patients had formed relationships with the animals, and it had a really big impact on them.”

Chris’s clients vary. “I’ll go from doing a public piece, to a collector, to a private commission, to a commercial job. Over the last six years, my work has been divided between museums, commercial work, the Vermont State House, small public sculptures, commissions for private collections and private sculpture parks. It runs the whole spectrum. It’s important to know who you are dealing with. The client can be an individual commissioning the sculpture for themselves, or for a gift, or for a commercial project or for an institution, where you are dealing with a committee. You have to know your audience, and you have to know the cost and know if they can afford it. So I listen intently, find out what the budget is, what their needs are, what’s important, and what the sculpture needs to do. All these things matter.

“After this initial process, I’ll have a basic concept, and I’ll then work with sketches and go back and forth with renditions. When approved, I then make a small sketch in clay (a little maquette), and when that’s approved, I make a scale model. Once they approve that, I make a mold cast in plaster, so I have a hard model to work from. Then, finally, when I’m ready to start carving, it’s a matter of measuring and enlarging from the model. So as far as imagining what the form is going to look like in the stone, all that work was done during the preliminary modeling.”

Chris enjoys the physicality of his work. “Being a sculptor is physically difficult, and why I enjoy my trade, says the guy with three back surgeries. Right now I’ve just completed a project in Georgia. It’s a truck made out of fieldstone, and there was a lot of lifting and hammering, but these trucks are a lot of fun to make. I get really solid reactions when people see them. It’s funny, I can do a beautiful statue, and people are really in awe, but I do a stone truck, and it really draws attention. So I tend to like that whimsical stuff. It goes over really well with a wide audience, and there’s no reason that it can’t be whimsical and crafted well at the same time. I do a fair amount of serious sculpture, too, but I do a lot more whimsical things, like the world’s largest granite zipper that’s displayed in Barre. I also love to do figurative work, and I’ve done six larger than life hands. I like using hands as a subject, because they can express quite a bit. You can express strength, gentleness and emotion with a hand, just as any kind of figurative work. I just really like hands.”

 

The Challenge of Working in Stone

“I’ve come to realize over the years, that when doing this kind of work you have to do a lot of designing and planning. Fortunately, this fits really well into my personality, because I enjoy problem solving. When somebody comes to me with an idea for a sculpture and there are parts of the idea that seem impossible, I sometimes think, how am I possibly going to do this? But I love the process of imagining a way to do this, and then having that idea rejected, and then having another idea and another idea and another idea, and by the end, I’ve taken the problem and challenges in the design and worked them out.”

Each project is like a new puzzle to solve. “The logistics of it, the practicality about how you are going to go about things and taking into consideration the parts that can break… there are so many different layers that have to work together, and that kind of challenge is incredibly fun, and fits the way my mind works. For example: at a recent remote job in Georgia, doing a project like this involved figuring out the tools I’d need, the materials, renting the equipment, coordinating the deliveries and putting a tent around it. It’s like being a contractor of a large-scale project, and I love this part of the job! When it’s a large sculpture project, with the design, the committees, the subcontractors and lots of moving parts, the design management of this is incredibly enjoyable, just because it makes me use my resources, and I find that really, really fun.”

When asked what a sculptor like Michelangelo might think of his work if he was alive today, Miller said, “He’d probably think I’m a hack! However, he might appreciate that I usually do all the work myself. In his era, the sculptor would design the model for it, and then there would be a team of specialist carvers: somebody who works on drapery, somebody who works on heads, somebody who works on hair and somebody who works on hands. There was a team, and that was the tradition.”

Chris enjoys the entire process. “I like the designing, making the model, roughing it out, the finish work and the installation. People think I’m crazy for wanting to do all of the process by myself. With his students and studio helpers, that’s how Michelangelo could produce hundreds of sculptures in his lifetime, and why I can’t, working by myself. Nevertheless, I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can. I figure I’ve got about another decade that I can swing a hammer. I’m sixty-two and never want to retire, but do want to go to a nine month per year work schedule, making larger public sculptures.”

When asked if he had any advice for up-and-coming stone artists, Miller said: “The thing to do when starting out is to make designs that you want to earn commissions for in the future, because when you’re starting out, you are going to make things on speculation, and if you want to be known as a figurative artist, you need to make figurative work.

“If you’re heading in the direction of public art, you need to do sculpture that would be suitable for public art. That way you can build up your portfolio while doing it with an eye on the future. Commissions are often awarded to sculptors who have a track record of public work. So, if you’ve done something suitable for a public piece, take a photograph of it, Photoshop it into a picture of a public square, and when you answer the call for artists, you can truthfully say, ‘this is a piece that I designed for a public setting.’ So do the kind of sculpture that you want to do to get orders for the future and build up your portfolio.”

To view Chris’s outstanding work, visit his website at www.chrismillerstudio.com.

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