Sculptor Richard Erdman: Cast in Stone

Text by Robert Kiener

When I ask Richard Erdman what he hopes to depict with his art, he pauses, runs his hand caressingly over one of the finished sculptures in his Williston, Vermont, studio and tells me, “I’m trying to capture that frozen moment in time, that feeling you get when you are doing anything exciting. It’s something I never tire of.”

He pauses a moment, brushes back his thick shock of gray hair, and adds, “But there’s more; there’s the stone itself. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had a love affair with stone. And there’s no sign of that ever ending.”

Erdman first fell in love with stone as a young boy growing up in Dorset, Vermont. “But it wasn’t just any stone,” he explains, “it was marble.”

He and his siblings and childhood friends would swim in the nearby marble quarries and often sneak into the Danby Quarry, the nation’s largest marble quarry, where he’d explore its enormous underground caverns of marble. “It was like entering another world, a magical place where I was standing in the marble, as opposed to on it,” he remembers. “I’d never felt that aware, that alive.”

After earning an art degree in 1975 at the University of Vermont, where he was also a two-time NCAA All-American skier, Erdman went to Florence, Italy, to begin studying for a graduate degree. But after a few weeks of “studying cathedrals and architecture,” he jumped on a train to Carrara, the fabled marble region in northern Italy. “Surrounded by sculptors and marble, I knew I belonged there,” he says.

He found a sculptor who invited him to sign on as a kind of apprentice and promptly dropped out of graduate school. “I had my epiphany in Carrara,” says Erdman. “It was there that I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

Some four decades—and more than 1,000 sculptures—later, Erdman has become famous worldwide for his abstract, flowing, almost gravity-defying sculptures, many of which have been commissioned by corporations, museums, and private patrons in fifty-two countries. His sculptures have been included in more than 160 solo and group exhibitions and are part of collections ranging from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to the Rockefeller Collection in New York to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

One of his most famous pieces, the massive twenty-five-by-sixteen-foot Passage, was commissioned by the Donald Kendall Sculpture Gardens at the PepsiCo world headquarters in Purchase, New York, and still holds the record for the world’s largest sculpture carved from a single block (450 tons) of travertine. It stands at the entrance of the garden, which also includes works by such notables as Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Alexander Calder.

Flipping through his 2016 monograph, Richard Erdman Sculpture, it’s clear that Erdman has created a lifetime of work that, as he hoped, has captured a moment in time. When I remind him that one writer has noted, “Richard Erdman can make marble float,” and another said his work makes one wonder, “How did he possibly carve that into stone?” Erdman admits that he is thrilled that his work resonates with so many people. “I have been extremely fortunate to be able to do what I do,” he says.

Erdman shows me how he uses a combination of wire, aluminum screen, and even pipe cleaners (“my trade secrets,” he jokes) to fashion a three-dimensional, small-scale model of a sculpture, much as an artist would use a sketchbook or a computer. “I draw in three dimensions; I draw in space,” he explains. “When I’m getting somewhere, I cover the model with plaster and keep working it until I’m happy with the result.”

He sends the finished plaster model to his studio in Carrara, where his team of artisans will replicate the piece in marble. While his marble pieces are usually only one-offs, he will have some pieces cast in smaller, limited-edition bronze versions.

Erdman goes to Carrara six or seven times a year to hand-select marble from the quarries there for new pieces as well as to oversee his studio craftspeople for the “scaling up” process, where they transform his plaster models into much larger finished sculptures. “Every piece I do is a true collaboration,” he explains.

It seems fitting that his much-admired work comes to life in Carrara, the place that nurtured him so many years ago. The love affair continues.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To see more of Richard Erdman’s work, go to richarderdman.com.

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