Episode 36 Radio Maine: Dick Alden

 

11/14/2021

 

 

Carving a New Path

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. And today it's particularly important that you'd be watching because we have a lot of wonderful visuals to share with you. I am speaking with artist and sculptor, Dick Alden. Thanks for coming in today. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Good to be here and thank you for the opportunity. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

We are so happy to have all of these pieces that I am surrounded by today. When I see your work,  it just grounds me in a way. It makes me feel very peaceful. And that's a word that I think that you like having associated with your work.

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes, I do. And I'm so happy that you see my work for what it is.  My work is so about emotion, about rhythm and harmony, and peacefulness and love and joy, and the concept of soulmates is also very important. I've done a series of work called Joy. I've done a series of Soulmates. For me, the soul mates are all about the relationship of two beings who grow together much further and higher than they do individually because we help each other along. And that to me is one of the greatest treasures we can have -  that kind of a relationship.  I've done maybe ten Soulmates, I've done six Joys. I've done many, many different pieces like that in series.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

You've provided me with so many different directions that I might go in with you with your comments. That doesn't always happen in an interview. I'm going to start with the idea that you have your own real life walking around on the planet, a soulmate that you actually brought with you today.

 

Dick Alden:

 

Priscilla. Yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Does some of your inspiration for your art come from your relationship?

 

Dick Alden:

 

Absolutely. 

 

Priscilla is a fiber artist. She is a tapestry weaver who is  very active in different tapestry organizations. She also does printmaking and encaustics. We share a studio together. We built a studio in 2008 when I was just about to retire because I said, “Priscilla, I want to be in the same studio as you.”  And she said, “well, you make so much noise and dust and how's this going to work?” I convinced her, finally, with the help of an acoustics engineer friend of mine who designed a special wall between our different studios. We have a 40 by 40 foot metal building. And it's separated in the center by 2x6  inch stud walls stuffed with insulation and no holes in the walls. The only access we have to each other is through a shared bathroom. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

It is also our art library. Priscilla says it's tolerable.  I do most of my work outside anyway when I'm really making a lot of noise.  But in the winter, when I do smaller pieces by hand, I'm inside. What's wonderful about this is that we work side by side and it's almost like, what is it called in child psychology, parallel play? So she's on her side doing her artwork and I'm on my side doing mine. And every once in a while, we'll say, can you come over and check out my work and see what you think and give me your critique. And she does the same for me. So it just works out beautifully. I'm very lucky .

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

When we asked you about the art you would like to have as a backdrop because obviously we can't put one of your sculptures on our wall, you suggested that a painting by Portland Art Gallery artist Dietlind Vander Schaaf would be a good choice for you. You gave an interesting reasoning behind that choice and explained the relationship between the work that Dietlind does and the work that you do.

 

Dick Alden:

 

Well, Dietlind’s work is very peaceful. It's calm. It's harmonious. And, it's also sculptural because encaustics is layering and layering and marking in the wax and adding on and collaging and whatever else. And so I find her work very peaceful. I think my work is also very peaceful, calm and harmonious. I like her gold leaf and her color and texture. So that's why I chose her work. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Interestingly enough, this piece was a gift to me from my husband who, of course, owns the art gallery. So it would make sense that I get art gifts and it's a really great situation for me. I am very lucky. And in front of me is another piece that I recently received as a gift from my husband. That is one of yours. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes, I was delighted to hear that. There is no higher compliment than to have the gallery owner, who sees so much art, and chooses so much art, select a piece of mine for his soulmate.  I'm just delighted and so honored. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, tell me about this piece. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

So this is called Peaceful Bird and Peaceful Bird is alabaster; a pretty piece of pinkish alabaster that I think I had as a leftover from another project. I just love the rhythm of birds, typically sitting birds, and the wonderful lines that they share. So this piece is all about rhythm lines. And when I did this, I sketch and charcoal often, and then just start.  I make a mark, boom, that's a mark. And then I make another mark that's rhythmical with it until I get it right. And it helps define what I'm trying to do. So this little guy is just a wonderful, very quiet, peaceful bird with a lot of wonderful rhythm. He’s happy. He’s calm. So, that's Peaceful Bird. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And when you decide what you're going to make out of the stone, do you know right away, or do you have to contemplate what the stone is telling you? 

 

Dick Alden:

 

It's both. The stone does tell you where it wants to go.  One of the masters once told me there's no such thing as an accident when you're working on stone. It's all subtractive. You can't add anything back.  

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So what about this, this other piece that we have in front of us.

 

Dick Alden:

 

This piece is called Maternity, and this is a piece of translucent alabaster which I love to work on.  These are both winter pieces where I work inside and I can use hand tools, all hand tools, because the stone is soft enough to use rasps and sandpaper. And I just keep working at and working at by hand. This piece was created in April of 2020 when the pandemic was just starting to rage.  Everybody was so worried: when we brought our groceries in and we washed everything, you know, before we put it away. And it was just an anxious time. And for me this piece represents an exaggerated figurative mother nursing  her infant. To me, it was just so calming, a mother holding an infant and nursing an infant with turmoil all around, but just that sense of calm, of beauty, of unconditional love. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

So you see her with her arms exaggerated. I like negative space because it helps for me to define it, but it is very exaggerated, just bringing them around, embracing this beautiful little child and her head is turned down to look at her child. But she's twisting again, this is part of the emotion and the rhythm. I think it came out pretty well, the way I hoped it would. So, but I, you know, I didn't realize until I finished this, how calming the whole process was.  So I hope that that emotes what I wanted it to do, but to take a piece of stone and create emotion out of it, that's what I try to do. There's so many wonderful human emotions that you wouldn't think you could get out of a piece of stone, but for me, that's what I try to do. And I often write about my pieces sometimes before, during and after to help me understand really what it was that I've created and why I did it. So I think both of these pieces are quite successful for what I was trying to accomplish.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

On the other hand, you also have pieces with a lot of movement and sound that children like. In fact, when you were showing me these pieces, we were hearing from one of your other pieces that's behind you here in the studio

 

Dick Alden:

 

This piece is one of my stone flowers. And as you can tell, it  not only gives you the sense of touch, but also of sound and motion. And I've been making these for over a decade and every one is different. Each one is unique because  - let me just back up and tell you why - we went to a show several years ago at the Contemporary Art Museum in Boston, and it was all about the Black Mountain School. Have you heard of it? The Black Mountain School was in North Carolina and it was established as an art school. It only lasted from 1933 to 1957, but it attracted these wonderful avant garde artists from the Bauhaus as they were escaping Germany. So, Joseph and Anni Alber, Willaman and Elaine de Kooning Sy Twombly, Buckmister Fuller with his geodesic dome. 

 

It was a wonderful exhibit and it just resonated. One of the things that really struck me was this term, haptic, and it defined it from the Black Mountain School perspective and the college perspective. And it was that haptic is related to the sense of touch. So the haptic for Black Mountain College was about the process of selecting the material, the process of making the art and the bodily engagement of the maker involved in the art, in the creation. So for me, this is what it's all about. So  this is about balance and the stones are balanced. So they almost tip. I spent a lot of time doing that. I spent a lot of time on the selection. When I  walk the shore, I'm always looking down looking for that next stone. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

I collect all kinds of stones and I try to match the stones in some form to me and match the base. The rods are solid brass. They’re epoxied. So when you go by and give him a tap, you can hear the chiming.. So you get sound as well. So for me, this is what this is all about. It's touching, which you love to do. It's the sound, it’s the visual.  So the haptic by taking all those activities is combining the visuality with a tactility. So they're inseparable. So these pieces to me are just, they're just wonderful. And many of them have sold. People just love them, and they sit in your garden or inside. It just takes a little bit of breeze to move them. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And you know, you look at it and you said, wait a minute, stones. Aren't supposed to move, but they're balanced. The largest ones I've done are 20 pounds. So it's seven foot high, 20 pound stones , on a stainless steel rod. Think of the torque and the slightest breeze and those stones are just moving a little bit. So you walk by and go, wait a minute. What is happening there? So, anyway, it's very exciting. I love to do it. And I'm going to keep creating these as long as each one is unique. I've had people want to copy these because they think they can, but that doesn't bother me. I guess that's flattery, but I just keep making them, then they evolve. Each one is different. So I don't mind if somebody else is trying to copy me, but I don't think they can do it the same way, because I've been spending so many years just developing this process and engaging in the process has been wonderful. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

My understanding is that we have a hard time keeping these in the gallery. They're so popular. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes. People really enjoy it. Yes, they do. Yes, because again, you can look at them, you can go by and give them a tap like that, and you'll hear him chime. So you get the sound, you get the motion, get the balance. Y get the visuality and the tactility. Anyway, I'll keep doing this as long as it's fun. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, I have to say that I'm, I'm gonna, I'm gonna say to Kevin as you're editing this, since I know that you like to give art for gifts and I love to get art for gifts, we're going to get one of these someday for our garden. So just keep that in mind. And also to apologize, of course, because people are going to listen to this and they're going to be like, wow, that's a really distracting noise in the studio, but you know what? I love it. People are gonna hear it. But I think it's such a great reminder that there's peace in their stillness, but then there's the opposite, there's motion.

 

Dick Alden:

 

The inspiration for these came from the meadows and fields with the cat tails and the beautiful tall grasses. They’re so graceful in their natural movement. That's where it came from.  I tend to be most creative in that twilight zone between awake and sleep and awake early in the morning. And these just came to me and I said, I'm going to try that. So  you know, I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but it works.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, as you're saying this, actually, before you even talked about the early morning piece, I think about the time that I wake up quite early in the morning, and you think of it as being a time of darkness and quiet and solitude, but it's really not. It's never, it's never quiet because there are always in the summer, you have the crickets. If it's very warm in the winter, you might have the ice on the branches kind of hitting against other branches. You might have rain in the mornings. So even, even peacefulness actually has a sound to it. We're on the same wavelength. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes. Start collecting stones.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So I see one of these in our garden in the future, if 

we can actually tear them out of the hands of other people who want to get them. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Okay. All right. It's a project for us. Yes. And also for other people who are interested in their own stone flowers, going to do this for you. So keep that in mind. How about this piece behind me? I mean, there is a really wonderful color to this rock. It's called serpentine. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Serpentine. Yes. Serpentine. It’s a greenish stone with a medium hardness, maybe a little harder than marble.  It was carved nicely and polished up beautifully.  I love to put a high Polish on some of my pieces to bring out the texture. I love the texture in the stone. So this piece is called Love Ring. And this is one of my themes, peace and love and harmony and balance. This is two beings coming up together and then crossing over in a hug, if you will - a real embrace.  The negative space to me helps to accentuate the motion and the emotion. I was very pleased with how it came out and I was trying to figure out what kind of a base to put it on.  I wanted something that was unobtrusive, so it didn't take away from it, but also supported it. So I contracted with a metal shop to weld three discs together and then weld on a pin. So that's how it’s supported. I painted it black, and I think it works. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

You're raising an important point, which is that these pieces, they actually have a weight to them. They have a heft to them and some of the ones that are small, we can obviously carry around. But from what I understand, sometimes people will call up the gallery and they'll say, well, you know, I love this piece and I'm gonna just kind of carry it away with me. But if it's so heavy that you couldn't actually do that, you actually need to have machinery that can move some of the work that you do from place to place. I mean, it's made of stone, 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Stone, and stone is heavy and a cube of stone, which is 12 by 12, by 12, generally weighs between 170 and 180 pounds. And it doesn't take long to add up to several cubic feet. And so yes, that's part of the challenge to figure out how you're going to move these pieces. And there are ways, there is machinery, there's strong young men or women to hire who can help move this. That's what I've been doing more recently is just hiring people to help me move it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I remember having a conversation with June Lacombe who does all of her work as a curator of sculptures. And she talked about these shows that she curated on her property and it would require machinery. It would require people moving in, moving out, and it would take days to place everything. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

I think she uses a guy with an excavator. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So for me, that's an interesting contrast because on the one hand you're describing these very lyrical notions of love and peace and gentle movement. And on the other hand, there's the very practical idea that these are made of stone. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes, they're made of stone, which means there'll be around forever, which is important.  They won’t deteriorate unless you try to put alabaster outside, which you can't do, but, but the granite and the marble will last a long, long time. And that's important. So there's a kind of a monumental presence to them that they're not going anywhere. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So you're literally solidifying love. 

Dick Alden:

I haven't heard it expressed that way, but yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I mean, you're putting a physicality around something that is more ethereal in nature. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes. That's a good description. Thank you. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

You're welcome. I understand you actually thought about going to medical school back in the day, decided against it, and then went into business and finance. And you went to the University of Vermont where I got my medical degree. So you and I have that in common as well. So kind of play that out for me. How did that end up being your path and then coming back around to becoming an artist? 

 

Dick Alden:

 

I don't know exactly. One of the courses I took at UVM, I thought it was a gut course. I got to take another course. So I took ceramics which was not a gut course. And also I really enjoyed it. And what I enjoyed was the formation of not doing anything exact, but forming the clay out of the sheets. I forgot the term at that is, but, but then you put it together and then you use the slip and design which I really love to do. So that was my first opportunity to do some art. But then I got into business and had a young family and I worked at State Street Bank and they  paid for my graduate school. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

So I got an MBA at Northeastern through going nights and studying weekends. And there was just no time to do anything else. It was in my mid forties that I started to get a little more interested and I saw  a woodcarving course being offered in adult education. So I took it and I really enjoyed it. I did mostly wood reliefs. I did a lot of sailing at that time. So my friends, sailors, all needed stern boards. So I carved some pretty neat stern boards for them. I really enjoyed that, but then I've always loved the coast of Maine and the stones and the rocks. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And I just said, I could, I gotta try this. So I picked up a cold chisel and a hammer and just started banging away. And I made my first bird bath. I still have it.  And then just kind of self-taught until I went up to the Common Ground Fair and met the Stone Workers Guild people up there and said, what  kind of tools do you guys use? And so they gave me a lot of good information. I went back and did more of  that.  I could only do it on weekends, in nice weather because I didn't have a studio at that time. So it was outside my house and one of my neighbors said, you know, sometimes it sounds like a dentist drill across the street. I said oops, okay, sorry about that. So that's another reason I wanted to build a studio that was in the woods a bit.

 I was a self-taught artist. I took a couple of courses, workshops with Constantine Seferlis who spent 20 years at the National Cathedral doing gargoyles and saints and whatever else. He was a wonderful man. He had a summer home in Pemaquid. So he, through the Round Top Center for the Arts,  gave a couple of workshops and I took two of those from him. He was wonderful. He was pretty elderly at the time, but he was great. And then Don Meserve from Round Pond who taught at RISD and other schools was just a great mentor. I learned a lot from him as well. He got me involved in the symposiums. The symposiums are where you get a group of like-minded stone sculptors together at a site. And you work for 10 days straight. First one was at  JC stone in Jefferson Maine. You select the stone and they give you the stone. They have the site there and the big equipment to move everything. So Don invited me to my first symposium and  I was so lucky.. He said, listen,  I helped organize this. I'm going to invite my friends. So it was transformative for me because here I was with, as Priscilla cause of my tribe, people with dust and noise and heavy equipment and all of this, it's just so much fun. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And I learned so much.  Everybody was so generous about their time and their techniques and their tools and their eye for helping me accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.  And then Don got me involved in the Maine Stone Workers Guild where at my first meeting I was elected treasurer. You know, the former banker and I said, okay,  I'll do it.  But it's been great. The Maine Stoneworkers Guild has been involved in five or six symposia over the last decade or so about every two years. There's a lot of work that goes into organizing these and raising money for everything you need.  But each one has just been so informative and helpful. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And that's one of the other things that we enjoy about these symposiums: it is all free, open to the public. So come on in, we'll stop our carving, if you want to, and then come in and look at what we're doing. I can explain it to you. Here's the tools, here's what we're trying to accomplish. Here's what it might look like from a marquette. The public seems to be very attracted to it. And that's part of the education component. So what part of my interest now is developing education programs and events that will help perpetuate the art and craft of stone sculpting and stone working. So that's what the symposium does in addition to workshops and demonstrations.  It's been, it's, it's just been great. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

We created the Stoneworkers Guild. I went through the IRS and created a 501c3 as an education fund. So we now have an official charitable organization and can receive donations. And we have received part of Don Meserves collection. He passed away about 10 years ago and has been selling that for educational programming. I'm also involved in Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium which over a decade ran five international symposiums. They would run for six weeks and they would bring artists from all over the world, very accomplished artists. And they created monumental art. I don't know if you've been on the sculpture trail down east. You go through these little villages and there's a beautiful piece of sculpture, 15 feet high and that’s a lot. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

So their treasurer retired and they asked me to be treasurer. The mission is not only to support and promote the sculpture trail, but also to create more international exchange opportunities. So in 2017, between Schoodic and the Maine Stoneworkers Guild, we brought a Japanese sculptor from Japan to Boothbay Railroad village. We also had some interns there, young interested sculptors.  He did a beautiful piece. and then in 2019 at the Boothbay Common we had 14 sculptors plus two Japanese guests who Schoodic brought over. They paid to bring them over, but we had to find them lodging and food and everything else.  We also had two interns from MECA that their sculpture professor recommended. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And it was just wonderful, but it was so busy. Everybody was engaging with the public and created such incredible work, which now, most of it is on the sculpture trail in Boothbay Harbor. They've developed a sculpture trail through the Chamber of Commerce, which partnered with us in 2019 with the guild to create this symposium. Now there's almost 30 sculptures outside in Boothbay around Boothbay Harbor.  They're free, they're there year round and businesses love to have them out in front. It's just more of this educational component and it's just a lot of fun to be involved with. 

We're having another symposium, September 10th to the 20th. It was supposed to occur last year as part of the Maine bicentennial about Hallowell, and the history of the Hallowell granite works which was there for maybe a hundred years. We're having a symposium there with six sculptors and two or three interns and a lot of demonstrations and it’s open and free to the public. We'll be working 10 to 4 every day. It's just more about education and fun. We also have through one of our Guild members a tent set up with a soft stone sculpting. So with the little chips of alabaster and soapstone, there's no hammers. We don't want kids in there with hammers hitting each other. So, everything is with files, you know, rasp and files and sandpaper and handrails and it's amazing. We've had this at the Common Ground Fair for a number of years.  It was created by one of our members, Obadiah Buell.

 

Dick Alden:

 

Obadiah loves to teach and he loves to have kids involved. So he'll sit there in the tent, everything's set up on a couple of tables and you know he’s working on a little piece and all of a sudden, a couple of kids and families come over. And the next thing you know, the place is jammed because everybody is having fun, working on little soft stone sculptures. This is an introduction for them. And we hope that this can create a spark in some of them who might want to go on and continue to become a sculptor or a stone sculptor. Iit's all things that are so much fun and are actualizing the education component that we're trying to create. So it's very important to pass on the skills and the techniques and the enthusiasm for stone, because we don't want that to be lost. You know, some of these get people off the tablets and off their devices and actually doing something creative. So that's a lot of what I'm involved with now. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

For you, having the sculpture trail in Boothbay Harbor must be very nice because you live at Ocean Point, right? Which is part of Boothbay Harbor, right? So you get to enjoy the work that you hope other people are also enjoying, 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Yes. And it's not just stone sculpture. It's also metal creations. And yes, it's wonderful. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, I've very much appreciated the chance to talk with you about this work. I think you're right. There's a need to kind of continue on with the sculpting conversation in a way that's probably slightly different than the art conversation, because it's just a different way of approaching creativity. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

And it's messy, you know, it's dusty, it's noisy. Nobody wants to be around you when you're doing this because you're in a cloud of dust. You have a respirator, goggles, ear protectors, gloves and everything else.  But when you stop and show people, they seem fascinated by it and really interested. So that's what we hope. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And then you have this very nice non-messy end result. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

That's right. That's right. We clean up good. As they say here.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

That's right. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, I've enjoyed my own gift from my husband. Thank you for making this. I'm going to say you made it for me. You just didn't know it at the time, but you did. So thank you for that. And thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

Thank you for this opportunity. It's really wonderful to be with you and to tell you what I do and why I do it. So thank you. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I've been speaking with sculptor, Dick Alden. I encourage you to go to one of the locations that he's described to see his sculptures and also other people's. But if not, go to the Portland Art Gallery and maybe consider bringing one of his wonderful gifts into your home or into your garden. It's been a pleasure to talk with you, Dick. 

 

Dick Alden:

 

My pleasure. Thanks so much.