Rock-solid determination

It’s not often that you get to write about a work of art from its early stages of creation, but thanks to Hudson Valley stone sculptor Bob Madden, WAG has been given a fascinating glimpse into the artistic process.

It was back in early April when Madden, who works out of Rock and A Soft Place Studio in Poughquag, got in touch. We had featured the Dutchess County artist’s work before, having met him through exhibitions at Gallery 66NY in Cold Spring. Last year, we covered “Of the Earth” there, a joint exhibition featuring the work of Madden and his wife, fiber and metal artist Karen Madden.

As Bob Madden told us this spring, “I recently got a commission to do a piece at a local venue.” It was, he said, a sculpture to be created within a 200-acre spread — Crystal Park in Holmes, New York, owned by a New York City business owner. Madden told us he uses the place as a retreat for his employees, and in the past has commissioned several international artists to create works on the site.

Madden said he was asked to go to the property and, “select a boulder, move it to an appropriate site and carve it in situ.” 

He added, “There should be some opportunities for interesting pictures. Remember, I’m a stone sculptor, so I might have a different definition of ‘interesting’ than you.”

With that hint of both the project — and Madden’s sense of humor — WAG was hooked. 

We have been following along since, with updates in our WAG Weekly digital newsletter.

At long last, Madden’s massive work will be unveiled this month when Crystal Park participates in the 2018 ArtEast Open Studio Tour.

THE ARTIST AND HIS WAY

“Stone was always something that kind of called to me,” Madden says, though it was not his lifelong trade.

Born in Brooklyn and moving to Goshen in Orange County at age 12, Madden would go on to meet his wife of more than 30 years when both worked for IBM in East Fishkill. Today, the Maddens look back on successful careers in the disciplines of science and engineering, both having worked on leading-edge technology and holding U.S. patents for their work.

“I started working in stone before I left IBM,” he told us. “As an engineer, you’re forced to work a certain way.”

Stonework gave him a certain freedom.

“I really believe everybody has the artistic impulse in their heart, in their brain.”

For Madden, it began with patios and walkways, the stone providing a welcome challenge.

“I always liked to work with it because it’s so hard to work with it,” he said.

Next up was creating little icons, which were rewarding.

“It’s all mine, every step,” he says of his art. “It’s my creation every step of the way.”

It came, he says, almost naturally.

“I have no formal training in art,” he said, though he did take an intensive weekend sculpture course in Vermont.

There was no grand plan, he added.

“Originally, I did it because I liked doing it.”

Then he started to create and sell work for charity, such as decorative dog bones with proceeds going to a dog-rescue cause. And things just grew from there. The Maddens formed Rock and A Soft Place in 2007, each maintaining generous home-based studios.

In his studio, which WAG visited in late August, Madden had several pieces in progress.

“I have the attention span of a rattlesnake,” he said. “I usually have four or five projects going,” allowing him to focus on a variety of techniques at any time.

Nature and travel have a major impact on his work, with he and his wife having traveled extensively, everywhere from Iceland to South America.

Often, Madden’s presence is marked — he leaves chips of stone around the world.

“My friends accuse me of screwing up the geological history of the world,” he says with a laugh.

Meaningful work is his goal. By example, he describes how a panel of custom-stained glass in his home represents elements of his family’s life.

“I try to build that same level of story in all the pieces I do.”

Madden’s work can be found in private collections across the country, including the AC Hotel by Marriott New York Times Square in Manhattan, and in Europe.

Themes range from puzzle pieces (“Who gets to decide what fits together?”) to links, rings and chains. There’s also an ongoing series of fish, the Age of Aquarium, each named with a different letter of the alphabet in honor of a real or fictional person (think Edmund Muskie or Zebulon Pike). The inviting moon-and-star themed “Nightsky” adorns the entrance to his studio, while he shows us another textured work, an intricate study in lattice.

The start to all, he says, is not often a sketch.

“Rarely… I just go at it. I prop the stone up on the bench and start working on it.”

And always, it’s about adjustments along the way.

“The ideas just… they just come,” he says. “I might head down a path and just change my mind.”

THE LATEST WORK

Our first glimpse into the Crystal Park project was an update from Madden, which included a few photos of the chosen stone.

“The piece as it sits is 10 feet long by 5 feet deep, and it varies from 2 to 5-feet high. I calculated it to weigh nearly 20 tons.”

It would, he said, eventually stand on its end, reaching nearly 10 feet high, and be carved down to some 9 tons.

“By far, that’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he told us in late August, when the project completion was in sight.

Madden says each project is unique. He might have an idea and choose a stone — or be inspired by the raw material.

“It works both ways,” he says. “Some stones they just have a national coloration or a look to them that they just tell you what they want to be.”

Along the way, Madden has developed his own style — and methods.

“I picked up a lot of little things over the years that people don’t traditionally use for stone sculpture,” he says. Other times, he uses techniques, such as working with “feather and wedges,” a stone-splitting method that has been around for thousands of years.

“One of the fun things about the technique is that instead of making a bunch of small inconsequential chips, it splits open a large rock face and exposes material that hasn’t been seen for hundreds of millions or even billions of years.”

Madden might work with marble or fieldstone, granite or on this latest project, gneiss.

“Granite and gneiss are very high on the stone hardness scale making this an even more challenging, but ironically more fun project for me.”

Throughout the summer, Madden shared updates on the commission.

In mid-July, he said, “The project so far has been a little more difficult than I anticipated. “The stone is ‘gneiss’ (pronounced ‘nice’), which is denser than granite and contains quartz deposits or threads running through it, which can make cutting and shaping the stone less predictable. It’s certainly chewing up my tools faster than I’d allowed for.”

The stone itself was also directing things, particular after a discovery of an area once a “puddle of molten quartz” had him weighing a new direction.

“My original design concept eliminated this area, but now I’m considering modifying the design to retain and possibly highlight some features like this in the final piece,” he said. “Surprises like this slow me down sometimes but when you decide to carve stone you know you’re tackling a pretty difficult material and because stone isn’t flexible, I have to be.”

By middle of August we heard this: “Big day yesterday, we lifted the boulder up into position.”

And then it was on to the final stages of finishing details, smoothing, sanding and more.

By press time, Madden declined to share the work’s name, waiting until the unveiling of the piece that includes a bench-like feature. But it’s a likely bet that will simply be the proverbial cherry on top of a massive undertaking.

“It’s an evolutionary process for each” work, Madden says, preferring to wait until the end to reveal all.

He seems most honored that the commission will likely stay in place for generations, as he’s told the property owner plans to pass the land down through his family.

“A thousand years from now, it’ll be Stonehenge,” Madden says with a smile. “That’s pretty cool.”

The 2018 ArtEast Open Studio Tour, featuring 30 artists, will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 13, 14, 20 and 21 at sites throughout Dutchess and Putnam counties. Bob Madden’s latest work will be featured in the outdoor sculpture show at Crystal Park, 134 S. White Rock Road in Holmes both weekends. Rock and A Soft Place Studio, where visitors can tour the studios of both Bob Madden and Karen Madden, will also be open all four days. Rock and A Soft Place Studio is open by appointment. For more, visit rockandasoftplace.com or arteastdutchess.com.

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