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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 18, 1999. All rights reserved.
The Atelier’s Cutting Edge
Michelangelo may have been the most gifted sculptor
of the Italian Renaissance, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t need help.
"Michelangelo was a master carver — an extraordinary carver
— and a demon worker, but he also had a large workshop," says
Walter Dusenbery, director of the Johnson Atelier Stone Division.
The Renaissance workshop ethos endures today at the Johnson Atelier
Technical Institute of Sculpture, founded in 1974 by sculptor J. Seward
Johnson Jr., who, over the past 25 years, has worked tirelessly to
advance the practice of sculpture in America. The nationally recognized
Johnson Atelier foundry stands beside Johnson’s showcase exhibition
park, Grounds for Sculpture, built on the old New Jersey State Fairgrounds
in Mercerville. Nearby, and close to completion, is his European village-style
restaurant, office, and studio complex. Across Ward Road Extension,
appearing considerably more industrial and disheveled, is the Johnson
Atelier Stone Division.
Youngest and least known among the Atelier’s components, the Stone
Division will enjoy its day in the sun on Saturday, August 21, when
Grounds for Sculpture hosts a day of stone carving demonstrations
and a public tour. Beginning at 10 a.m., four experienced Atelier
carvers — Ayami Aoyama, Charles Austin, Petro Hul, and Christopher
Marsland — will be at Grounds for Sculpture demonstrating techniques
and methods for carving stone by hand. At 1:30 p.m., there is a free
tour of the Stone Division facility with its array of state-of-the-art
equipment that can tackle up to 30-ton stone blocks.
Opened in 1996, the Stone Division — another beneficiary of its
founder’s part of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune —
aims to be the leading stone sculpture studio in the United States.
It rivals the collection of stone carvers centered in Vermont. Housed
in one of two corrugated iron sheds (the other has the IEW Construction
Group’s bridge maintenance division) on Ward Avenue Extension, the
division is directly across from the Johnson Atelier foundry. The
Stone Division occupies 12,000 square feet of open, airy space under
a single roof, with a floor area that is 300 feet long under a 30-foot-high
ceiling. Yet the division is already outgrowing its space, and plans
are on the drawing board to build a new facility on a five-acre vacant
lot adjacent to the Atelier and Grounds for Sculpture (http://www.groundsforsculpture.org)
Out in front are yards of stone of every shape, color, and size, purchased
from around the world, ready to undergo their second metamorphosis,
from base earth to high art. Three bridge cranes glide back and forth
overhead, effortlessly carrying their stone burdens like obliging
"We’re on a real growth phase," says director Dusenbery, who
shares a small loft office space within the warehouse with Christoph
Spath, head of Stone Carving. "Sculptors are busy. There’s lots
of work. Just look at any public space, and at the churches and synagogues,
and you’re likely to see commissioned sculpture of some kind."
Dusenbery, a noted sculptor in his own right, directs
the staff of seven stone carvers, two of whom are women, and all of
whom are sculptors. Four of Dusenbery’s stone sculptures can be seen
at the Grounds for Sculpture, including his prominent yellow Turkish
travertine "Porta Massa," an abstracted, two-column portal
that comprises both hand-carved and machine-fluted columns, and the
more recently installed, "Tempio Bretton, Homage to Capability
Brown," a five-column, temple-like form, that sits atop a grassy
"Stone is a material man has always had affinity for," says
Dusenbery. As a young man, he spent three years studying stone carving
in Aji, a remote village on Japan’s most easterly island, known as
a sacred stone working area. "It’s something magical that the
earth has provided. It’s such a basic material, yet it’s almost magical
the different ways it is formed."
The geology refresher that follows is pleasing and painless, as Dusenbery
brings out samples from the cornucopia of the stone sculptor’s palette.
Limestone, says Dusenbery, producing a small, polished specimen, is
a sedimentary stone. To prove it, he points out the tiny stone sea
creatures caught in its mottled surface. Marble, the ancient favorite
for statuary and monuments, is a metamorphic rock, formed of limestone
under such pressure that it turns to crystal. Igneous rock, a group
that includes some granite, is formed from the molten crust of the
earth; high in crystal content, it still betrays its once-liquid state.
Travertine — one of Dusenbery’s personal favorites — is formed
by sedimentation along underground flowing streams. Finally, granite,
known as the king of stones, is also the hardest. Showing off a perfectly
flat slab of black granite, its surface polished like a mirror, he
says only a diamond can ever mar that polished surface.
Dusenbery trained in Japan under Nagara, famed at the time as "Japan’s
Number One sculptor." There he also met the Japanese-American
sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, for whom he worked for three years as an
assistant. Dusenbery trained as well at Pietrasanta, Italy — another
locale with a name that means "blessed stone" — where
Dusenbery maintained his own studio for 30 years before joining Johnson’s
The Stone Division’s projects range from the most simple stone bases
for statues to monumental stone sculptures, carved both by hand and
machine, in stones that include marble, alabaster, limestone, and
granite. The division also does architectural work, such as stone
relief carving, columns, and capitals. In fact, its computer-controlled
cutters are well-suited to repetitive work.
Picking up a diminutive plaster model of a sculpture destined for
one of the state’s new light rail stations, Dusenbery explains the
process: "We can laser digitize a three-dimensional object with
extraordinary accuracy and manipulate it on the computer in any way
the artist wants." The artist’s model, at 1/20th scale, is a memorial
to Martin Luther King, comprised of a series of cast bronze narrative
relief sculptures (to be cast at the Atelier foundry), set in marble
and flanked by a pair of marble benches. All the enlargement work
is calculated by the computer.
On our weekday walk through the shop, we first see staffer
Charles Austin working painstakingly with a wooden mallet and steel
chisel to give a surface treatment to a work in limestone. His tools
are indistinguishable from their 16th-century forerunners. Nearby,
Mark Fredenburg is using a hand-held diamond saw, cutting limestone
without any more effort than the concentration required for accuracy.
Ayami Aoyama, one of the Stone Division’s two female apprentices,
passes us first driving a forklift truck, before returning to set
up a gigantic stone block for cutting on the even larger, custom-built
Loeffler Bridge Saw, with a 900-mm diamond-tipped circular blade.
Next comes the computer-controlled Pellegrini Diamond Robot Wire Saw,
notable for its ability to coordinate machine movement in two axes.
This one is the largest such machine in the nation and accommodates
blocks of stone up to 25 tons.
Meanwhile the OMAG Formacolonne with computerized numerical control,
a sculpting machine that is 20 feet long and 15 feet high, appears
to be working away independently, making parallel slices into stone
with a lathe-like action that can turn a rectangular column of quarried
stone into a sensuous sculpted form. This machine includes a laser
scanning system for obtaining a faithful image that can be manipulated
by computer from a sculptor’s model; from such computer programs it
can cut complex forms up to 5 feet in diameter and 10 feet high.
Would Michelangelo have felt at home amidst the Stone Division’s array
of high-tech equipment, we ask Dusenbery.
"Sculpture — including Michelangelo’s — has always been
made in studios," says Dusenbery. "Traditionally, an artist
would have a catalog of models that he would send out to clients,
and his work would be ordered from a catalog. The last person to operate
this way was probably Rodin. But the artist would have a system to
have them produced, whether cast in bronze or carved. The Italian
word escultore describes the artist who conceives and finishes
a sculpture, but is saved from the heavy work in between."
Dusenbery further notes that there is some stone sculpture that does
not show the hand of the artist, and some that does. Frequently both
types of carving — machine and hand — are embodied in a single
"The Stone Division practices all the Renaissance methods that
are still valid, such as pointing, an age-old method of making an
exact replica of a three-dimensional form. But we also have here the
most modern facility and high-tech equipment that is unparalleled
in the United States."
Standing at the back of the shop, as proof of this claim, is a huge
completed commission, a 12-foot high sculpture of honed finish marble
by Horace Farlowe. The work, comprising a series of geometric elements
that cover about 20 running feet, is to be installed at Grounds for
Keeping abreast with the stone sculpture activity, the division also
prides itself on an apprenticeship training program that prepares
students — most of them artists in their own right — to execute
all the atelier’s jobs from pointing, to carving, to finishing. Based
on the European model, apprentices spend about a year in training,
working up from third to first-class carvers. Their training comes
on an as-needed basis as they work with professional artists on the
Atelier’s projects. Apprentices may continue to work as employee interns
for an additional two years.
Dusenbery notes that the Stone Division operates from Monday through
Thursday only, leaving three "after-hours" days, when apprentices
and staff work on their own pieces, both independently and cooperatively.
"We’re representing the great classic tradition and extending
it into the future with the most modern means available," says
Dusenbery. "This is no different from the Renaissance," he
assures us, "we just have more toys."
18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-586-0616. Continuous stone carving
demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. At 1:30 p.m., a tour of the
Stone Division facility. Sign up for tour at the reception desk on
the morning of the event. Free. Saturday, August 21, 10 a.m.
609-586-0616. Summer Exhibition featuring new additions outdoors by
Itzik Benshalom, Kenneth Capps, Chas Colburn, J. Seward Johnson Jr.,
Kevin Lyles, and Susanne Wibroe. Also featured, George Segal’s "Bread
Line," part of the F.D.R. Memorial commission in Washington, D.C.
In the Museum and Domestic Arts Building, a group exhibition by 40
members of the Sculptors Guild. To September 12. Free.
The 22-acre landscaped sculpture park is on the former state fairgrounds
site, with indoor exhibitions in the glass-walled, 10,000 square foot
museum, and the newly-renovated Domestic Arts Building. Friday through
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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