Walter Dusenbery

Isamu Noguchi

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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 (

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."

Top Of Page
Walter Dusenbery

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.

Top Of Page
Isamu Noguchi

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."

Stone Carving Demonstration & Tour, Grounds for Sculpture,

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.

Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton,

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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