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manofsteel Sculptor David Stromeyer blends science and art

STORY : robert kiener | PHOTOGRAPHS : paul rogers

This is exciting. Internationally acclaimed,
Vermont-based sculptor David Stromeyer is ©STOWE MAGAZINE • SUMMER / FALL 2022

just back from his winter residence in Austin, Texas,

and is unboxing some of the models he created
there. They’re small, made
from engineered wood and plexiglass, small-scale (often one-inch to one-foot)
versions of what he hopes to someday turn into massive, multi-ton steel sculp-
tures that will join scores of others on display in his very own outdoor park, the
Cold Hollow Sculpture Park in Enosburg Falls, which is open to the public every
summer and fall.
Stromeyer, a tall, gray-haired, wiry, fit 75-year-old, chuckles after he cuts
open a cardboard box and pulls a small model free from a bundle of plastic
packing material. “Well, even though I carried this with me on the plane, it got a
bit damaged. Never fails.”
He lifts out two, brightly painted 18-inch-high pieces, each formed with the
letters P, L, A and Y and sets them on top of a table in what he calls his studio’s
“clean room.” (Later, when I ask him why he has named this the “clean room?”
he’ll smile and ask me, “Well you’ve seen the rest of my studio, haven’t you?
It’s a mess. This is less so!”)

Like most of the more than 470 sculptures he has created over the last half
century, this piece began as an idea—what Stromeyer calls a “germ of an
idea”—then became a pencil drawing that eventually morphed into this scaled-
down model or maquette. Working on small models, he explains, frees him from
worrying about the complexities of steel fabrication at this stage: “I can keep
playing with the model until I am happy with it.” Also, as he says, “Not every-
thing works out and may not be good enough to work on a larger scale. It’s not
always possible to predict if it will work, or if it sings.”
However, after he places the two pieces on his clean room’s work table, they
do indeed seem to sing. As his wife Sarah looks on, Stromeyer adjusts them a
bit, rearranges them again, and stands back to admire his handiwork.
“‘Doubleplay,’” he says, as if christening what might someday become the
newest addition to his 200-acre outdoor sculpture park. “I like that.”

WHEN THE PANDEMIC HIT in 2020, sculptor David Stromeyer and his wife Sarah had to close their 200-acre sculpture park. The setback, though, offered
Although Stromeyer and Sarah have only recently returned from their winter in
Stromeyer the opportunity to continue his “lifelong pursuit of making, by building a major new sculpture,” “Body Politic,” shown above. At left, Stromeyer works on
Austin and are busily preparing for the mid-June opening of their outdoor sculp- one of several prototypes for the project. The entire making process is documented in Stromeyer’s new book, “Art Making on the Land.”
ture park, he sat down to answer some questions about his life and work.

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Let’s start with one of your newest models. Why “P-L-A-Y?”
I cannot stress enough how important it is to play. As I get older, I
have to work harder to maintain that sense of play. I mean playing
like kids do, being open to the environment and whatever stimuli
one encounters. I try to approach life, and my art, with the wonder-
ment of a child, without the possibility of failing.
As I wrote in my book, “Art Making on the Land,” this sense of
play, I believe, loosens thinking, fosters inventiveness, and allows for
newness, flow, discovery. I am talking about a mental attitude more
than an overt mode of behavior. Physics imposes some strict rules for
me with the size, material, and potential danger of what I do, but
within that context there is plenty of room to play.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Men do not quit playing
because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”
Many people when they first see your work say, “I didn’t know
steel could do that?”
Most people think of steel as rigid and stiff, so they are surprised
when they see my sculptures and the ways I have worked the steel
by bending and twisting it, but not heating it. What I am doing is
“pushing” steel and celebrating
its plastic qualities. I’ve often
said I delight in the plasticity of
steel. By celebrating these qual-
ities of steel I can introduce
unexpected and unanticipated
consequences. That’s really the
job of the artist: To provoke a
little bit and get the head think-
ing in different ways.
But you didn’t always manipulate steel as much as you do now.
How did you learn you could?
That’s right. In the 1970s, when I began, I used steel without
manipulating it too much. But I suppose I learned it could become
flexible—with enough force—by pushing it around. In the mid-1970s
I fastened some cast-iron steel to my floor and used my crane to
bend it. Once the steel bent and I got a turn in it I said, “Now let’s
try to put a twist in it.”
Then I took it outside, welded other beams to it and then used
the crane to put a twist into it. I looked at what I was creating and
said “Wow!” I was like a songwriter who gets an idea and writes
an entire song. By the way, this piece is called “Intermittent
Rainbows” and it is still in the park.
Speaking of changes, you used to not paint your sculptures as
often as you do now. How did that change?
In my early days because I wasn’t bending steel around it seemed
appropriate to keep the steeliness going by not painting my sculp-
tures. But once I started pushing steel, that didn’t seem so impor-
tant anymore.
Paintings exist only by means of color; they have no physicality.
But sculpture is thought of as a physical thing. When you combine
the two, you have a whole new set of ideas to play with. How you
paint a sculpture can really change it.
A sculpture has an energy or makes a statement; it can be quiet or
contemplative or almost explosive with energy. You can bring that out
or contradict it with color. I started painting monochromatic at first in
the early 1980s and now I play with color a lot at the model phase.
What did you mean by saying that after years of working with
steel you can read it?
After years of watching steel bend, I can look at a piece of steel
and know what it is willing to do. I don’t want to be mystical about
this, but I think I have a dialogue with whatever material I am
working with. I may pose certain things to a piece of steel, such as,
“I want you to be able to bend around a radius or twist this way, SCENES FROM MAKING “BODY POLITIC” From top: Fashioning a steel beam.
or support that weight. Can you do it?” Then it may come back to David Stromeyer directs the action. The sculpture now sited in the park. Inset: Calculations.
me and say, “No, I need to be thicker or wider” or “I need to be Previous page: Pulling stainless steel in and around the edges of the plates. Getting the
supported.” There’s the challenge. large steel plate ready for the rock drop to form the steel.
How do you stay fresh? How do you keep from repeating yourself?
I try to keep my work exciting by embracing new challenges, exploring unexpect-
ed combinations, employing new (to me) materials or ways of handling those
materials. This is all to the end of bringing to life something new that will resonate
in some way for others.
You and Sarah opened your sculpture park to the public in 2014. How did
you decide to do that?
I used to walk through all my sculptures that I had created here and placed on the
land and was proud of all that I had accomplished. I was happy displaying my
work outdoors, as part of the land, partly because I could never stand going into
a gallery where the walls are too covered with art. It’s hard to experience art
when there is
too much den-
sity. But a big
outdoor sculp-
ture has a dif-
ferent gestalt,
or experience,
than work in a
gallery. I don’t
think my sculp-
ture is com-
plete until it
has been sited.
In time I
became a bit
because more
people weren’t experiencing the work and the land. As I continued to put more of
my work into our fields, our commitment to have the work stay on the land grew.
As I got older I began asking myself, “What will become of all this?” So, we
decided to open our fields to the public eight years ago and in 2019 we created
a nonprofit foundation to help ensure that this will continue after we are gone.
I’ve noticed that you normally give only one or two sentences when you
describe your works in the park’s visitor’s guide.
I want visitors to experience and engage with the work but not get hung up on
reading about it. There is a trend in museums to have a huge description of art on
the wall and I don’t want people to spend more
time reading about the art than looking at the
art itself.
I want to give the visitor a way into the
work. I hope that just listing titles and dimen-
sions and maybe a line or two—at most—
about what was going on in my head when I
was building a piece, gives the viewer a
way into the sculpture, but in no way limits
their experience of it.
Likewise, I try to be careful selecting titles
of pieces. The title should capture some
spirit of the piece without describing it. I
want visitors to the park to bring whatever
they want to bring to the work.
I usually encourage viewers not to dwell on the fabrication issues. Typically, the
sculptures that appear loose and easy were the most challenging to create. I see
myself as the puppeteer controlling the strings to produce the illusion. You know, COLD HOLLOW SCULPTURE PARK FREE WEEKEND PROGRAMS explore “How We Make Things,” August 13: “Kisa Sauer: Germany-based Kitemaking Artist” — Artist-in-
the whole reason I do all this stuff is to generate an experience with the viewers 4280 Boston Post Rd., Enosburg Falls. Open for self-guided Saturdays at 2 p.m., unless noted. All events require registration/RSVP residence leads a kitemaking and flying workshop. Details online.
and create something that will resonate with them. I don’t want to pick the piece visits Thursday-Sunday, noon - 6 p.m., June 11 – October 10. to ensure a safe environment. Subject to change.
apart. It’s enough to just feel that “it works.” Free. September 17: “Using Power to Empower” — Bob Freling, executive
June 18: “The Joy of Jazz Improv” with Ray Vega — Renowned jazz director of the Solar Electric Light Fund, examines ways to create com-
Your work has been widely exhibited and purchased by individuals, corpora- ART MAKING ON THE LAND musician Ray Vega performs with friends and leads a talk on the com- munity-focused, renewable systems across widely divergent cultures.
tions, and museums such as Washington D.C.’s National Museum of American For information about David Stroymeyer’s book, shown at left, plex act of improvisation.
Art, the Delaware Art Museum, and others. But being able to see so much of go to October 8: “Science in Words and Pictures: To See the Fantastic with
your life’s work in this beautiful setting, tucked away in hayfields in the rolling July 16: “Hidden Algorithms & the Human Experience” — Dan Everyday Eyes” — Sajan Saini, PhD, the education director of the AIM
hills of northern Vermont, is a unique experience. Rockmore, a Dartmouth College mathematics and computer science Photonics Academy at MIT explores how to communicate complex
Thank you! For 45 years I thought of my sculptures as individual expressions. With professor and director of the Neukin Institute for Computational ideas with clarity and coherence by using unexpected tools such as
the formation of Cold Hollow Sculpture Park, I realize that I have always been Science, discusses how algorithms affect the human experience. humorous and entertaining animation.
working on one big artwork, which is the park. n

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