After talking with sculptor Dick Alden, I was struck by the fact that he uses hard materials—granite and marble—to express what could be considered “soft” concepts: contemplation, peace, and joy. Sculpting stone is a mentally and physically intense process requiring special equipment, including ear protection and a respirator. And yet, when Alden is suited up in his studio, he finds the same creative focus as a plein air painter capturing a Maine coastal scene.
Alden’s stone bouquets—rounded rocks mounted on brass rods that sway in the breeze—are some of his most popular sculptures. For his latest piece, he took the idea in a new direction. “Sometimes the stone will tell me what it wants done,” he says, and in this case an unusually colorful one he discovered in a gravel pit told him it should be one of his stone flowers. But his wife, fiber artist Priscilla Alden, insisted it was too special to be part of another bouquet.
With an orchid as his inspiration, he polished the stone to a high sheen, which brought out its beauty, “pinks and yellows and all kinds of combinations of colors,” mounted it on a brass rod, and then decided to add leaves at the base, using emerald pearl granite. “It took me a long time, because to get inside and carve the negative area is a lot of work,” Alden says. A visitor to his studio suggested the leaves also looked like wings, and a search for a plant name brought up Angelica. “It’s supposed to possess healing powers, and it’s also supposed to be magical and spiritual; what I loved about the spirituality part is that it’s said to inspire enthusiasm.”
Angelica represented a shift in Alden’s artistic outlook. “I love to put stones on brass rods, but this was very different; it felt free,” he says. “I’m trying to be more abstract, not quite so figurative, and I think I’m gaining on that.” A book he read about finding inspiration suggested making “an artist date” with yourself once a week to visit a museum, go to a movie, or take a walk in the woods. On a local trail, he discovered a huge old tree. “It was dead; there were limbs all around it on the ground, and it had this enormous cavity in the center of it,” Alden says. “The negative space was so interesting to me.” He later returned with his sketch pad, and as he was sketching, he happened to look up at the top of the tree. “It wasn’t dead; there were leaves everywhere! It was a kind of metaphor for me and where I was,” Alden says. “Because I’m getting older—I’m going to be 80 next summer—and while my body is deteriorating, my mind is still alive.”
The tree inspired a piece carved from translucent alabaster named Gratitude, a figure with a hollowed-out body like the old tree, and limbs reaching above the head representing the new growth. Like Angelica, it is an example of how Alden often uses negative space to define his work. If you visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, you’ll find another one in the Rhododendron Garden named Mother Earth. “If you look closely, she’s pregnant. She’s very harmonious and joyful about giving birth and populating the earth with her flora and fauna,” says Alden. “In that piece the negative space is the connection between the head and the womb. She’s very peaceful and calm.”
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