At the back of the Carriage Barn Arts Center in New Canaan’s Waveny Park, there’s a green wooden door with a sign: “The Sculpture Studio.”
Unless someone told you about it, you’d never know it was there. Inside, a visitor might find a dozen or more people intent on improving their sculpting skills. Many have discovered sculpture after retiring from corporate jobs or teaching. A few are beginners, some have been painters; one woman, Wendy Swain of Stratford, is the director of the Connecticut Society of Sculptors. Another, Dr. Charlotte Brown, a pediatrician, was the director of public health in New Canaan. She’s 94.
Most work with clay that will be fired, although Mimi McMennamin of New Canaan is chiseling alabaster. Everything is a work-in-progress, but almost everyone has some reassuring, finished pieces close by. Standing or sitting, each person has his or her own mini-studio, built around posts, four to a post.
The Sculpture Studio, in different, smaller locations in Fairfield and Westport, was founded some 35 years ago by the late Stanley Bleifeld of Weston, once named “Sculptor of the World,” whose work is in museums, galleries, private and corporate collections and outside public buildings.
One student, Tom Volpe, of Darien, joined the group when he retired, 15 years ago. “I always did a little drawing and painting as a hobby,” he said. “After I saw a Sculpture Studio show, I joined. I tried marble and alabaster at first, but they’re very difficult. You can’t make mistakes. Somehow or other, I became the studio’s accountant, since I’ve always been involved with numbers. I hired the contractor who built the stations around each post.”
Across from Tom, Connie Taylor of Weston has been with the group five years. “My only previous experience was Play- Doh with my kids,” she said laughing.
After Stanley Bleifeld, the group had other teachers, Jim Youngman and Peter Rubino, each for a short time. Two years ago, Sergey Eylanbekov arrived, a teacher considered “amazing” and “inspiring” by the group. He is from Moscow. At 12 1/2 he went to the city’s Central Art School.
“It was a very prestigious place. They educated students to preserve the classical Italian school of sculpture. But then it changed, producing monumental sculpture for propaganda,” he said.
“I came to America in 1989. Briefly, I had a horrible job at a silk screening shop. Then I worked in a place producing replicas of classical sculpture. They would be curator-endorsed by museums, so they could put that label on them to sell them. I’m here because I worked on a project with Stanley Bleifeld. Then later, Lee Greenberg, who has been in the group since the beginning, recommended me.”
“My approach is to work with each student individually,” he explained, “so I can understand their character, energy, what they want to do. It’s a big difference from formal schools. We have demonstrations of techniques, but it’s not as if that’s the only right way. The system is not invasive, it’s absolutely open-minded. If you feel good about it, keep it! People should feel good about their work; it comes from the inside.”
Lee Greenberg of Westport knew Stanley Bleifeld before he started the group and she started with him. She is currently doing very whimsical work, with multi-colored patinas. Pat Stoddard of New Canaan, a 10-year member, said, “I started doing representational work and I could approximate it, but I seem destined to do crazy stuff. I’m working now with copper screening. It’s beautiful! I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with it, but that’s the fun of it.”
Moving to New Canaan was a landmark event for the studio. There’s lots of space, good light and the location assures privacy but is easy to get to. The group meets Fridays from 10 to 3, but students have keys and can work whenever they choose.
Wendy Swain travels from Stratford. “I’ve been sculpting for 18 years and here for the past five years. I started working with air-dried clay, then epoxy and stone, but I’ve found a home in the fire-able clay we use here. I have a kiln home, so I fire there. Then I choose a patina to finish it off. There are so many patinas,you can easily change the look of your work.”
As president of the Connecticut Society of Sculptors, Ms. Swain takes people on sculpture tours and teaches at workshops. “Having retired in 2000 from teaching French and Spanish, this is a wonderful outlet.”
Carl Glickman, who lives in Westport, has been with the group 18 years. He’s done over-life-size sculptures of women and smaller ones of mothers and children. He’s now doing bas relief. “It’s more challenging, but it takes up less room!” When he retired, he went to Silvermine Art School and was told by his teacher that he drew like a sculptor. “ I tend to be too cerebral about things and Stanley said ‘Stop thinking. Just do!’ It’s frustrating, when you do something and it’s not what you want it to be. I’ve learned that it’s not just a matter of talent, but the ability to realize it.”
Andrew Stillman, the youngest of the group, is in real estate. He travels to the studio from Harrison, N.Y. “I’m working on a sculpture of two runners. One has finished the race and is looking back and the other is reaching up for help. Originally they were two separate pieces, but they’re much better together. I like experimenting, from abstract to realism and back again.”
Next to Mr. Stillman, Charlotte Birnbaum of Stamford produces what looks like classical sculpture. “I was a framer and did framing design. One of the group members, Edith Aolton, brought in a bas relief she’d done in Stanley’s group. That’s how I found out about it. I’ve done ceramics and painting and now sculpture. I seem to have a gift for it, and who’s to say where it comes from? Stanley taught me a lot. I’ve done some nudes but my son says ‘If I’m going to inherit any of this, they better have clothes on.’”
Angela Burns of New Canaan is a painter, but now she says she needs sculpture, working with her hands. “The lovely part of sculpture is that you do your own thing. We used to have live models and I have 50 nudes in the basement, but then we decided we would do whatever we wanted to do.”
Edith Aolton of New Canaan feels the same way. “I started way back when — but now it’s part of my life.”
The steady tap-tap of metal against alabaster comes from Mimi McMennamin. “I started sculpting 10 years ago. I worked with clay, but when you get a piece of stone, it’s fascinating to think that the finished piece is already in it.” The sound of her steady chiseling and filing becomes part of the studio ambiance.
The group stops for lunch mid-day with food brought from home; conversation is lively with jokes and laughter. But the focus of attention for everyone is capturing an idea, an image. It’s fun, and it’s serious. There is always room for new members. The Sculpture Studio is at 681 South Avenue, New Canaan, at the back of the Carriage Barn Arts Center. For more information, call Tom Volpe at 203-655-7502 or email [email protected]