Peter J. Marcucci

Special Contributor

Photos by Peter Marcucci 

(Hover cursor over images for captions)  

Complex and almost completed, “Torqued Link” is the latest project to come under the skilled hands of Artist Jesse Salisbury. Notice the shallow carved areas (below), much shallower than a drill hole.Beautiful Maine, where the mountains intrigue, waters energize, and scores of colors await the chisel and hammer of the artist releasing the image within…           

As the morning sun lit my way through the rolling hills, there was also the clean, early morning smell of the ocean, the fishing boats and the lobster traps, and then the sign reading Steuben, and I knew I was close to arriving at the home and shop of longtime Sculptor Jesse Salisbury. 

Parked and walking through the seemingly boundless wooded property, I entered the 4,000 square-foot mostly see-through shop, to find Jesse and his dad setting up their wire saw for a 4˝ cut of a squared block of granite. 

Jesse turned and acknowledged me and continued setting up for the cut. Immediately I noticed the shafts of light pouring in, illuminating from all directions, perfect and even from all angles, and conducive to creativity: even that of Michelangelo. As the saw began, we shook hands.   

Close-up of “Torqued Link” with remnants of Jesse’s signature splitting technique (red arrow).

What are you cutting? I asked. 

“They are sculpture bases made from Jonesboro Red granite,” Jesse replied, “but it’s actually pink and from a quarry I’ve been working from for many years in Jonesboro, Maine, about twenty minutes east of here. J.C. Stone now owns that quarry.” 

This wide shot shows the extensive use of double cell polycarbonate glass for the shop, while a yard full of Big Boys Toys stand ready for any large or small placement of stone, be it sculpture or landscape. Soon, according to Jesse, there will be railroad tracks leading into the shop to facilitate the in and out of large scale projects.When they’re cut, are you going to do any polishing?

“I’m definitely not going to polish them. They will be either bush hammered or flame finished.” 

While the diamond wire worked its way into the granite and teeth began to cut, the noise elevated and conversation was difficult, so we made our way outside, immediately gravitating to Jesse’s latest project: “Torqued Link,” a sculpture made of granite from the Sullivan Granite Company, a small quarry about twenty miles away. Moving closer to the sculpture, I remarked, this is definitely a large scale work of art.              

“When I started, it was a twenty-two thousand pound block. It’s down to about nine thousand two hundred pounds now.” 

And the seams are right there and there, right? I said while pointing. 

“No, there is nothing separated — it is all one piece and it’s interlocked. I drilled a hole and put the diamond wire [from his wire saw] in. It took days to cut, moving the wire in, cutting, moving it out, and a day just to manipulate the pieces around each other. 

“They were cut and folded in, and then separated — and then, moved around each other. That was the tough part. When we moved it to the outdoors, we had to figure out a way to strap them both so they could be picked up by one crane, and float within each other.”   

Unbelievable! Have you done a link sculpture like this before? 

“I’ve done it with a slightly different design. I’ve got a piece at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine. It’s a little bit bigger than this, and more linear and came out of a rectangular block.” 

No handy yardstick was available to show the scale of this immense 67,000 lb. boulder, so this compact car was used instead.Pointing to the split rough areas I asked, Do you split using feathers and wedges? 

Wide-eyed and exuberant he answered,  “These are my split marks. I don’t drill — I carve the holes. It’s an old technique that died out in this country about a hundred years ago and goes back to ancient Egypt.” 

Inside the polycarbonate glass shop: Even on an overcast day, the expansive use of glass brings light from all directions, ensuring no shadow effects on the work and creating the perfect environment for the discriminating artist.
Jesse continued explaining while pointing at one of many relief areas in the stone. “I learned it from artists in Japan. I carve a relief with chisels, and then use just a flat wedge instead of feathers and wedges. It’s a lot shallower than a drill hole and a lot more time consuming, but it’s a much more precise split and it looks better. If it had a drill hole, this material would start to turn away and you’d be left with a hole in your piece as it’s turning. Once in a while I do use feathers and wedges, though.” 

This wire saw, made in the 1950s, was used for twenty years by a construction company in Barre, Vermont for cutting curb stones. It was then transported to the shop about four years ago by Jesse and his dad who spent several years refurbishing the mechanics and revamping the electrical system, essentially giving it back its “Giddy-Up” and lots more years of service. In Jesse’s words, “It’s now a modern piece of machinery.” When you and I spoke last year at the Schoodic
International Sculpture Symposium, you had mentioned that you were going to Pennsylvania to place a sculpture. Did you ever get it placed?

“Yes, I did. That was a really big piece. The guy that bought it is Bruce Toll of Toll Brothers, a developer.” 

Oh yeah, Toll Brothers. They’re huge. 

“Huge …yeah. He sponsors opera and lots of other things. That sculpture was for his private sculpture park on his fifty–acre estate in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He has really amazing bronze pieces like a giant Henry Moore. There’s also a lot of other famous artists featured on the estate. Mine is the only stone sculpture, though, and my hope is that it will either go to a museum or the estate will become a museum.” 

And is this all your equipment? I asked as we both turned toward the stone yard. 

Pointing to a large truck with a crane arm, he replied, “That’s a new addition. I bought that truck after I sold the sculpture in Pennsylvania. Hopefully, it will give me the ability to deliver anywhere in the east. Beyond that, I’ll just hire a truck. 

“We also use it for commercial landscaping. Before that, all I had was a dump truck and trailer, but with this truck I can put the trailer on it if I have a lot of work. It’s also short, so it gives me the ability to get into tight spaces. It has the crane, the tools, and the storage.” 

Head gesturing to a huge boulder, I asked what it was going to be.

“That stone is 67,000 pounds and I don’t know yet. It sat in a gravel pit for quite a few years. Originally I was thinking of splitting it on site and just transporting it back here for future ambitious pieces. I then decided to leave it whole. A guy with a big excavator was able to roll it onto a low trailer and we transported it back here.”  

The Early Years

So where and when did it begin?

“I grew up on this land [60 acres] and lived here until 8th grade. Ever since I was a little kid, I liked making sculpture and was interested in stone, but it was hard to get started, so I began carving wood in 7th grade. Due to my Father’s work, I then had the good fortune to move to Japan. 

“While in school, I began studying traditional Japanese ceramics and met a lot of Japanese artists that way. When I finished school, I was a ceramic apprentice for Bizen Pottery which is one of the oldest Japanese wood fired potteries. I lived there for a couple of years making ceramics.” 

And that was in Japan?

“Yes, that was in Japan. I then came back to the US and went to school here and continued to study sculpture. After I finished college, I went to New York City and studied at Artida Atelier doing more figurative types of stuff. I also studied in a studio in Manhattan with a sort of Italian-style marble carving.”

What studio was that?

“It was called ‘Art To The Arts,’ and I don’t know if they’re still around or not, but they were Italian-Americans who also had a studio in Italy that they went to in the summertime. 

“New York and the east coast has a lot of European influence from several hundreds of years ago when lots of craftsmen came over, but it was more limestone and marble carving and wasn’t the materials that I grew up with in Maine, particularly the hard stone along our coastline like basalt and granite. I spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York City looking at the Egyptian work and thinking ‘why can’t I do something like this,’ but not having the tools and know-how. 

“Through the years, I continued to go back to Japan, often in the wintertime to help out the pottery family and live with them. When I was doing that I met a sculptor who was carving stone. His name is Katsumi Ida who has since become a Professor at an art school in Tokyo. 

“I began working for him while I was living at the pottery. I would work for him during the daytime and help out at both places. He was carving large sculptures out of granite and basalt for competitions in Japan during 1996-97. 

“He had started a sculpture symposium in the city, and I became an assistant. I did the forklift operation, and for the foreign artists I did the English-Japanese translating and interpreting. I also carved on all the sculptures. That was really like a graduate course for me. 

“Japan has a long history of working with granite, and they have granite and basalt very similar to the geology here in Maine. The neat thing about Japan in that period was that they had a lot of ancient techniques mixed in with very high-tech machinery as well, so it was a great place to learn. 

“When I came back to the US in 1998, my parents were living out west and the house here in Steuben was vacant, so I set up a studio in the back and started carving outdoors. I bought an air compressor and began going to the local gravel pits and abandoned quarries, bringing back whatever I could carry and then carving it. 

“Initially, I was carving figurative pieces like animals because I could study them easily. Carving or finding a stone that looks like an animal is sort of like what Lise Becu does, and is a heritage of being a Maine artist, but as I did, I became fascinated with the different aspects of the stone itself. So I began to evolve, and eventually half of my work was figurative and half abstract. 

“Eventually, the abstract just kept growing, and I stopped making representational things. Splitting was something necessary to get to a basic form, and it’s a skill that you build, but splitting itself I took to an art form by experimenting with different stones to figure out different ways to make the splits. 

“After a lot of accidents, I would try to
recreate (the splits) to be able to control certain movements in the stone, and that’s how I gained the ability to split curves and split compound curves and helix forms.” 

So these days when you split granite, do you know what the end result will be? 

Pointing to four crescent shaped pieces of granite he said, “Look at these pieces. They’re all split out of one piece and they are all similar and all uniform. There is a natural variation in them, but they are all basic geometrical forms that I can plan out when I split it. 

“That’s how I can make these large pieces that have a split surface texture and a dynamic motion and natural look. Feathers and wedges do not give you that much information, but using a series of very narrow channels in line, you get a very smooth and accurate split.”

When you split a stone and you’re left with that natural texture, is it hard to continue that texture onto other areas that aren’t split?

“You cannot recreate a split texture, and areas that are split are not touched. There are carved textures, and there are split textures. I think there is a lot of modernism in my art by being exposed to work in Japan. I enjoy using those different textures as vocabulary within an abstract piece.” 

It’s beautiful back here in these woods. It must have been difficult to build this shop while simultaneously producing art?

“I began clearing the area in 2004. I wanted the shop to be far away from the house and built on this flat area, and I came back here and cut down all the trees. A friend of mine had a band saw mill, so I spent the winter cutting the frame for the building.

“Another friend had concrete forms, and I made these four foot concrete walls—everything was low budget. By 2006, we had the basic shape of the building. Then we discovered these windows that are used on greenhouses, and even though we had to purchase them new, we could easily screw them right to the frame of the building. 

“I also wanted high walls so I could have a crane. I was always inspired by airports and liked the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with large outdoor light diffusers in the ceilings that offer light from the outdoors, so we decided to make the roof clear too, and that was key. 

“During the day you don’t need any lights. These double cell polycarbonate windows also hold more heat than glass windows do, so in the winter, on a clear day, by 9 o’clock, the building gains 20 degrees naturally without any heat. Even if it is 20 degrees outside, it is 40 degrees inside. Then, with the woodstove, it’s up to the 50s or 60s. The days it is hard is when it is 20 degrees outside and snowing, and you don’t receive any solar heat.” 

Walking towards the tool room, the resourceful Salisbury began discussing the custom tools he makes for his own use.

“I’ve developed my own shapes that I know work. Modern tools—you just buy them, and maybe you modify them a little. Using the splitting technique I’ve developed, I had to learn how to make the tools as the technique developed while finding the right materials such as recycled car springs and old drill rods from quarries. It’s good steel and you can’t buy tools like these. 

“Another thing is that instead of using carbide which you have to sharpen, instead, you reheat these tools, reshape them, and then just re-harden them every time. Getting that hardening right depends on the material you’re going to use them on, and it is trial and error. 

“When I built this place, I built this wing just for tool making, and it is dimly lit so I can see the colors of the metal I’m working on. I now have a gas forge and do all my forging in the winter so I have a year’s supply of chisels and splitting utensils. 

“To make ten of these wedges out of raw material takes a whole day. You have to heat them up ten times and hammer them to a basic shape. As a rule, chisels out of tool steel are always harder than the wedges. After they cool down, they then have to be tempered. Sometimes hardening is saved for a rainy day.”   

Do you make tools for others?

“No, just for me. It would be expensive to charge somebody for these.”

Jesse was now holding a 100-year-old hammer with an angled end, called a sharpeners hammer, acquired from an abandoned blacksmith shop in disrepair. He was told he could have all the tools in the shop if he tore down the building. 

“The blacksmith who used this hammer wasn’t doing stuff in the stone industry, but I think because he was in Sullivan, there were a lot of old tools around from the stone industry. I was able to get hammers, anvils and chisels.”

Was the stone industry big in Sullivan years ago?

“Oh, yeah—stone was quarried there to build the Brooklyn Bridge.” 

Walking towards the design room while speaking up to compensate for the noise of the saw, Jesse continued, sounding like a proud kid while showing me his toys. 

“That wire saw was made in Barre, Vermont, and the electrical is all new as well as the diamond wire. It’s a neat way to combine hi-tech cutting with the ancient technique of splitting and creating these interlocking forms where you drill a hole, insert the diamond wire and then cut a hole through one place. 

“That drill press in the corner was built in 1891 and uses a car transmission for speed selection, and our overhead crane came from an old power plant from Machias, Maine.”

Now sitting in the design room I asked, You were a participant as well as the organizer of  the early symposiums before you were the Art Director for the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposiums, weren’t you? 

Sipping a cup of tea he said, “Yes—there was no art director back then. I thought it would be a great thing to have a symposium here, and I organized the first one before Schoodic at an art center in Damariscotta in southern Maine. It was about six months long and the artists had to pay their own way. We auctioned off all of the work when we were done. That was in 2004. After that, I figured it would be worth spending more time planning and raising money and having the sculptures be public art. 

“Later, the Navy base had closed down on the Schoodic Peninsula, and there was this big open space way out at the end. That’s why we called it the Schoodic Symposium, because it was located on the Schoodic section of the Acadia National Park. That symposium then kept growing. 

“The last one was at University of Maine, Orono. It was the volunteer job that took over my life. The next symposium will be the fifth, and we want it to be sort of a culmination of what we set out to do. After that it will be in a slightly different form but still keeping the core elements of what we’ve developed.”

If the symposium continues, will you continue to stay involved?

“I was the founder and have been the Art Director since it was started, but it was all-consuming and took time away from my own work. I think if the Schoodic Symposium does continue, it will be with the University of Maine. 

“It takes a unique combination of skills because you have to have all the technical skills and watch all the interns who are real raw. They have a lot of talent but there are a lot of safety issues as well as the human dynamics dealing with the artists and the public. 

“I will stay involved, but less and less on a day to day basis. There is a good chance we are going to form a collaborative relationship with the University where you have a network of resources, and as we continue to collaborate, I think we can grow someone into that Art Director position. 

“I will still do a lot of the presentations and that is a real asset that I can keep doing without having to answer the telephone all the time. This year, Project Director Tilan Copson is taking care of 90 percent of the symposium, and I will be the onsite manager again for all the art and the installations. That will be the last time. For the vitality of the symposium, it’s important that I am here developing new work.”

Do you ever think you’ll go back to being a symposium artist and not the director?

“Yes. Over the years it was too difficult to make a piece and figure out the logistics of a symposium at the same time. It was, however, a huge part of my development as an artist and learning how to be a public face.” 

How hard is it to make money in art, and do you have any words of wisdom to artists just getting started?

“You have to have a private commission or two that are substantial enough while you develop new work at the same time. That’s the real challenge. Having your work displayed for sale in galleries is also important, but you don’t know when they are going to sell. If you do have art on display, you will have sales, but you also don’t want to get over-enthusiastic because you might not sell anything next year. 

“My dad and I also do landscape work, cutting boulders for door steps and walkways and rock walls, so that helps pay the overhead. If you’re going to be a sculptor, being one has to be your top priority even if you do other things. 

“If you have to do other jobs, find a way to keep them related but be flexible enough to not make sculpting your second job and wind up being a landscaper, because you’re a sculptor. It’s an internal priority that you have to hold on to. Be diverse enough to be able to go out and make money doing other things. It is also your duty, as an artist, to make something unique.

Peter J. Marcucci has over 25 years of fabrication experience in the stone industry. Send your comments to our Contacts page.