By Brian D’Ambrosio
Somers Randolph’s initial attraction to sculpture occurred when he was in high school. With most subjects, he realized, it was the teacher who held the knowledge, and the answers were largely preset. But in wood shop, Randolph could mutiny and reject the rigid notion of the textbook, making his own decisions, drawing his own conclusions.
“It was a logical choice for me at a high-pressure, East Coast prep school to want to be a sculptor then,” said Randolph, who is now 66 and one of the most recognized stone carvers in North America. “The shape, the texture, the finish, the material, I was the one who decided all of that. Right there, at 15, I had the solution and I had the answer.”
For about the last 50 years, he has followed a self-mandate to problem-solve, to be creative, and to hunt for inspiration on his own terms, his canvas the various slabs of stone he forms to fit his imagination. Tranquil like the drizzle of spring and pure like the sheen of silk, his undulating sculptures of knots, spirals, and curves exude a deep and mysterious quality.
“I am not carving something like Madonna statues or someone’s golden retriever,” Randolph said.
Born in Boston, and raised in Washington D.C., where he attended George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, Randolph later graduated from Princeton in 1979, with a degree in art history. He then spent 12 years in Santa Barbara, Calif., and seven in Nashville. Since 1997, he has lived in Santa Fe, where he has a studio in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just a mile-and-a-half from the Santa Fe Plaza.
No matter if he is working with a slab of onyx from the Middle East or a hunk of marble from Europe or a lump of alabaster from the American West, Randolph says both the premise and the conclusion of what he does follow linear consistency.” A large piece of mineral must be altered, hammered, distorted, sheared, and its old self left behind.
“Where you stop is entirely up to you,” Randolph said. “You can take it all the way till it is just dust. Or you can say, OK, that’s enough for that piece. And on the next piece, I may explore a different version of this same shape. But if I take a little more here, or leave a little more there, the shape will move and it’ll change. There are shapes down in the studio that I’ve been pursuing since 1970 … Once you find a form that intrigues your brain, you can chase it.”
Great creativity flows everywhere in Randolph’s world. His home is adorned with the offbeat visual art of the relatively obscure. A gallery off of the living room showcases the genteel purity and finesse of his own constructions. Yet, he does not claim greatness. He said that art has given him a stimulant, an exciting way of engaging in life, and an inexhaustible way of tracking it.
There is the common notion that the stone carver is something of a renegade traditionalist, a Luddite even, conscientiously chiseling statues with hand tools. In truth, the modern carver is fashioning pieces with modern machinery, albeit still quite painstakingly.
“When I was a kid, I told my friend that I was going to do it all like Michelangelo, going to use a hammer and chisel and files and sandpaper. I said that my work would be exclusively done by hand and everybody would know that. He said, ‘You know, that’s a great idea.’ And then he asked, ‘If Michelangelo were here today, would he use power tools?” I bought a drill the next afternoon at Sears.”
Still, the great work of stone carving requires copious amounts of sweat, which is why Randolph says the profession is nearing extinction. Not too many people want to put in such grinding sums of physical labor on a daily basis.
“There are almost no stone carvers,” Randolph said. “The reason is that when they teach somebody how to carve stone, they hand them a hammer and a chisel and a block of marble and they say, ‘Go for it.’”
“When I carve granite, I limp up to the house. Granite resists the tools. Alabaster, on the other hand, is like cream cheese compared to granite. But with alabaster, you need to know how far you can go, because if you go one minute too far it breaks. With granite, the worry is not if it is going to break; it’s are you going to break?”
Despite carving’s ruthless physicality, it is the occupation’s productivity, Randolph has learned, that is the gate to the source of all things self-rewarding.
“The point is to produce the work, not how you do it,” he said. “I’ve always said that I would review my career at age 80. I figured that it would take a long time for me to know what I was doing. When you’re a master of your process, it doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped learning, it certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped the search. I would consider myself to have been in pursuit of form for 50 years.”