September 2, 2012

Sculptor Uses Found Objects to 'Choreograph' His Works

Gazette Reporter


John Van Alstine created "Rings of Unity -- Circles of Inclusion," a sculpture with a large stone suspended in a circle of bronze, for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. From 1982 to 1996, his work could be found in the Hirshhorn Museum's Sculpture Garden in Washington. And this fall, if you drive or walk along New Scotland Avenue, you'll see two of his sculptures outside of the Opalka Gallery in Albany.

Curated by Ruth Hall Daly, "Arrested Motion/Perilous Balance," a solo exhibit by Van Alstine that opened Aug. 27, is not only a rare Capital Region show for the internationally recognized artist, it's the first time that the 10-year-old Opalka has shown sculpture both indoors and outdoors.

A Johnstown High School grad who was one of the state's top skiers was he was a teen, Van Alstine is now known for artworks that balance natural stone and manmade objects in graceful and precarious positions.

Last year, he worked with sculptor Noah Savett to create "Tempered by Memory," a 9/11 memorial in Saratoga Springs that was made of steel beams from the destroyed World Trade Center. The 25-foot-tall, 12-ton sculpture was installed on July 24 in High Rock Park.

Van Alstine is the father of two grown daughters, Eden and Chloe, and lives and works in the southern Adirondack town of Wells on eight acres along the Sacandaga River in an old lumber mill that he reclaimed and refurbished.

He shares his home and studio with his girlfriend, Caroline Ramersdorfer, an Austrian-born artist whose carved stone sculptures have been commissioned and shown around the world.

Van Alstine talked to The Gazette by phone from Wells in August, a few days before he installed his exhibit at the Opalka.

Q: Is this the first time you've exhibited in Albany?

A: Yeah, I think it is. I haven't done a lot in the Capital District. I don't really know why. I do a little bit in Hudson and a little bit in Saratoga but it seems like most of the time, it's in New York or Baltimore or Washington or Chicago or Santa Fe. Even L.A. sometimes.

Q: What's in the show?

A: There are 19 sculptures, including five that are pretty substantial pieces, and three that will be outdoors. There will be three fairly substantial pieces inside, including one in the entrance lobby, which is going to be really powerful. I think it's one of the best spaces . . . with the beautiful wood floors, and the open, high ceilings.

Q: How has your work changed from your solo show in 1999 at The Hyde Collection?

A: Certainly the work still contains a kind of signature of me, natural and manmade or human-made, but it's evolved a little bit in the sense that one of the major pieces inside, the piece called "Splay," is a little bit funkier. I have done works like that, but they are spaced out in terms of time. In the 1990s I did some, in the 2000s, I did some. And they're kind of a spinoff of my vessel forms. Vessel is kind of a metaphor for passage.

Q: What is that large red object in "Splay"?

A: It's called a drop tank. It's actually an extra fuel tank for an airplane. They were designed to hook under the wings and give extra fuel to the plane for long flights. I have a piece called "Chalice," in which I've used a drop tank. I actually cut the tank in half, and it made sort of like a big tall cup.

Q: You like to use manmade objects from the 20th century. Are there objects that you would never use?

A: I don't think I could make that statement. If it's an interesting object, I'd love to try to use it somehow. But typically they are industrial or marine or some kind of castoff or I find them in scrap yards or marine salvage yards, and then somehow try to combine it with found stone. I try to allow the spirit of the stone, if you call it that, to speak, much in the same way if you were designing a Japanese rock garden, where you put a stone according to its character and spirit. You put that together with what I see as American industrial. It kind of puts the idea of Eastern philosophy, Japanese, Chinese, whatever, together with an American "can-do" spirit.

Q: Is finding the object part of your creative process?

A: Absolutely, yeah, and that's the fun part of it. For me, it's an act of discovery when I'm out either looking or not even looking, and I see something and say "wow, can I fit that into my truck?" An example of that is the first time that I used a big marine buoy. These things are five feet in diameter. I was down in Florida at a wedding, and I had my little pickup truck. I bought this giant steel ball, and it just fit in the back of the truck, and I remember driving back on Interstate 95 and I would get so many looks, especially from kids that were passing in family cars.

Q: What happens next with these found objects?

A: The second part is discovering how they might go together. Sometimes you have an idea of where it's going to go but the magic is allowing the things to speak back to you. My work is very abstract but it also references the human body in movement. So, for instance, some of the titles of pieces are gymnastic moves, or refer to fencing or dance, like ballet. Like in the pieces called "Pique a Terre," where I literally choreograph an inanimate, heavy earthbound object.

Q: In the 1990s, you were collecting objects from a shipyard in Jersey City. Where are you finding them now?

A: You know, I'm lucky. I've got a very good friend who has a scrap yard in the Albany area. Everyone has gotten so litigious. Scrap yards, quarries won't let you in.

Q: Where you find your stone?

A: I used to get a lot of stone in Vermont, in Barre. That got shut down because of liability. So I began using slate, which I can find where it's not in an official site, more along the sides of the road.

Q: But slate is very different from granite.

A: It's not as durable, it's a lot tougher to work with, but it's got a really interesting character. It's got this micro-macro character, where you look at the textures and patinas on the slate. It's almost like looking at a landscape from an airplane.

Q: Is your work best viewed outdoors?

A: I don't think so. Some works are certainly site-specific. They deal with the movements of the sun in a specific way, like marking the calendar or the solstice. Those obviously have to be outside. And some of the big works, the scale demands generally that they are outside. I think lighting is a real important part of sculpture, controlling the light. Sometimes outdoor light, though it's really nice, you can't really control it as well. I like indoor spaces because of that.

Q: Where's the best outdoor place to see your work?

A: The pieces aren't there right now, but they used to be in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. In front of the Corcoran was another interesting place. I do have work outdoors in a sculpture park called "Grounds for Sculpture." That's a really big sculpture park near Princeton, New Jersey. And I am very partial to my setting here, in Wells.

Q: How many sculptures are outdoors in Wells?

A: Maybe a dozen. Caroline has a couple big ones sitting out as well.

Q: Can people visit your sculpture park?

A: Yes, by appointment.

Q: In your studio, you balance heavy pieces of stone and metal. What sort of equipment do you use?

A: All kinds of lifts, chain hoists, gantries. I'm always sort of juggling, getting these stones up or pieces of steel up, with straps and chains and hoists, and I have three or four of them going at once. When the moment is right, you go in and you weld, and you fuse it that way.

Q: Is the sculpture you made for the Olympic Park in Beijing still there?

A: It is. And Caroline's as well. There were 2,800 artists that submitted. In 2007, we got an e-mail that we had been selected for the final group and would you please put your idea together in a maquette or small model. And they had a major exhibition in downtown Beijing of all these pieces. They brought in an international jury, and they narrowed it down. They invited the selected artists to work in their factories, with their craftspeople, to realize the sculpture on a large scale. It was amazing that we were both selected. We went over and we worked with them. When we weren't working, they gave a VIP trips to the Forbidden City and the Wall and the new opera house. It was really nice.

Q: You also have a sculpture at Tsinghua University.

A: We both have works at the campus there in Beijing. To celebrate the university's 100 years, they commissioned 100 large sculptures for the campus.

Q: What was it like to work with steel beams from the World Trade Center, objects loaded with symbolism and emotion?

A: We were invited to the airport hangar at JFK, and you walk into this gargantuan place, and you see all this steel that's twisted. Twisted steel is kind of my natural material but this was so incredible, partly because of the scale and then it's imbued with the whole event, the symbolism and tragedy.

Q: After all the changes and delays, are you happy with High Rock Park as the home for "Tempered by Memory"?

A: It was quite disappointing last year when we missed our 10-year anniversary mark because we were racing towards it, and in fact, if we had known that we had a little more time, the sculpture would have changed a little bit. But it turned out that this is a great site. It's more contemplative and more appropriate to the kind of work that it is.

Q: When you were at Johnstown High, you were a champion skier. How did you become an artist?

A: I was New York State Ski Meister for the high school circuit two years in a row. Ski meister basically means a combination of downhill-alpine events and cross-country. I went to St. Lawrence thinking I might be a gym teacher because sports were such an important part of my life. But, as a product of a liberal arts education, I was turned on to making sculpture, and that really opened up some doors. My father was sort of a builder-engineer, a hands-on guy. My grandfathers were all carpenters, so in a way, what I do in sculpture is not so different from what they traditionally did, it's just with a little different direction.

Q: Do you still ski?

A: Absolutely. We love to ski. I think one of the reasons that she [Caroline] can put up with the winters here is that we ski at Gore, and we do a lot of snowshoeing. She grew up in the Alps. When we're in Europe, we do a lot of skiing there.

Q: What else do you like to do when you are not making art?

A: In the summer, we're right on the river, so we're very much involved in kayaking and fly fishing.

installed outside Opalka Gallery, Sage College Albany

WHERE: Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, 140 New Scotland Ave., Albany

WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 14. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Oct. 7-9.


RELATED EVENTS: First Friday reception, 5 to 9 p.m. Sept. 7; Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company performs in response to sculptures, 7:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21: Artist guided tour, 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 MORE INFO: 292-7742, or

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or

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