MARBLE — More than five decades ago, Palisade resident Brann Johnson was a young man taking a sculpting class, and created a small clay figure of a reclining female nude.
Then he got busy with other things, including a career teaching geology at Texas A&M.
Around the start of this month, Johnson got the chance to pull out that clay sculpture again, as a participant in the 31st MARBLE/marble Symposium, far up the Crystal River Valley south of Carbondale.
There, Johnson was able to work with dozens of other sculptors, ranging from amateur to professional, and to learn from renowned instructors as well as fellow participants.
Working in the shade of an aspen forest, on the edge of a small town littered with the white namesake rock that to this day continues to be mined from a nearby quarry even higher up the mountains, Johnson endeavored to recreate in marble what he'd formed in clay as a young man.
"She's 52 years old now," he said of the figurine. "I'm going to convert her to rock now."
Johnson said he tromped around the Marble area for several years as a geology teacher starting in 1979, leading his students in field camps. One area of research for him during his career was rock deformation — how rocks deform naturally or through human engineering.
"So I understand rock from a scientific viewpoint and understand it geologically. Now I'm trying to understand it as a sculptor.
"I have insights but right now we're trying to determine who the boss is. I think the rock might be winning right now," Johnson said with a grin during a pause in his marble-sculpting project.
Over three decades, the symposium has brought several thousand people like Johnson to Marble each summer, from not just the United States but other countries.
"We teach everything we know, from A to Z, about how to make a marble sculpture," the symposium's founder and executive director, Madeline Wiener, said.
"… It's a great little commune that happens here every summer. People of like mind gather. They come together, some of them as strangers. By the time they leave, friendships have happened."
That such an event and learning opportunity exists amazes sculpting enthusiasts such as Johnson, who first participated in 2017, as a 70th birthday gift from his wife.
"This is really a flower that a lot of people don't know about," he said.
Kevin Mahoney, who owns Main Street Minerals and Beads in Grand Junction also participated in this year's symposium. He marvels at the opportunity it gave him to mix with people he idolizes in the sculpting world.
"It's pretty cool, about as cool as it gets for me," said Mahoney, who is preparing to become a full-time sculptor.
Said Johnson, "This is a rarity to be able to have access to the facility, the teaching situation and the rock. Plus, this is where the rock comes from, up the hill."
The marble resource above Marble was discovered in the 1870s and quarrying operations have ebbed and flowed over time. An active operation is being conducted today by Colorado Stone Quarries.
The local marble has been used for landmarks including the Lincoln Memorial, and also has attracted the attention of sculptors working at a smaller scale. Mahoney said about eight different colors come out of the quarry. As he took a break from carving a piece depicting a mother and child during the session earlier this month, he pointed to another, octopus-like piece he was working on that contained a green vein in it, and described how he was incorporating the color into the sculpture.
"When you get a green-vein rock it's like gold to me," he said.
Wiener, 72, said the inspiration she got to hold a symposium dates back to the Marble Fair held in Marble in 1977.
"That planted the seed for me to carve in the woods with my friends here in Marble," she said.
Wiener moved to Colorado that same year. She's from New York City, where in the 1960s she studied painting at the School of Visual Arts, but said that while she could draw, she struggled with color. During a trip to Italy she sketched sculptures she saw there, and her teacher suggested when she returned that she start sculpting.
"I never looked back," she said.
"… I wanted to get to the other side of my canvas, really, and that wouldn't have done anybody any good. So this is my outlet, to go three-dimensional," she said.
Wiener and her husband Matthew live in Denver and also have a home now in Marble. She makes public art, sharing a studio in Boulder with her son Joshua. Her pieces can be found at places including the Denver Justice Center and the Denver Botanic Gardens, and she's currently working on one for the city of Glenwood Springs.
The symposium is founded
It took more than a decade after the 1977 Marble Fair, but Wiener and fellow sculptors eventually held the first MARBLE/marble symposium in 1989.
"We put on eight crazy days," she said.
When participants wanted to come back, a second one was held the next year. Demand continued to grow, and by 1993 the event had grown to three sessions. Those sessions have continued each summer, always on the same dates — July 2-9, July 15-22 and July 29 to Aug. 5. Participation is now limited to 45 people per session.
The quarry ownership has changed over the years but Wiener said the owners always have supported the event by donating stone for people to sculpt. The event is held on land that had been owned by the Stover family and initially was loaned, and then in 1994 was donated, to the symposium. The event came under the auspices of the newly formed nonprofit Marble Institute of Colorado at that point.
Some things have been a constant at the event, such as afternoon downpours, occasional visits from bears, and the ever-present marble dust and noise of power tools being applied to stone. But improvements have come over the years as a kitchen operation has started up and marble-lined outdoor showers were installed, although there's more than one way to get rid of the ever-present white powder that coats sculptors.
"It's funny. After a good rain it all just washes right away," said Denver resident Larry Felton, part of Wiener's symposium staff of 16 people.
More and more lodging has opened and more rental housing such as Airbnb properties has become available in the Marble area over the years, reducing the number of symposium participants who camp during the event. More than 100 power outlets have been installed on the property, and compressed air connections for tools also are in place.
While each eight-day session costs participants $950, and $250 more if they choose to sign up for the meal service, the public can take in the sights and sounds of the symposium for free. Wiener said dogs and smoking aren't allowed, but people can bring their children as long as they hold their hands.
Safety is an ever-present concern for Wiener, who kicks aside what she calls "ankle-twister" stones as she walks the symposium property and makes sure participants are using eye and ear protection and respirators when the occasion requires, and properly using tools.
Kazutaka Uchida, a Japanese sculptor, was a guest instructor at this year's event and long has been coming to the symposium to share his knowledge.
Formally trained at art schools in Japan and Paris, he is struck by how the symposium draws together people who may be professionals in other fields such as medicine or law, but are amateurs to sculpting and mix with younger adults and others. He said that in Japan, a medical doctor wouldn't work in stone.
"This is a unique American culture," he said.
He loves escaping to the cool of Colorado's mountains, and away from the summer heat of Tokyo and Paris, to join in the symposium.
"Here it's like a summer holiday," he noted, while indicating that it's not entirely a vacation.
"Sometimes I have to teach," he said with a smile.
Mahoney speaks almost in disbelief about the opportunity to spend a week rubbing shoulders with sculptors of Uchida's caliber, eating with them, and even reveling in a compliment Uchida paid him about his sculpting talents.
"These are some of the most amazing stone sculptors … on the planet and they come here," Mahoney said.
Participants describe the event as a noncompetitive one where people of all skill levels share techniques and tools with each other.
Said Felton, "It's just an open, sharing, good place to grow as an artist.