Joseph Wheelwright: Sculptor of Stones and Trees

A few days ago my partner Blase and I went to visit the artist, Joseph Wheelwright, to choose some work for the fall outdoor sculpture exhibit. Entering a high-ceilinged warehouse space in Dorchester, I immediately felt the presence of stone – stone dust, stone chunks, and many finished stone heads — decades of carved work on the floor, and on tables and carts. Machines and air compressors to run the stone-carving power tools crammed one area, a large work table occupied the central space, and in the back were stairs to a small office and gallery.

Photo from Joseph Wheelwright Website.

Photo from Joseph Wheelwright Website.

I saw a few of Joe’s tree figures, ones he constructed out of bifurcated tree trunks turned upside down, the trees found in the woods near his summer studio in Vermont. Before cutting down a tree, Wheelwright first checks the root area to make sure it would provide a good set of “shoulders.” A few years ago, an assembly of his giant tree creatures strode across the landscape at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard.

“Choose,” he said, gesturing to the entire studio. “Anything you want.” 

“Wow!” I thought. It’s interesting to have the freedom to choose. Just how does one begin to make a choice when there is such richness? Some of the stone heads must have weighed a few thousand pounds — far too big for us to move in Blase’s pickup truck. Some older pieces made with bones and other fragile material would not be fitting for an outdoor exhibit. One recent sculpture was a small figure standing on a tall rectangular stone. It reminded me of the small figures I cast into bronze and place on rocks or inside wood sections. I recognized that attraction to what I know and feel comfortable with, and turned away to take in the range of really different work. There were so many stone faces, each with a unique expression – it was difficult to decide on one.

Joe asked if we wanted to go upstairs. “Of course, yes, let’s see everything,” I answered. There, in the middle of a small gallery, my eyes alighted on a tower of branch figures. I was familiar with Joe’s wonderful small bronze figures created from delicate tree branches, most of them less than a foot high. They are immediately likable, posed so energetically in sprightly postures. But this sculpture was a three-dimensional ladder, a tower of figure after figure welded together at the point where a leg rests on a knee or a foot on an arm – all interdependent and interconnected. Like a circus act where the performers create a human pyramid with the stronger ensemble members on the bottom, the bronze figures at the base of the sculpture had thicker branches. Then these branch personages became progressively thinner as together they supported the smallest figure, atop them all.

“How about this one?” I asked.

“Well it’s a little fragile to transport,” he said, then paused. “It has one side, I think it’s this one,” he said, pointing, “where you can lay it down.”

“Has it been outside?” Blase asked.

Joe didn’t answer. I’m not sure if he remembered.

I was riveted by this sculpture and did not want to move on. “Could we have it?” My enthusiasm gave me the audacity to ask. 

“Blase, I think you and I can carry it down the stairs,” Joe responded.

As they carried it out to the truck, his wife, Susan, said, “That’s one of my favorites.”

Joseph Wheelwright's Tower of Figures (partial view with visiting dragonfly)

Joseph Wheelwright's Tower of Figures (partial view with visiting dragonfly)

All these figures mutually support each other. If one moves, many will tumble. It’s a sublime balancing act. I look at Joe’s sculpture and think how we are all in this world supporting each other and connected, though not in such a physically obvious way.  

Once we loaded the sculpture into the truck on a thick blanket and tied it in so it wouldn’t roll, Joe asked if we wanted some stones. Blase chose one with a small bird perched on its head; I selected one that seemed to be peering around a corner.

Joe was so generous — the pieces will be for sale — but he declined to give me prices. I think he knew the price tag would be shocking. There’s a lot more work than meets the eye in all of Joe’s work. He has a long lifetime of dedication to his art. We’re so honored to have his sculpture at the farm this fall. Opening Day will be Saturday, September 3rd and the exhibit will be open through Columbus Day.