Daedalus life size body, wings about 13 feet
This work, Daedalus, installed at Mount Desert Island high school in Bar Harbor in 1968 is a seminal work, self-portrait actually. It is a sculptural commentary concerning the return of my older brother from Viet Nam, with all the attendant miseries those Vets have suffered, and my father’s helplessness witnessing the dissolution of his eldest son…as Daedalus did watching his son fall from the sky to his death having flown too close to the sun.
Clark Battle Fitz-Gerald (1917-2004) moved to Castine in 1956 to find artistic inspiration in the quiet and simplicity of small-town life and devote himself full-time to sculpture. He bought an old house on a rocky bluff above the Penobscot River, adjacent to the town lighthouse, and went to work in a studio he built on the property. For the rest of his life, he had no institutional assistance or regular paycheck, but managed to support his family making art.
A St. Louis native, Fitz-Gerald received numerous awards for his large pieces of public art in prominent locations in cities, churches, and universities in the U.S. and abroad. In over 1,000 commissioned works, Fitz-Gerald looked deep into the natural world, drawing inspiration from minute structures of seeds and spores, sinewy kelp fronds, or even whale vertebrae for his works in wood, stone, or metals. He had a whimsical slant on the creatures that shared his beloved Penobscot River. He once described a great harbor seal, “hauled out on a large ledge,” as a “Rhine maiden, a troll, a harem master, a tollgate keeper—you choose.” He called himself “a craftsman; a symbol maker...trying constantly to reevaluate old ideas.” His daily journal—30 volumes by the end of his life—was a trove of drawings and observations for sculptural ideas. “Nature is my greatest source of ideas,” he said. “I call attention to things that are just very beautiful.”
The Castine Historical Society is preparing a retrospective of Fitz-Gerald’s work, with guest curator Carl Little.
Taking a Walk with Clark Fitz-Gerald
One thing just led to another after Liddy Fitz-Gerald visited school on Monday with a box of her husband Clark’s miniature sculptures. Clark’s full-sized works can be found in public spaces ranging from Philadelphia to Coventry Cathedral. Now the table in my office at school had become a mini-gallery of the thirty-two small objects that inspired huge public art.
At some point, Liddy had made up a word for them: jibbies. Here were nature’s forms and functions isolated on a small wooden pedestal. Here was the stone with pebble-worn tunnels, the fossil clamshell, the sea purse; the scroll of a leaf, its veins curled inward like a hand. Another leaf suggests the prow of a Viking long boat. A chip of wood, a piece of bark, a geester in mid seed-dispersal, a dried starfish, petrified worm castings—they had all interrupted a walk with Clark, who would pocket them for his collection and then reimagine them as monuments or soaring carvings. Even spirals of brass, snipped from some routine sheet that Clark was turning into an exotic form, were exalted when they became minute Mobius strips.
Of course there are plenty of human forms walking around Castine, flesh and blood jibbies, I suppose, that have turned up in Clark’s curvaceous carvings of elm trees. The town crew used to drop off massive tree trunks at his studio, salvaged from the dump for art’s sake.
The kids at my school started to come by for a look. When second grader Dustin saw them he said, “You can make art out of anything.” True, if you have the right eyes. A walk with Clark, it turns out, wasn’t about getting anywhere in particular—it was about seeing things. Really seeing things. Botany or paleontology or geology might be the formal name for such science, but it’s really a matter of art, or poetry, or music—seeing, or feeling, or hearing a different pulse in things.
So I opened the Clark Fitz-Gerald Table Top Gallery in my office. When Tom, a parent in my school, saw it, he immediately appreciated the “childlike wonder” evident in Clark’s choice of natural objects. The kindergartners came two by two and looked at the little forms, and the shadows they were making on the table. Their faces were full of awe as they recognized familiar objects from their own beach combings.
Where might this lead? I cut some wooden pedestals and started to hand them out as other classes came for a gallery visit. Mrs. Belyea’s art classes picked up the work, gleaning along the town common and adjacent neighborhood for significant objets d’art. Within hours we had produced our own original jibbies: pebbles, maple leaves, horse chestnut hulls, twigs, black locust seed pods, lichens…even a few bottle caps. Sculptures were to be found everywhere!
By Friday, Mrs. Pelletier’s second and third graders were ready for a walk to the maritime academy across town in search of full-scale works by Clark. It wasn’t hard to spot the curve of the mussel shell in the two-story welded weather station sculpture, or the spiny sea urchin in the ornate grill above the library entrance. And in the lobby of one building, we recognized the whale vertebrae abstracted by Clark as an almost human shape. The kids pulled out their clipboards and got to work sketching. One good sculptural line deserved another at the end of a third grader’s pencil.
The appreciation and insight in our strolls with Clark this week reminded me of a sentence by physician/essayist Lewis Thomas, who could intertwine unheard melodies and things from the natural world in his musings. “If we had better hearing,” wrote Thomas, “and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”
Though he’s been gone for many years now, I like to think Clark’s still making extraordinary art somewhere else. We can imagine the new jibbies he must be finding, arranged in the morning light filtering into a new studio, and the grand sculptures that will be coaxed from some new leaf, or mollusk, or stone. The kids at my school can carry on the local work. “Lifted” is the right word for our experience. In December, we’ll put our jibbies on display alongside Clark’s down at the public library. A simple stroll on the common or down Court Street has yielded a new generation of jibbies: Chestnut husks elevated to medieval armor, an elm leaf as imperial emblem, a scrap of bark as winter ocean wave. Childlike wonder lives, as we all take a walk with Clark, like Clark. Do you hear timpani too?
Todd R. Nelson was principal of Adams School in Castine from 2004-2010.