When he left New York in 1979, Turners Falls stone carver Tim de Christopher received goodbye advice from his former boss Arturo DiModica, the Sicilian creator of Wall Street’s legendary “Charging Bull”.
“Hi … Stai Furbo“DiModica said to de Christopher, with one of those accompanying Sicilian body gestures: a pulled lower eyelid with an index finger exposing the lower part of his eyeball. “Be careful. Take care. Take care of yourself,” it said, an expression the outgoing artist had never heard.
Stai Furbo is one of the stone sculptures in Wide Awake, an exhibition of about a dozen of de Christopher’s stone works in Holyokes Pulp Gallery. The exhibition, which also includes paintings by the Florentine artist Nora Riggs, opened on December 11th and will run until January 9th in the gallery at 80 Race St.
Stai Furbo, on a steel base that increases the height of the man wearing a tank top to about five feet, gestures his silent warning with a raised right index finger, a cigar held discreetly in his left hand underneath. He’s actually Stai Furbo II. An earlier version literally lost its head while being carried on de Christopher’s forklift, as if to reinforce DiModica’s warning. When Stai Furbo swung straight from the forks of the lift, he also landed on the foot of a helper and broke three of her bones, laments de Christopher. In the meantime he has had the forklift’s steering and brakes overhauled.
Most of the works in the Holyoke exhibit are smaller tabletop devices. But they still weigh heavily with de Christopher’s signature quirky humor.
There are two molded crew boats (or are they galley ships?): “Come Away My Brothers” and “Fther Along”. The crews have raised their arms or shoulders in front of them. There are also “Factory Boat” and “Industrial Boat” inspired by Mühlenstadt. Floating stone factories mirroring the tall, abandoned Turners mill buildings? No problem.
“I have no real explanation. I don’t even know what it’s about, ”admits the artist about his stone boats, which were originally planned for a large“ cathedral project ”that turned into an unrealized“ testament ”inheritance project.
The exhibition includes a recent work, “Two Guys Fighting,” based on one of hundreds of stored napkin sketches from the time de Christopher moved to New York in 1977 to study design at Cooper Union. You can tell by the look on their faces that they are really kicking with enthusiasm.
De Christopher has exhibited at the Oxbow Gallery and William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, the De Cordova Museum in Concord, Chesterwood in Stockbridge and the New England Spring Flower Show in Boston.
Dean Brown, who opened the Pulp Gallery in 2019, discovered de Christopher through the artist’s three-part sculpture “Rock, Paper, Scissors” from 2017 on Avenue A in Turners Falls, and “It stopped me in my footsteps. You don’t see stone carvings very often. It was magical and permeated with the essence of folk art. “
He sees de Christopher’s art stylistically similar to that of William Edmonson, the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who “told stories related to spirituality.”
To de Christopher, Brown said, “There is an unfiltered beauty to his work. Something about it resonates (with the viewer) because it is so accessible. It invites you. “
De Christopher grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the son of a graphic, toy, product, and interior designer who also had his own drawing show on television. His grandfather had worked as a stone mason in the quarries in Italy from the age of nine before immigrating to this country as a teenager.
“He did the traditional things: Mary, Joseph and Jesus,” said de Christopher, who never saw his grandfather at work. “I grew up with all sorts of stories about my grandfather, the stonemason from Italy,” who founded a memorial shop with his brother in this country. “We played hide and seek and ran around the tombstones in his front yard.”
During his sophomore year at Cooper Union, de Christopher gave in to the urge to start carving and traveled to work on the side artesiani in Italy.
“I was a foreigner, an artist, but I worked with the craftsmen. Some of her works were architecture, others were pure sculpture, ”he recalls.
He returned to this country to finish college, then worked in the making of architectural models for five years before graduating from Columbia University with an architecture degree. But the carving virus caught him again.
Work on the Columbia campus on St. John the Divine Cathedral, resumed in 1979 after a long hiatus, included a Steinhof Institute to train stonecutters downtown youth.
“I’m there as a student with all the other architecture students,” remembers de Christopher, “and there are ‘my people’ who carve stones.”
A year and a half after graduating, the ambivalent architect asked during his training whether a carver was needed for the summer. He was hired and dropped out of architecture studies. Instead, he worked for two years at Cathedral Stoneworks, which also took private assignments.
Two gargoyles he had carved there – a monkey and a devil – were moved to a new wing of the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue.
When two colleagues from his New York crew invited him to their cabin in Heath for a weekend, de Christopher discovered Franklin County and moved to Shutesbury and later to Northampton the following year, 1992.
At the beginning he took on commissioned work from Cathedral Stoneworks, which closed in 1994 until he took over his own sculptures and commissions. In 2001 he moved from a studio in the Greenfield Venture Center to his first studio in Turners Falls, the former Williams Garage.
Shortly after he moved, New York’s Steinhof said it was cleaning up and offered de Christopher his limestone. He ordered six semi-trailer loads – 120 tons of limestone blocks – to be brought to Turners Falls. And he’s been using it ever since. When he moved to smaller K Street in 2018, he gave them to a friend in Greenfield.
As heavy as this limestone is, many of de Christopher’s stone carvings have an unmistakable lightness that over the years has included loaves of bread, fish, elephants, dogs and clumsy everyday people – like those whose faces emerged from the windows of his 2017 “Stone, Paper , Scissors “paper mill. It is the same blatant playfulness with which the artist transforms stories into sculpture.
“I carve something and say, ‘Oh look: there’s a little guy!’ And I’ll carve the little guy. Sometimes I am very spontaneous with material that is not quite as spontaneous. I see a reflection of light from an angle and think, ‘Oh, that looks like a nose in the shadow.’
De Christopher admits that his chiseled stories are often obvious when he is at the carving stage, with his pneumatic hammer or a host of other implements.
“Seldom is it ever totally predetermined,” he said.
In contrast to the napkin sketches, in which he captures a first glimpse of his design, the limestone he is cutting from “has its own requirements and definitely changes as you make them. You have to make decisions all the time while carving. It’s the fragility of the stone: it doesn’t have the molecular strength of granite. It’s softer, a looser bond, and it’s delicate. If you hit it wrong, it breaks off. ”
The smaller works in this exhibition reflect de Christopher’s adaptation, as his multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed in 1987, has increased dramatically in recent years. He’s walking with a stick now. But after a short break in the last few years, the stonemason began to work hard again with the approach of this exhibit last year.
Riggs, who moved to Florence seven years ago, is from Massachusetts and worked as an artist in New York and then Los Angeles and Pasadena before returning to New York. She has degrees in art from the Rhode Island School of Design and Indiana University.
Her paintings and drawings have been shown in New York, California, Georgia and elsewhere.
The Pulse exhibition of her graphite, ink and colored pencil drawings – works that she could quickly create on the dining room table while she couldn’t get to her atelier for Brushworks Art and Industry in Florence – is her first exhibition in the field.
Brown described Riggs’ work as complimenting de Christopher’s “naïve quality, not highly polished” that focuses on domestic scenes.
“Your characters have an extraordinary inner workings,” he said. “You can’t help but wonder what is happening.”
Riggs, 49, said that instead of painting and drawing from life, “everything in my head is made up of memory and imagination.”
She likes the “immediacy and emotional strength” of primitive art and said, “I want my work to have this and direct accessibility. I try to show a kind of inner strength and energy in everyday life, a beatification of the everyday. “
The stories told in a light folk art quality by de Christopher’s stone carvings and intense, naive domestic scenes complement each other in this pairing in the Pulp Gallery, which is intended to keep the visitors “wide awake”.