John Van Alstine’s sculptures realize the impossible.
Arcing steel forms teeter on their tips. Massive cuts of granite or slate hover above, floating weightless. Organic and strong, his works symbolize the fantastic.
No wonder his sculpture was selected for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
His “Ring of Unity — Circle of Inclusion” will loom over the Olympic Park this August. The chosen work, a Chinese rock buoyantly suspended in a steel circle, is an ideal metaphor for athletes who push to accomplish unending perfection.
With a diameter of 16 feet, the piece is part of his Sisyphus series — a line of sculpture that exemplifies Van Alstine’s philosophy. To the artist, the task of Sisyphus, endlessly rolling the boulder up a steep hill only to see it tumble to the bottom again, is not futile or discouraging. It represents his creative process.
“It’s a self-portrait,” said the 55-year-old artist as he stood in his industrial workshop/studio on the banks of the Sacandaga River. “Physically, I’m pushing stones around. And symbolically, I’m pushing them to the top of their creative peak. Then what do I do? I start over. The struggle is the key to the creative process. The creative process, it’s really never-ending.”
Aura of mystery
Neither is his fascination with marrying the man-made to the natural.
“I like the language of the natural material combined with American industrial discards,” said the sculptor. “My vocabulary is stone and metal.”
His eye for this coupling has pushed him to the apex of the American art world. Nick Capasso, associate curator of the DeCordova Museum, has written that Van Alstine is “one of the most important sculptors of the late 20th century.” Credit is due to his ability to create pieces, as the Baltimore Sun noted, that possess “a potent aura of mystery and ambiguity.”
Consequently, his works, both small and substantial, are sought out by museums, including the Smithsonian and the Corcoran Art Gallery, as well as corporations and art collectors in the U.S. and Europe. His creations also grace public places such as the Indianapolis Airport and Austin College. Yet his Beijing commission will likely be viewed by a record international crowd.
Interestingly, a marble sculpture by his girlfriend, Caroline Ramersdorfer, was also selected by Olympic organizers. Their works were submitted for consideration three years ago. They were among 2,800 proposals. Fifty were chosen, 25 Chinese artists and 25 non-Chinese artists.
“Two Hamilton County artists . . .,” said Van Alstine, “The probability is pretty low.”
Both flew to Beijing and watched as a crew of craftsman constructed and assembled their creations. The Chinese bought their ideas outright so that they are free to reproduce and license them as they like.
“Who knows, my sculpture might be made into a key chain,” said Van Alstine. “The publicity is weird, but it might instigate other projects.”
Van Alstine is hardly lacking for projects. He’s working on a sculpture for the University of Indiana. Plus he has four exhibitions planned for the summer. Locally, his works can be seen in Hudson and in a group show, with Ramersdorfer and others, in Silver Bay. He also is showing in Baltimore and Santa Fe, N.M.
And while his sculptures circle the globe, his creations are born from the discard piles at scrap metal yards and quarries. At the metal yards, he seeks scraps that he can cut, shape and polish. At the quarries, he looks for ready-to-use granite or slate.
“It’s more of an oriental acceptance of stone like in a rock garden,” said Van Alstine, “I look for stones that are interesting for me — irregular, geometric shapes, odd grain, drilling holes.”
He brings them back to his workshop, where he arranges the pieces on the ground to see how they interact. He aspires to levitate the stone and frame it with a curl of metal.
“There is a tension between what you see visually and know mentally. It’s an interesting dynamic.”
Once satisfied with the effect, he hoists the large bows of metal and craggy rock on lifts. Then they are bolted or welded, usually at a single point. The work is then photographed, catalogued and put on display in his on-site gallery or sculpture garden until they are bought, disassembled, shipped and reassembled on site.
The old Wells factory, buildings and grounds, have been renovated to accommodate these sculptures — large and small. His nine acres are dotted with his large sinuous works. The indoor gallery, attached to his workshop, perpetually exhibits his smaller, more delicate pieces and drawings.
It’s an ideal spot for Van Alstine. However, growing up in Johnstown, Van Alstine never expected to settle in the area. As a teenager, he said he couldn’t wait to leave. He attended St. Lawrence University and Kent State University for his BFA and then went on to Cornell University for his MFA. After graduation, he joined the art department of the University of Wyoming, where he fell in love with the landscape.
“The West has a wonderful geology. It has a positive effect on my work, but I found it a bit isolating.”
So he accepted another teaching position at the University of Maryland at College Park. While there, his sculptures started to gain recognition. And he began spending more time on his art than on his teaching.
“I knew I couldn’t do both and do both well,” he said. “I was either shortchanging the university or shortchanging myself.”
So he quit his teaching job and moved to Jersey City, closer to the hub of the art world.
Not long after, in 1986, he was invited to spend a summer at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs.
This is the place for him
“Whoa, the Adirondacks,” he said. “I thought this is really nice. As good as a situation as New Jersey was, it was not good in the summer.”
So he and his father looked around and found the defunct wood factory that “looked like an absolute disaster area. It was grown up. But I saw the river and the buildings.”
There he stayed, raising his two daughters and creating his elegant works that tantalize both the eye and the mind. And that’s the point, said Van Alstine.
“Good art needs both.”