POULTNEY, Vt. — Poultney sculptor Kerry O. Furlani is preserving the ancient art of letter carving in slate, bringing a contemporary edge to a New England tradition.
Furlani said she discovered her love of letters at a young age. “I loved the geometry of lettering and the cleanness of lines,” she said. “I had great handwriting.”
After four years as a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, Furlani, then 32, moved to Ireland to be a freelance journalist and to travel.
“I always wanted to live abroad,” she said. “My cousin was living in Dublin. I went to write, but I was practicing sculpture on my own with wax as well.”
Soon, Furlani hit a creative wall, and contacted an unlikely friend for some creative advice.
“I looked up local famous artist Rowan Gillespie in the phone book. His sculpture work really inspired me. I called him at home in Dunlaoghaire, and he invited me over, so I rode my bike to his house. He told me he would hear the voices of his teachers when he’s working, saying ‘Rowan, look at that line again. Are you sure?’ I was missing that dialogue with a teacher. I was stuck in my apartment, studying books,” she said.
The conversations inspired Furlani to apply to the Frink School of Figurative Sculpture in Longton, England, in 1997.
“The school was in the Potteries District of England in the Midlands, the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution,” she said.
“We used traditional materials and techniques, including wood, plaster, clay and stone, and three times a week we worked from a live model. They taught hands-on techniques which were rare in art school at that time.”
It was there that Furlani found inspiration for her letterwork.
“I was introduced to the letterwork of Eric Gill, sculptor and letter carver. He designed Gill font, and helped found the contemporary letter form movement in the early 1900s.”
Furlani returned to the United States in 1999, and shortly after, moved to Vermont to study sculpture. “I responded to an ad for an internship for the summer at The Carving Studio in 2000,” she said. “I wanted to move to Vermont because it reminded me of the landscape of England. I wanted to learn more about carving stone and marble, and to live around material that I was going to use.”
Furlani delved into slate carving in 2001, at The Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in West Rutland.
“I was outdoors carving marble living in my studio, but I knew I couldn’t carve marble in the winter. So I started carving slate. I knew I wanted to explore relief carving, which wasn’t something I had learned in school. I began with a 4-millimeter chisel for my first slate carvings,” she said.
Michael Fannin who is is a traditionally trained stone carver, veteran of the Vermont Marble Company, and colleague of Furlani’s, said slate carving is an integral part of Vermont culture. “Lettering is definitely a Vermont tradition,” he said. “Slate carving predated the emergence of the Vermont Marble Company. Slate carving is older than marble carving.”
Besides being a smaller medium, Fannin said slate is ideal for carving monuments. “You can get a more delicate line in slate,” he said. “It holds its surface for a long time, and it’s so organic that it fits into the landscape. I can get a sharper line, and a crisper letter in slate. It’s controlled demolition.”
Fannin said that slate carving became rare with the change in national aesthetic after the Great Depression. “Ornamentation of architecture fell by the wayside,” he said. “Slate was no longer featured, its been steadily happening for the past 150 years. Structural steel drove out cubic stone. Slate is also more expensive. A $7,000 piece of slate would be around $2,000 in marble.”
As she practiced on slate, Furlani found she was drawn back to letters and calligraphy.
“I decided that I wanted to pursue letter carving. I found Tom Perkins’ book “The Art of Letter Carving in Stone,” which was life-changing for me. Within those pages I saw John Neilson’s work in letter designing and carving,” she said.
Furlani was so inspired by Neilson’s work she decided to contact him.
“I wrote to John and asked if I could apprentice with him. He said yes. I had been carving slate for 10 years, but at that point I was copying, not creating my own, which was what I wanted to learn to do,” she said.
Furlani said she received funding for the apprenticeship from the Vermont Arts Council for $600 to study alongside Neilson in Llansilin, Wales, from November to February.
After returning from her study in Wales, she found studio space in Poultney to continue her work. In 2005, she was the first Vermonter to be featured at the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York, and today continues to locally source all the slate for her creations.
“I get most of my slate from the Taran Brothers in Poultney,” she said. “Traditionally, slate was used in architecture and landscaping in this area. I started an animal companion memorial business in 2010. I decided to use slate remnants, because each one is unique.”
Furlani said her work is rooted in tradition, though her style is all her own.
“This is not font design. It’s individual. I use traditional lettering as a foundation, and I reshape it. Part of what I do it because of my love for traditions,” she said.
Fannin said he also believes preserving traditions is vital to preserving culture.
“I think if we break the chain of historic continuity, where men hand down the skills to other, then they have to be reinvented,” he said. “I want people to know the lettercarvers still exist. It’s still alive.”
Information from: Rutland Herald, http://www.rutlandherald.com/