While much of Washington has escaped this summer's swelter by staying indoors, sculptor Stefan Saal has spent his days under a grove of trees at North Bethesda's Strathmore Hall. He is carving three former elms into seven-foot sculptures of a poet cradling a book, a musician playing a violin and a painter holding a palette. Saal will eventually build a mini-pavilion with the three figures holding up its roof. He calls the project, which is commissioned by Strathmore, a "little temple to the arts."
The sculpture started as "kind of a sentimental journey" for a tree that was chopped down on the grounds of Strathmore Hall, a victim of renovations there. But before Saal could begin his project, the wood started to rot. A friend of Saal's who owns a lumberyard offered three nicely shaped logs at the right price. Soon Saal and Strathmore Hall were back in business.
Although Saal has an idea of what he'd like his finished sculptures to look like, the wood will decide the ultimate shapes. "Wood is constantly shrinking and contracting," says Saal. "When you work on big logs like these there's a lot of stuff that's going to happen that's beyond your control." Something else beyond Saal's control occurred early on in the project: He gashed a finger with one of his tools and had to take a two-week break, upsetting his timetable. He hoped to have the sculptures, if not the pavilion, finished by now.
This is good news for Strathmore's visitors. His table of tools and evolving figures draw a steady audience of curious children and their parents. The sculptor views these interruptions as a boon because he usually works alone in his studio in Northwest. "Kids have a penetrating insight into things," says Saal, 46, the father of two grown children. "I follow their insight and stay on track." One boy, a regular visitor, told Saal that the painter looked unhappy. The artist took another look and gave the figure more of a smile.
Saal first got interested in sculpture after visiting a David Smith exhibit at the Phillips Collection at age 14. "I didn't do much about it," he says. "But I liked it." A fine-arts and philosophy major in college, Saal started experimenting with granite and then wood sculpture while serving in the Army in Japan. He married a woman there whose father was a boat-builder, and every week Saal brought him pieces of wood to assess. "The Japanese are really knowledgeable about wood," the sculptor says. "And I basically knew nothing."
Saal says wood can be frustrating to work with--even slight changes in humidity can make it split--but since it's a plentiful and cheap material in this area, he's stuck with it. "I'm working in it by default," he says with a wry smile.
Lifelike figures are Saal's specialty, and he usually does one or two large-scale projects every year. "I want to make a work that is very accessible," he says. After he finishes the carving phase of the Strathmore Hall sculpture, Saal will paint his trio to represent different cultural heritages.
The process of transforming a 2,000-pound log into a work of art takes a variety of technical, artistic and mental skills. First Saal uses a chain saw to strip off the bark, an action he compares to unclothing a model. He then begins to whittle the logs using a mallet and a variety of chisels. "It's like the beginning of the universe, the form coming out of the mist," he says. Then he winches the logs into a vertical position and casts a critical eye over his progress.
After taking a hiatus during most of the '90s to care for his son, who is now in remission from leukemia, Saal recently leased studio space in New York. He plans to spend some time working up there to see what happens. The German-born artist has enjoyed modest success in Washington, selling his work mostly from his studio and teaching part time. "I've stuck to it as a career because of sheer orneriness and persistence," he says. "Society has always given me just enough encouragement."
Back at Strathmore Hall, Saal stands on a bit of scaffolding to reach the poet's face, which is just starting to take shape. A little girl and her mother stroll over to watch. "How did you make it?" the girl wants to know.
"It's hard to explain," Saal says kindly. "You start on one end and do it."
"This is going to take a long time," says his young visitor.
"But at least he has a nice shaded spot," says her mother.
Strathmore Hall is at 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda.