Every summer, artists from all over the world visit the Crystal River Valley to sculpt stone quarried from the small town of Marble. Naturally, the gathering is called the MARBLE/marble Symposium. Started by local artist Madeline Wiener 30 years ago, it’s part art school and part summer camp.
The MARBLE/marble Symposium might be down an unmarked dirt road, but it’s not hard to find. A cloud of white dust hovers above the trees, more effective than any road sign.
Pop-tents, makeshift studios, are set up in the forest by the banks of the Crystal River. Each houses a chunk of bright white or soft gray marble, some weighing thousands of pounds, donated to the symposium by quarry owner R.E.D. Graniti. Knee-high stones serve as benches under a large tent, where carving classes are taught every morning and afternoon. Even the tables in the primitive outdoor kitchen are made of marble slabs; around them, attendees eat sandwiches, faces powdered white with dust from carving.
Madeline Wiener greets nearly everyone by name, and she knows where each person is from: Japan, the Netherlands, Texas. She started the symposium in 1989 on donated land built on an old mill site.
"I wanted to carve in the woods with my friends," she said.
She credits Marble/marble’s success to the natural setting and the chance for everyone to both learn and teach.
"The true meaning of symposium is coming together and sharing," she said.
Now, she teaches sculptors of all experience levels how to carve the soft, white stone. She says marble is an orchid, not a hardy dandelion.
"It’s delicate, very fragile. You have to treat it very kindly," she said.
Still, stone-carving is physical, and ear-splitting, work.
"They use grinders with cutting blades, they use in-line air hammers and chisels, they use sanding apparatus," she said of MARBLE/marble attendees.
A huge variety of sculptures are on display under those pop tents. One woman carves elephants out of a gray stone. Others create more abstract pieces. Weiner herself is carving a 24,000 pound sculpture of a woman and child that will be installed in Glenwood Springs.
Rick March has been coming to Marble/marble for the past seven summers. He’s a psychologist from Austin. He’s been working on the same sculpture, a reclining figure, for the past three years, but says he’s not in a rush.
"It’s the doing, not the finishing, that matters to me," he said.
For him, MARBLE/marble offers a chance to be creative in a way he doesn’t find anywhere else.
"When I’m sculpting, I’m in a different world," he said.
Chet Herring’s tent is nearby. He’s a Carbondale artist who works in metal and stone. He’s carved a white bone that he's drilling holes into to look like marrow.
He says this was his first experience seeing so many artists working in the same medium, but all with their own unique take.
"Getting together with all those artists every year is the part of it that I’ve loved the most," he said.
Retiree Bran Johnson spent thirty years as a professor of geology. He first came to the town of Marble in 1979 with his students to do a geologic mapping project. Now, he’s carving a figure based on a marquette he made over fifty years ago, when he was in college.
"Now I’m trying to create her in marble, a little bigger," he laughed.
He says teachers like Madeline Wiener, and all the artists around him, have taught him lessons about bothcarving and re-inventing himself in his retirement.
"They’re trying to give me confidence in my capacity to transform," he said.
Wiener’s son Josh, who teaches and carves at MARBLE/marble, too, says that’s what his mother’s vision is all about.
"My mom’s philosophy is that if you just keep at it and keep doing it, that you’ll find some kind of grace. You’ll find your voice and something interesting to say," he said.
For those who come to this isolated town each summer, there’s no better way to say something than to carve it in stone.