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Festival showcases the magic of marble

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Marble dust saturated the air and engulfed artists’ workspaces during the 11th Annual Sylacauga Marble Festival as 34 sculptors worked morning to night during the 12-day event held at the beginning of April.

Artists from across the country and even a master sculptor from Italy set up shop in Blue Bell Park on Norton Avenue in downtown Sylacauga, a town revered internationally for this striking stone, alongside a handful of local names.

Craigger Browne is one of the most well known sculptors in the area and has many completed art pieces on display throughout the town. He has studied with master artists and created hundreds of marble sculptures over his 30-year career. Throughout Sylacauga, Browne’s works can be seen at the B.B. Comer Library and Sylacauga Municipal Complex.

When sculptors arrive on the first day, each chooses a free piece of marble that is dropped off to their chosen carving spots for the week. 

“This year, quarry tours sold out the week before the festival started, and we sold more sculptures than we ever have in the past,” said Ted Spears, marble festival chairman.

The event is open to the public who may come by to admire the artists working and ask questions about their talents and creations. Church groups, students and buses with sometimes 50 to 60 people rolled through during the week.

Each year, a visiting master sculptor from Pietrasanta, Italy, attends the marble festival as an ambassador to represent the cultural exchange between two marble-based towns.

Marcello Giorgi returned as the ambassador this year for his second time in a row, and he was tasked with completing a work of art before the festival’s end.

“It’s amazing and exciting to be here. I like the environment of the festival, the people, the atmosphere, the marble,” said Giorgi. “I’ve been doing marble work my whole life, and I do it because I like to do it.”

The ambassador of the festival is required to do presentations at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art and at B.B. Comer Library, as both are sponsors and organizers for the event. 

This year during the festival, Giorgi sculpted a piece that was inspired by Alabama’s bicentennial. A prototype was made before he arrived and was on site for reference.

“I wanted to do something for the bicentennial, and it just came naturally to me. It’s about this idea of freedom, which is historically important for this area with the civil rights movement,” said Giorgi. “It represents transformation, and the butterflies symbolize metamorphosis.”

The final Freedom sculpture is on display at the B.B. Comer Library, among past master sculptors’ designs, and Giorgi labored into the last minutes of his deadline to finish it.

“He always chooses something ambitious. He can’t help himself, and he gives 150 percent of himself for his work,” said Nathalie Purchio, Giorgi’s assistant.

The Sylacauga Marble Festival originated in 2011 as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Pietrasanta in Tuscany, Italy, which is home to the Carrara Mines and known as the town of marble.

“The mission is to recreate the magic of marble through its artistic, commercial and industrial applications,” said Spears. 

Last year, Rudy Medlock from Kentucky, came through as a visitor since his daughter works with the Montgomery Arts Council, and he ended up staying for its entirety.

“When I got here, they invited me to join them, and so I just stayed. I borrowed some tools and bought some clothes,” said Medlock who teaches fine arts at Asbury University in Kentucky and has been carving for 25 years.

During this year’s festival, Medlock completed two sculptures, each within about four days. He said his design inspiration comes from maintaining a size that he can pick up. Also Medlock works on a resurrection series, inspired by his faith.

“This is the greatest event ever, especially that it’s free. That’s almost unheard of,” said Medlock. “I plan to come back each year until they tell me not to.”

Some artists only work in marble once a year at the Sylacauga Marble Festival, such as Rockford resident Francesco Vezzoni.

“I’ve worked at the Sylacauga quarry here since the ’90s, and I am an electrical engineer by trade,” said Vezzoni. “Once a year I come to play with marble and have been doing this since 2014.”

While Medlock’s style is more instinctive with years of honed craftsmanship and Vezzoni’s is for fun, Jimmy Ewing from Atlanta approaches his marble carving more meticulously.

As a former aeronautical engineer and a patent lawyer for more than three decades, Ewing said he always enjoyed science and math because there is little room for interpretation.

“I like to pick irregular shapes to start with; and then, I have to think about it for hours. After, I begin to draw it out with rulers and pencils. I use a hammer to listen for where the faults are,” said Ewing. “This method drives some other artists crazy.”

His marble sculpting became a full-time hobby in 2014, and he has attended the Magic of Marble Festival since 2015. What began as abstract work pushed Ewing toward more intricate designs. Recently, he started working on hands, which are some of the most challenging styles to represent, he said.

“I chose to create a hand sculpture during my second year of the festival, and master sculptor Giovanni Balderi told me I needed to practice 1,000 times to do it well,” said Ewing. 

Practicing in clay is one solution, since it can be re-worked, he added. Marble carving is a subtractive method, so once it’s gone, it’s gone. Many artists who work with marble got their start in woodworking, said Shirley Spears, who worked at the library for 33 years.

Ewing said respecting the stone and where it came from is an important part of the festival.

“They run a good show here and keep it at the right level. Everyone here appreciates the life forms that were given up to create the marble. The sculptors here feel that,” said Ewing.

His artistic inclination didn’t come about until 2005 when he visited a stone yard in Germany and found a statue he wanted to buy. After haggling the price and realizing the cost it would be to ship, Ewing thought about trying to make one himself.

Back home, he signed up for some art classes and had no idea where that would lead. 

“The instructor handed me a piece of stone and a hammer and chisel and sent me to the corner of the room. I just started hitting it to see what happens,” said Ewing. “Chips just started flying, and it was like 33 years of frustration began coming out.”

During the annual 12-day program, tours of the Sylacauga Marble Quarry are available; sculptures from across the country are for sale; children participate in a marble-themed poster contest, and artists are recognized with a mayor’s reception.

Aside from arranged quarry tours, the Imerys-Gantt’s Quarry Observation Point is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The scenic overlook contains historical markers about the history of marble from the time Dr. Edward Gantt discovered the stone while on duty for Andrew Jackson’s army in the 1800s.

There are nearly 3,000 components in the world that contain marble as extracted calcium deposits, and four out of the five industries in Sylacauga are located there due to the marble quarries, said Spears.

For more information about the Sylacauga Marble Festival, visit bbcomerlibrary.net/marblefestival.