Grecian Sofa Memorialized in Stone

Jennifer Osborn
12/14/2009

A Milbridge sculptor is carving a pink granite version of renowned New England architect and woodcarver Samuel McIntire’s “Grecian Sofa.”

The “Granite Sofa” is internationally known artist Celeste Roberge’s attempt to create a monument to the McIntire’s 1805 piece. Roberge, a Biddeford native, spends summers in South Portland and is a professor of sculpture at the University of Florida.

Once finished, “Granite Sofa” will be available for viewing — and sitting — at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. The piece will probably be finished in January.

Furniture experts consider McIntire a leading force in creative design during the Federal period (1780-1811). He is credited with transforming Salem, Mass., into one of the most beautiful towns in America.

McIntire’s “Grecian Sofa,” a chaise lounge with rounded arms and intricate carving of grapes and flowers, is at Winterthur Museum & Country Estate in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley. Winterthur is the former home of Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), an avid antiques collector and horticulturist.

“My concept is I want to monumentalize the domestic,” Roberge said last week, speaking by phone from Florida. “Granite is usually used in monuments and not to make furniture. Granite is typically used in monuments because of its material qualities, so it seemed right that my monument to the sofa also be made of granite.”

Winterthur is “extremely protective of this sofa,” said Roberge. “No one is allowed to touch it or sit on it or photograph it.”

“I want to give people an opportunity to sit on that 200-year-old sofa that no one can own,” she continued. “I want to make a sofa that is usable. At the same time, it’s a monument to McIntire and the sofa itself and the people who had it built.”

The “Granite Sofa” is the result of a sabbatical granted to Roberge by the University of Florida and many months of work.

“This sculpture would not exist if they hadn’t given me this sabbatical,” said Roberge. “Their funding and their support has been really essential.”

Roberge was researching early American furniture while in residence at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., where she held the William Randolph Hearst fellowship.

While doing research at the society, Roberge came across Samuel McIntire and a reproduction of the “Grecian Sofa.” So she traveled to Winterthur to see the piece in person.

“It’s a stunning work,” she said. “It was even more beautiful in person.”

It took Roberge six months of negotiations with Winterthur to get a licensing agreement.

Meanwhile, she began contacting people who work with granite in Maine.

Roberge asked Steuben sculptor Jesse Salisbury if she would be able to do the carving herself without any experience.

Salisbury said no and recommended sculptor Russ Kaufman.

“He’s really a master carver,” Roberge said. “There aren’t many people who can do what he’s doing in this country.”

Kaufman, a native of Alpine, Ore., has been working with stone since the early ’90s when he installed marble floors and marble showers in luxury motor coaches out West.

Kaufman says he likes working with stone because “it’s really hard to do and it looks cool when you’re done.”

Creating sculpture is challenging, he said. No matter how good it is, you always see ways it could be improved. But, in creating a sculpture, you’re removing stone and there’s no going back. “It’s a one-way street, once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Roberge and Kaufman met in May and began searching for the right stone.

The Granite

“It was essential from the very beginning that the sofa be carved in pink granite,” said Roberge. “Pink is really important because it evokes the feminine. I wanted the warm color of pink to contrast with the usual gray of public monuments.”

The pair searched for granite in Maine, New Brunswick and other areas, but Kaufman found those granites too difficult to carve due to their hardness or granular structure, she said.

With help from a stone broker in Berry, Vt., they found a pink granite in Vermilion Bay, Ontario, with the right grain.

“It’s really nice to work with,” said Kaufman. “It’s a tight grain.”

“A bigger grain stone, you can’t get tight details because it tends to flake apart,” he explained.

And tight details they are. To create the intricate designs outlining the sofa, a few of Kaufman’s tools are just one-sixteenth of an inch, which is almost too wide, he says.

Kaufman is using a workshop at Freshwater Stone & Brick in Orland to do the carving.

Freshwater owner Jeff Gammelin has known Kaufman for about five years.

“A lot of stone building is removing stone and I’ve never really met anybody who can remove stone as fast as Russ,” said Gammelin. “He’s an inventor. He’s always thinking of new ways to do things. He’s always thinking about how to make things cut quicker without sacrificing quality. He’s got a bit of that quirkiness about him that all geniuses tend to have.”

Roberge has visited her sofa at the Orland workshop a few times and has noticed that people who are at Freshwater shopping for granite are drawn to take a closer look at the “Granite Sofa.”

“It’s fairly elegant,” she said. “I think people are attracted to that delicacy in granite as well as the softness and the curvaceousness.”

Touch is a huge part of sculpture, said Roberge. “There is that seduction that takes place because of the beauty and the voluptuousness of the furniture. Then there’s the hardness. There’s a contradiction between the furniture and what happens when you act on that attraction.”

Roberge said in her work she has a tendency to “shift materials” so when spectators come closer to a piece they see something unexpected. The “Granite Sofa” will eventually have a finish on it so that it appears to be upholstered.

Provenance

“Grecian Sofa” has a bit of mystery that Roberge would like to uncover.

She notes that while McIntire is credited with building the “Grecian Sofa,” it was actually made by an unknown carpenter. McIntire or his son did the carving.

Historians think the sofa was commissioned by Elizabeth Derby or her daughter, Elizabeth Derby West, in Salem, Mass.

“I’m interested in the fact that these two women commissioned these works for their house,” Roberge said.

The history of the sofa from the time it left the Derbys to 1957 is unknown, she said. In 1957, the sofa showed up at an auction block and was purchased by Henry Francis DuPont, who took it to Winterthur, which was originally built by the DuPont family. Winterthur has the largest collection of American decorative arts in the country.

Roberge has been working with sofas for about 10 years. She has created sculptures from stacks of stones embedded with pieces of furniture. One particular piece called “Room” is on loan to a German museum.

“The stacks sculptures that I made from 1997-2007 incorporated antique furniture of unknown origin that I purchased in antique shops,” she said. “The furniture had been produced somewhere at some unknown time in the past. So they were very generalized. Many of the art historical references in stacks were European in origin. Later I became curious about the history of furniture making in this country.”

To see Roberge’s work, visit her Web site at www.celesteroberge.com. She has had shows previously at Turtle Gallery in Deer Isle and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

To see more of Kaufman’s work, his Web site is www.blackdiamondsculpture.com. Incidentally, he signs his work Dane, which is his middle name. Also, he created the stone fish in the window at John Edwards Market on Main Street in Ellsworth.