International Sculpture Center


Elyn Zimmerman discusses stone in public art, her fascination with stone as a material, and her working relationship with a Minnesota quarry.

Tracey Hummer: How did you begin working with stone?

Elyn Zimmerman: I was a painter before I went to India in 1976. I saw temples there that were carved out of living rock, and they were the most astonishing things I'd ever seen. They're vast four stories with hundreds of rooms, gigantic sculpture that's carved in place. I was overwhelmed. When I came back, I wanted to do something with stone. I began making models, with small blocks of stone and human figures to scale, and submitted slides and a proposal to Artpark in 1977. They liked the idea, and it was an opportunity for me to have someone pay for the materials and to work with a large outdoor project. The Artpark piece was temporary, but I sent the slides to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) (they have or used to have a slide file). The National Geographic Society saw the slides when they were planning a commission for their headquarters building in Washington, D.C. They invited me to make a proposal for a permanent work.

Elyn Zimmerman: "World Trade Center Memorial", NYC, 1995.

Hummer: What limitations do you encounter when working with large, monumental pieces of stone?

Zimmerman: One of the problems working with stone is that although the material itself isn't that expensive, hauling it, fabricating it, having the tools to cut it, and the manpower to work with it are very expensive. And if you make large sculptures in wood, you can make small models in wood that really capture the feeling of the material. You can't do that with stone. But stone has an integrity, and its natural qualities suggest the core of the earth. It also comes in a huge variety of colors and textures, from limestone to marble to granite. I'm interested in the fact that it's so enduring. I like to visit archeological ruins, and what's left after many years is either terra-cotta or stone. Everything else doesn't last.

Hummer: Why do you leave some stones unpolished and polish others?

Zimmerman: In those caves in India, there are areas of natural rock next to carved rooms, stairways, and altars. At Machu Picchu, in Peru, things are cut out of the mountain, and there are places where terraces are built up, but then there will be a giant rock outcropping in the terrace. It's so organic and so man-made at the same time. For the National Geographic site, I used a 200,000-pound group of stones that looked like big natural rocks but that in fact were broken out of the quarry wall and had to be worked on to look natural and there were also pieces that were cut and polished. There is a powerful contrast between the rough textured, natural pieces and the dark granite polished like a mirror.

Hummer: How does your working process begin?

Zimmerman: It starts with finding the right material. I've been working with a quarry in Minnesota for almost 19 years, so they know the kind of thing I'm looking for. They put stones aside for me because nobody else wants anything like them. Usually I'm not interested in stone of architectural quality, because it has a perfectly even grain. I like things that are crazier. So these big, unusual pieces are like a graveyard of stuff that's set aside for me. I provide a model, and very specific drawings of what I want to do. I'll choose exactly which piece of stone to use and how to cut it. Since I've worked with the same people for so long, even when I'm not at the quarry, they can call me and discuss any problems, and I'll know what they mean.

Elyn Zimmerman, "Triad", 1993. Stone, 10 x 10 x 3 ft.

Hummer: So, in a sense, the quarry is your studio?

Zimmerman: Yes, partly it is. One of the frustrating things in working with stone is that you don't really get a chance to live with it in your studio, like a painter would be able to do. When you're working with a public commission, there is usually a lot of slack time, and if something is not going to work, changes can be made. But for a show, there's no time to make big changes because of deadlines and shipping time and set-up time, and the expense of storage and setting it up. Somebody was interested in putting one of my sculptures in a bank in San Francisco, until they realized how heavy it was, and with the earthquake restrictions, they just couldn't afford to reinforce the floor. It can be discouraging that stone is just heavy. For a commission at AT&T's headquarters, they wanted a sculptural environment that people could sit on and gather in. The project is about 40 feet in diameter, all made of granite. I had to find a stone that looked natural, and that's not easy to do, because they don't come out of the quarry that way. The quarry tried to make a piece of stone like I needed happen by setting the dynamite charges in a certain way. It was very difficult, but we finally got one. There are huge natural boulders, in New England, for example, where all the glaciers were and boulders have been left behind, but they're weathered. They have a very flat surface, and usually it's not very attractive.

Hummer: How do public commissions and gallery pieces differ for you?

Zimmerman: Scale is an issue, because the public commissions are usually much larger and include all kinds of practical amenities like seating and lighting. After about 10 years of doing large public pieces, I was really burnt out you're never at home, you're always traveling because the commissions are all over the place. And you're working with teams of people sometimes it's a happy experience, and sometimes it's not so happy. I'm at the quarry a lot, and I see pieces of stone lying around. I asked the people at the quarry, while I was working on a public project, to set up a smaller piece for me. It was smaller, but it was still 11 feet high and 22 feet long. These were pieces that the quarry throws away. I had a show of these smaller stone sculptures in 1996 in the Gagosian Gallery in New York.

Hummer: What are you working on now?

Zimmerman: I have a small commission for the Connecticut Arts Council, and I'm working on a group of pieces for a new show. I've been doing some paintings with encaustic. You can't make sculpture all the time because you can't afford to make sculpture all the time I'm comfortable with stone, I know how to work with it, but I don't want to feel that I'm only going to work with stone.

Elyn Zimmerman, "Agate", 1995. Stone and water, 10.5 x 11 x 3.5 ft.

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