The Mid-Atlantic's House and Garden Magazine
The artist in his studio
It is still alive today and although it seems there’s just a scattering of artists creating traditional sculptures, paintings, and drawings, these individuals are responsible for bringing some of the finest figurative artworks to public places and private collections in the 21st century.
Jay Hall Carpenter is one of these artists. He has been creating traditional figurative sculptures for more than 27 years. And one doesn’t have to travel to Florence, Italy to see them. Carpenter’s work can be seen throughout the United States and in places as nearby as Washington, D.C., Annapolis, Maryland, and College Park, Maryland. He designed more than 500 sculptures for the National Cathedral in Washington. “If you look up at the Cathedral’s West Towers, there’s a row of windows that goes all the way across connecting the two towers. Just above the windows there’s a row of grotesques, some of which I did,” says Carpenter. “And everything above that is mine: 320 angels, 65 grotesques, 8 gargoyles,” Carpenter says. “I was very fortunate…I got an early start. I started at the age of 17 at the Cathedral and I’ve been at it for 27 years.”
Fortunate, perhaps, but clearly Carpenter is a gifted and talented artist who has worked hard for 27 years to perfect his talent, putting him much in demand for public and private commissions. At St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, Washington, one can see his commanding “Angel and Child,” which was originally designed for the exterior columbarium in bronze and limestone. It was so popular that he was asked to recreate it for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Naples, Florida, when he renamed the piece “Ascent into Heaven,” and yet again, he was asked to create a different version of it in Kensington, Maryland, at Christ Church. The list goes on and on, including public commissions by the U.S. Department of State, a bronze bust of Helen Hayes for the Helen Hayes Awards, and a processional cross that was presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury at his installation in England. These are just some of the highlights. But one cannot leave unrecognized the “Community of Saints and Holy People,” (twelve 5-foot statues) for St. Anne’s Church in Barrington, Illinois.
And, yes, he does private commissions as well; for example, one he calls “Youth,” a four-year-old boy whose face he recreated in bronze. He keeps the plaster casts of many of his most popular large- and small-scale pieces so he can recreate them for interested buyers. So when sitting in his studio, surrounded by St. Peter, St. Thomas Moore, St. Thomas Aquinas, Mary Magdalene, and a host of others, one does not feel at all alone. And that’s no accident. These characters are not just “statues,” they are comfortingly alive, especially if one enjoys being in the presence of saints. And there’s a reason for their life-like feel.
Carpenter uses live models for every one of his sculptures—sometimes two models if the body calls for one build and another face. Models sit for as many three-hour sessions as are needed to complete the work. Even live models for dead people like saints? “Yes, especially then, because the danger with doing a saint is you can get something very, very generic. What I want to do, and the challenge, is to create something that looks like a living being—someone who has a personality and a spirit and all of that. So I bring in a model and pick and choose what works for that particular figure.”
Not only did Carpenter learn his craft from working for 14 years with Frederick Hart at the National Cathedral (Carpenter worked there 20 years), but he also studied sculpture at the Pratt Institute, as well as philosophy, religion, and a great deal of acting and playwriting at The Catholic University of America. Acting served him well. “When I was doing the 12 saints, I hit a stride in conceiving of them and executing them in a way that I really had never had a chance before. I found myself applying techniques that I learned in acting class—some Stanislavsky methods of entering into the character and determining the character’s desires and motivations and adopting the character’s physicality as well. I would do this in the studio when I was alone and I would sort of enter the realm of the figure and find myself being pulled into a certain position or pose. I would translate that to the clay and then step back from it and use my artistic sensibility to nudge it into a good design, and it seemed to work very well.” Indeed, one has only to gaze upon his Mary Magdalene to feel drawn into this cast of characters and, interestingly enough, Carpenter comments “she served as the emotional anchor for the twelve.”
His St. Bartholomew was recently installed in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. The piece was selected for inclusion in the National Sculpture Society’s (NSS) 2002-2003 Exhibition and has been on a yearlong display in the NSS gallery in New York City.
Louis Goldstein also presented a great challenge for the artist. Carpenter was recently commissioned by the state of Maryland to create the 8-foot bronze and granite statue in Annapolis commemorating Goldstein, who served as the State’s Comptroller for ten terms.
“I think I was the only person in Maryland who hadn’t met him. Everything starts with a fair amount of research about the person and photographs and videotapes. For Louis, I was able to get his wardrobe and shoes, suit, tie clip, and lapel pins, and all sorts of family photos. I was able to get a videotape of him giving a tour through the State Capitol, which was very helpful. And then I talked to people. Everyone had a story about him and I really got a great sense of his personality and character, his enthusiasm for his work. Then, I considered the location of the sculpture, its purpose, and I began designing it.”
“With large sculptures like this, you are keenly aware that a lot of people are going to see this piece who knew the person very well. They are going to see these things [bodily and facial features], which makes it challenging. You know, you only capture in sculpture one moment of one aspect and you have to choose that aspect and moment very carefully because it has to represent that person for the rest of time. So when people come up to you afterwards and say, ‘you really captured him,’ that’s a great feeling because it means all of your choices were the right ones.”
Most recently, Carpenter was commissioned to create a bronze and granite Jim Henson memorial. “It was a great honor to depict an artist who had done so much and brought so much joy to people. It was someone that I really felt I knew because I grew up with the Muppets and Sesame Street, and he [Henson] was just so well known, so famous, and had such a positive influence on so many people’s lives.” For those who haven’t yet seen the memorial, it’s a must.
Michael Richman, who has a Ph.D. in American Art History from the University of Delaware and has been studying public monuments for the past 35 years, says of Carpenter: “His most recent monument to Jim Henson merits comparison with the great American sculptors of the past like Daniel Chester French. Carpenter has masterfully captured Henson’s career accomplishments with the simple gesture of including Kermit in the composition. It is a brilliant rendering of a man and his life’s work, which—for me—is reminiscent of French’s ‘Gallaudet’ memorial, a passionate tribute to America’s pioneering deaf educator.”
Carpenter has done a number of home installations, on both a large and small scale. “I do a number of garden pieces and memorial pieces. When I’m asked to do a piece for a garden, it’s really to give the garden a focus and to create an object of permanent beauty. Whereas the garden ebbs and flows throughout the year, the statuary in the garden is always there and creates a focal point year round.”
In addition to sculpture and drawing, Carpenter is gaining recognition as a photographer. His first solo photography show, which ended in January 2004, was at the Fiorini Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida. And Carpenter hopes to one day create a fitting monument to “Maryland’s greatest son, Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave on the Eastern Shore, escaped and became a self-educated abolitionist, was instrumental in creating the all African American 54th regiment during the Civil War, and ended up a U.S. Ambassador.”
What’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about Carpenter? “I don’t know. I guess the nicest thing anyone has said of me is that ‘I have a very generous spirit,’ and that touched me as much as anything. And people have said very nice things about my work.”
Michael Richman puts it succinctly. He says, “Carpenter’s careful management of his career, balancing classroom study at the Pratt Institute with hands-on training at the Washington Cathedral, has placed him squarely in the tradition of America’s finest public sculptors.” ß
Donna Cedar-Southworth was a speechwriter for 11 years and has been published in a variety of national and local publications. She is a frequent contributor to ChesapeakeHome, offering in-depth profiles on artisans throughout the region.
Jay Hall Carpenter: www.jayhallcarpenter.com
National Sculpture Society: www.nationalsculpture.org
Fiorini Gallery: (St. Petersburg, FL): (727) 327-9000 or
McBride Gallery: (410) 267-7077 or www.mcbridegallery.com