Puffins, Pete Seeger, 23 Tons of Marble, and Down East

Gary Sussman's workshop
Photographs courtesy of Gary Sussman.

What do these things have to do with each other? We had no idea either, until we heard from sculptor Gary Sussman.

[dropcap letter=”I”]n the late 1970s, Gary Sussman served as dean of students at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Today, the 65-year-old artist lives in eastern New York’s Hoosic River Valley, but both he and his wife, Barbara, a painter, have shown in Maine galleries and continue to visit the Pine Tree State. Lately, Gary’s had puffins on the brain, so when our June issue landed in his mailbox last month, it seemed like kismet. Allow us to explain.

Sussman is currently in the late stages of a 2½-year sculpture project, a marble and copper tribute to the late musician and activist Pete Seeger, commissioned by a grant-making arts nonprofit called The Puffin Foundation. The organization’s founders were early supporters of Project Puffin’s efforts to restore puffins to Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock, and they named their foundation after the Atlantic seabird because of what struck them as a similar mission — just as Maine’s puffins now flourish thanks to the dedication of a small group, the thinking goes, so too can the arts. Because of that metaphorical connection, Sussman was asked to carve a small puffin to stand behind Seeger in his finished sculpture, which will grace the lawn at The Puffin Foundation’s New Jersey headquarters.

A PBS filmmaker is documenting Sussman’s progress for an upcoming film on Seeger’s legacy. Sussman reached out to tell us how our recent photo feature on Maine’s puffins provided inspiration right when he needed it.


So how did Down East end up inspiring your work?

I’d been doing research on puffins after finishing Pete in clay and then plaster — he’s now in wax, getting ready to be cast into bronze. Once that was well underway, I started doing all kinds of internet research and anatomical research. And I’m not making an exact academic copy, just like I’m not making a cast of Pete’s face — it’s interpretive. Yes, it’s proportioned, it’s a life-size puffin, all the bones are there, but it’s an active surface, and it’s interpretive in the sense that it leans a little bit more — I hope — towards an art object. And I was getting frustrated because I couldn’t get enough — how can I say this? — personal information, pictorially, about puffins, until I got the June issue of Down East.

You’re talking about the photo feature by photographer Derrick Z. Jackson.

Kudos to this gentleman for taking fabulous pictures.

You found some element of puffin personality in those images?

Exactly! Mr. Jackson was able to capture elements that were not in historic or scientific books representing the puffins. I got the magazine and immediately went to my shop and compared the pictures to the others I had. Dare I say it, I cut up the magazine and put the pictures on my wall. Now I’m working from those photographs. Down East enabled me to finish my puffins with more information than I had from other research.

Can you give us an idea of the project’s scale?

The block of imperial marble I’m working from weighs 23 tons — it would be the equivalent of 12 or 13 cars stacked on top of one another. After I’m done, which is getting close, it’ll be about half of that weight. So a hammer and a chisel, a chip at a time, has removed about 12 tons.

That’s a lot of puffin and Pete Seeger.

The sculpture consists of Pete Seeger’s over–life-size bronze figure, with his banjo. And he won’t be up on a big pedestal; he’ll sit on a curved marble bench that will be on ground level, so that kids can climb over him, people can sit on the bench. On the bench will be high and low reliefs representing the environmental and other causes that Pete Seeger fought for: ending Jim Crow, other race issues, the Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War, clean water issues.

And there’s a Maine connection to that last one, no?

The Clearwater sloop is front and center, in the middle of the relief, next to Pete. That’s a boat made by the Harvey Gamage shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. It was launched on May 17, 1969, and it was a reproduction of Dutch sloops that once plied the rivers throughout this country, but particularly the Hudson River. Pete was very much an environmental person, an earthy guy. He went out on the Hudson one time in a little dugout and put his hand in the water, and feces and refuse paper floated by his hand. He said, “This will not stand. We have to do something.” So he went around and found boatbuilder Harvey Gamage in South Bristol, and they did a fabulous job. That boat then sailed down the Atlantic coastline and up the Hudson, where it became an educational vehicle dedicated to keeping our waters clean.

And it still sails?

It’s still in operation — in fact, this month, the Clearwater is going down to Washington, DC, to raise awareness of polluted rivers and waterways and keeping our water clean once again. It has just completed a substantial restoration, and the PBS film goes back and forth between the activities of artisans restoring this historic sloop and me carving this monument in my studio, along with conversations about Pete Seeger and his legacy. I’m thrilled to have this commission and to have had an opportunity to learn more about Pete’s purpose and his legacy.

And puffins?

And puffins.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.