By Virginia M. Wright
Photographs by Mark fleming
Obadiah Buell grew up in the thin, scruffy woods of north Sullivan in a house his back-to-the-lander parents built from architectural salvage in the late ’60s. He didn’t go to school. Instead, he learned about the world working alongside his mom and dad, who eked out a living growing Christmas trees, raising trout, milling lumber, and making fireworks and producing fireworks shows. When he was a teenager, they got into stone cutting, and he helped them develop a sculpture garden in one of the dormant granite quarries scattered throughout the woods. The project ended after his mom passed away and his dad remarried, and Buell spent most of his 20s working at a farm school in Massachusetts and studying traditional crafts in faraway places like New Zealand, Gambia, and Mexico.
Buell’s bus woodshop (the rooftop chair is for watching sunrises); a kite-shaped sculpture finds delicate balance; abstract angels near the Airstream office; a sailboat made with three kinds of stone; a stone chisel.
About 15 years ago, he returned to Sullivan and bought one of the quarries just down the dirt road from his childhood home. There, he lives in a primitive cabin and works in large, insulated tents, carving everything from smooth, polished buttons to massive sculptures out of the property’s granite tailings and remnants acquired from other quarries. An old school bus with a VW micro-bus welded to its roof serves as a shop for woodcarving. His office is an Airstream camper. “I’ve had to be creative about developing this business with low overhead,” the tall and lean 44-year-old says.
And Buell has revived the sculpture garden. Visitors walk the trails, feed the catfish in the stone pond that was the quarry, and admire Buell’s stonework — dozens of pieces, including abstract shapes like slate-black curlicues and stone kites etched with spirals, as well as recognizable forms, like pink-granite sailboats with green sails, gray-granite whales’ tails, and Buell’s best sellers, curved and veined fern leaflets in a variety of granites.
Sculptures cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and sales are good — almost too good, Buell says. He has 180 pieces on order, and his patiently waiting customers weigh on his mind. He’s seeking investors so he can hire staff and build a studio, and he’s forming a nonprofit to manage the gallery and bring in other artists’ work, expand on his stone-carving workshops, and launch a quarrying museum. “I’d like to preserve that history and show how it’s affecting this community today.”
Tell Us More Obadiah Buell
Who taught you how to carve stone?
My parents met a stonecutter at the Common Ground Fair, and he came here looking for some stone — it’s called Sullivan Gray — to match a job he was working on. He showed us how to do it. But he was very slow and he cut rectangles, and being the anarchist that I am, I said, well, I’m going to cut really fast and with as many curves as I can. I take that dense material and add some movement, fluidity, and lightness to it.
How do you manage in these makeshift facilities, like the tents and bus?
It may seem crude, but it’s a well-organized setup with sequences of work that can be done very efficiently and quickly. I grew up in a fireworks factory, and we found a lot of peace doing things efficiently — we had to, in order to compete with China. I was taught at a very young age not to reach too far, not to take an extra step unnecessarily. It’s really the practice of mindfulness.
Who takes your classes?
A lot of my students are middle-aged women who have never used a power tool. They go out of here covered in silt, grinning from ear to ear, and so inspired.
So anyone can learn to carve stone?
I’m not particularly gifted in any way but for the ability to work hard, be persistent, and see the breaks and failures as stepping stones.