Vermont Arts Council

It’s an Honor

“I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to find her.”

That’s what my colleague Michele Bailey said to me as we passed Fat Tom’s Auto Center on Route 30 and turned right at the light on Main Street. I had not been to Poultney before. I did know this: what granite is to Barre, slate is to Poultney. Now I was finding out that Poultney is not large; as soon as the car rounded the corner, we saw what we were looking for. Beyond the auto parts store and before the church, white plastic formed a shelter around scaffolding. A box from a space heater, a hand cart, fleece clothing, packed lunch, and green backpack lay on the ground near Kerry Furlani’s dog. It was in the low 30s. Kerry was wearing a down coat that fell below her knees, a wool cap, and sunglasses. She smiled and walked toward us. Paul Hancock—a member of the Poultney Historical Society—stood near her, also smiling. Later we were joined by Ina Smith Johnson, president of the Poultney Historical Society. Kerry, Paul, and Ina are key members of the local team spearheading this community stone-carving project.

lettering detailThere were greetings all around, then, we turned our attention to the stone inside the scaffolding. Four feet of the stone is buried in the ground. The remainder is eight feet high and three feet wide. This slate is called unfading green. Kerry explains the stone will stay this color over time; it won’t take on a brownish patina. While she talks about it, all four fingertips are pressed flat and run across the stone. Automatically, her fingers stop to pick at a small bump. This bump is something a sculptor would notice, something a sculptor would have to touch, something a sculptor would pick at. She shows us other lines and marks. These are the kinds of things that could break off easily as she continues to form letters with her chisel.

The Silent Friend Slate Project

Clear in their purpose, hand-carved letters read, “HONORING the generations of men·women·children who have dedicated their life & work to the slate quarries of Vermont.” A mallet and chisel are carved in relief inside a circle. Completed, the stone will stand as a sentinel at the intersection we just crossed, near the city offices.

A poem will be carved in a second monument next spring. Facing each other from diagonal corners, the two slate pieces will form a gateway to the downtown. Additional markers will be placed in the grassy borders of the sidewalks, down one side of Main Street and up the other—from sentinel to sentinel. Each slate marker will hold the name of a historic quarry or company, its town, and dates of operation (if known). Stone selected for each marker will reflect the dominant color of the designated quarry. The work is funded partially through an Animating Infrastructure Grant—a new Arts Council program administered by Michele. She pointed out,  “One of our goals with this program was to tell the story of place. You can see how this project really does that.” Ina agrees. “We wanted to create a vibrant community partnership that would shine a light on Vermont’s extensive slate industry with Poultney at its heart.”

The Right Sculptor

Kerry pointing to hand

Kerry sharpens her chisel and takes it to the stone. Solid. She demonstrates the terminal cut—repetitious triangular forms that cap the endings of some letters. (They also give away the fact a stone is carved by hand.) She talks about the challenge of making clean and steady apex cuts within a “W” and an “N.” What it is to chase and what it is to stab. “This forms a triangle here, you can see it.” She’s pointing out what v-cut lettering is. “Now, I turn the chisel. This is something that could pop right off.” One of those small bumps.

Hundreds of hours’ experience are evident in the way she moves. She talks about studying with John Neilson in Wales in 2011. “He made me spend four weeks with pen and paper in hand, drawing forms. Hours on calligraphy.” Her voice rises and stretches on the word “hours.” She shows us how she learned to hold the chisel differently. “The tension goes right here. It’s all here.” She’s pointing to the flesh on the pinky side of her left hand. “I think I was holding on to it something like this before.” She puts a tight-fisted grip on the chisel and shakes her head. She demonstrates how her whole body needs to be able to move as she carves, and why she sometimes stands in a hole in the ground as she works. On that day, and in correspondence to follow, Kerry expresses gratitude for support from the Council. Her skill with lettering has served her well and made her the obvious choice to carve the slate.

Kerry_in_studioIn the Studio

Kerry’s studio is two blocks away in the Journal Press building. It is full of sculpture–some lettered, some not. Seashells on a shelf serve as models. She shows us small pieces she can sell at the farmers’ markets and talks about teaching at the Governor’s Institutes for the Arts. She’s interested in working with wood again, and shows us a recent wood sculpture called “Cactus Girl.” Kerry seems to like her. “She’s about my size,” she says gazing at the work. Kerry is not large; neither is Cactus Girl. Both are powerful.

More photos, including “Cactus Girl”

Kerry O. Furlani’s website

More about the Poultney Historical Society


–Susan McDowell–