Stone artist Alvin heals her toppled campus piece with love

August 31, 2017

“The Plinth and the Plinthess.”

Thea Alvin’s smiling wordplay Wednesday afternoon offered good-natured entry into the topic of what she was doing on campus. As previously in recent years when the strong and tan “Plinthess” Thea has applied her art and craft to projects on campus, she was surrounded by a wheelbarrow, stones, and bags of mortar.

The term “plinth” refers to the base of statue or sculpture — in this case a stone sculpture piece that toppled somehow in the spring a year and a half ago and needed repair. Alvin – internationally celebrated stone mason/designer/artist, Vermonter, and mother of a current Saint Michael’s student — was here to see the job got done right by doing it herself.

A few years ago, Alvin came to campus for several days at the initiative of Professors Mark Lubkowitz of Biology and Valerie Bang-Jensen of Education to build the beautiful arched stone wall and later a bench and scope that are centerpieces of the Teaching Gardens area next to McCarthy Arts Center. The stone piece she is repairing this week stood between those two and intentionally had the effect of filling the space under the wall arch when viewed through the scope.

Particulars of its toppling are a mystery, but the creator is a benefit-of-the-doubt type of soul. “I think this campus is much too nice for it to have been any of the students — or at least not deliberately,” Alvin said. “I suspect an accidental student mishap may have caused the sculpture to come down in spring of 2016 and it was spread out about 50 feet in one direction, which means it was pushed or tipped or flipped or something. I came the next day and rebuilt it, but much, much smaller and not as beautiful.”

She gestured to the materials all around her. “So at this point I’ve taken it completely down and all the material is spread out all around; we have all the leftover material from the big sculpture. I’m going to reassemble it, a little bit different shape and a lot more substantial, but still imitating the opening of the arch so when viewed through scope, it will still fill the opening.”

While the vanderHeyden Fund for the Arts paid for the initial structures (with Mr. & Mrs. Pat (Lisa) Robins funding the bench and scope), Alvin says she told College officials that “I’d come put it back together of my own funds,” explaining how her daughter, Robin Alvin ’18, is a student in the undergraduate Education program and is having a great experience concentrating in special education. “She’s also a special educator herself working full-time and going to school evenings,” Alvin said, adding with a mother’s pride, “At 28 years old she’s older than most students … and smarter than anybody!”

Thea Alvin says her daughter “knows how to do all this stuff” with stone structures, has helped her with projects before, “and also builds my website and maintains my correspondence for me so that I’m freed up to do this – and, she runs my farm when I’m away traveling and working in Italy” — Alvin said as she works this week she is listening to Italian radio on a headset when nobody is around to improve her Italian language skills since she is working to restore with her stone-repair skills a 15th century village in northern Italy, visiting for a month at a time. The artist has two other children, grown and married.

“I don’t’ know how it happened because I’m still college-age in that my spirit is 25 and my physical capacity is 25, but my brain is 50!” she said, estimating that the current repair job at Saint Michael’s would take “about two goods days of work” depending on weather. A tape measure and her practiced eye are all the blueprint she needs for the rebuild, she said. If students care to stop by and help, she would welcome that, Alvin said, explaining her philosophy about working on a college campus so near well-traveled sidewalks:

“Students will swing in and ask what I’m doing,” she said. “And I could just keep my head down and my earbuds in, but the campus isn’t like that — it’s not islands. The campus is more about engagement and acknowledgement and honoring people so I can’t just focus on the work — that’s inappropriate for where I am, so I have to be really responsive to the environment.” Chatting with one passing new faculty member, she tells him, “a stone sculpture creates a place.”

Just then, chemistry instructor Marque Moffett walked by with a small offering for Alvin — they became fast friends just by chatting when Alvin first came to build her structures, connecting initially over the fact that they almost look like sisters. “This is why this is the best campus!” the artisan said. “Random acts — people bring you peaches!” Moffett explained that staff reference librarian Steve Burks had grown the peach. Later Kristin Achilich ’05, academic program coordinator for the Organic Garden and Permaculture Site, also stopped, introduced herself and said maybe she’d bring some students by the site to be helpers or observers Thursday.

Alvin has found evidence that folks will have personal responses to her creations: “I can see that people put notes and things inside of the scope, which is kind of fun,” she said. “I’ve read some of them and it looks like some are cards from the chapel, so maybe people are praying and putting their prayer in there, which is pretty cool.” She also found a tumbler-lock jammed into the sculpture, and has an informed theory of its significance: “In some cultures people ‘lock their love and throw away the key,’ she said, “and so that’s how I took it.”

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