Each April for the last eleven years, sculptors from around the world gather in Alabama’s Marble City, Sylacauga, for the Magic of Marble Festival. The twelve-day festival situated in the heart of downtown Sylacauga at Blue Bell Park hosts twenty and thirty sculptors. This group of international artisans sculpt masterpieces from the local native Alabama stone. They work in the open air underneath tents because here the dust will literally be flying.
All the sculptured creations are for sale during the festival. During my visit, one large piece was purchased and loaded to be taken to its new home. It took a front end loader to move it.
HISTORY OF THE FESTIVAL
The festival began in 2008 at the request of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Dr. Ted Spears has served as the chairman of the festival since its inception. His wife, Dr. Shirley Spears was instrumental in the creation of the marble displays at the BB Comer Library where she served as Director. The library serves as a showplace for many pieces from the years of the festival.
The festival is supported by all the business in the community as they all benefit from the visitors to the yearly festival. Individuals from around the world journey to Sylacauga to participate in this one of a kind event in Alabama’s Marble City. Sylacauga has become a destination point for people who love sculpture. The festival is free to the public to attend. Free quarry tours are also offered during the festival.
HISTORY OF THE MARBLE IN SYLACAUGA
Alabama’s native marble is nearly pure calcite and is similar to that of Carrera Marble found in Italy. It was formed some five hundred million years ago. The vein of the marble is some 32 miles long, 1 ½ mile wide and 400 feet deep. The marble was first discovered in 1820 by Dr. Edward Gantt who developed it in the 1840s. The town of Gnatt’s Quarry was incorporated in 1910 and is still a registered town in Alabama. When the town was first founded it maintained a post office, doctor’s office and mayor’s office in one building. The building is on display in Sylacauga.
Today, three manufacturers continue to use the marble for both the calcium carbonate and the stone. Curiously, marble, in some form, can be found in some thirty-five hundred products from paint to bread to shingles.
W. CRAIGGER BROWNE (Sylacauga’s Sculptor in residence)
Craigger Browne is the artist-in-residence for the Marble City. His studio sits near the hospital on a shaded street in the aptly named, “Cage,” a 20×40 chain link enclosure where you can watch Craigger work. One of Craigger’s signature pieces is Sylacauga Rising. It represents a quarry worker carving himself out of marble. The piece sits in front of the Sylacauga’s City Hall just across the street from the B.B. Comer Memorial Library. A sculptor for twenty-nine years, Craigger, initially studied graphic design at Montevallo University in Alabama. It was while he was studying in Lacoste, France, that he began carving limestone. He was also the recipient of a Guggenheim scholarship in Venice Italy. He worked at Studio Nicoli, a four-hundred-year-old studio that has closed. While at Nicoli, he worked on pieces for Duomo (Cathedral) in Milan.
He knew when he was twenty-two that he was going to be a sculptor, he loved carving. He grew up forty-five minutes from Sylacauga and worked in Carrera but didn’t know about the quality of the stone in Alabama. It’s the elements in the stone, the fine crystals that make it so sought after, he explained.
“The Warmth of Enlightenment” the piece Craigger created of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan for Keller’s birthplace was a very emotional piece for him. While setting up the move for the sculpture, the community decided they wanted a send-off. At noon on a Friday, three hundred and fifty people came to say goodbye to the piece. He had worked on the piece for two years. People told him they would miss it when it was gone. “The marble brought me here but it’s the people that make me stay.” He told me. That makes it easy to promote Sylacauga marble.
He explained further. An English stonemason told him that “until you hit your hand ten thousand times, you are not a master carver. I’m a master carver.” He said with a smile and showing me his hands. “I love what I do.”
I found the sculptors at the festival had one commonality. They loved what they do. Some were professionals, some were hobbyists but all enjoyed the camaraderie of the festival’s atmosphere.
Charles Cummings was in the optical business for some thirty-six years in Montgomery. When he retired he began wood carving and recently began working in marble. He told me that the festival organizers “Treat us very well.”
Marcello Giorgi and Nathalie Purchio live in Montréal, Canada. Marcello was born in Pietrasanta, Italy a city recognized for its marble sculptures. He attended the Pietrasanta Art Institute and completed a ten-year apprenticeship learning sculptor techniques from master artisans. Marcello opened his own studio in Pietrasanta in the early 1990s. In 2018, he relocated to Montréal to the Italian Art Center. During the festival, Marcello presented a symposium on sculptor at the Montgomery Art Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Billy Reynolds has been wood carving since he was twelve years old. He is from Townsend, Tennessee and this was his first year at the festival. Billy carves in both wood and marble. He enjoys carving Indians.
In his fifth year at the festival, Larry Bottomley from Lawrenceville, Georgia retired from Georgia Tech University where he was a chemistry professor. Larry told me he had been artistic all his life but since retiring he had been carving even more. He told me, “I will be here until I am too old to pick up a chisel. There is no place I know that I know that has this atmosphere.”
Larry’s carved fish in green brucite was for sale at the festival.
BB COMER LIBRARY SCULPTURES
The Comer Library has an enormous display of sculptures from past festivals. I can imagine the inspiration each patron must get from viewing the pieces when they visit. The library plays host to the sales room for the artisans during the festival. I would suggest you visit the library first to see what excellent work is created during the event.
GNATT’S QUARRY (OVERVIEW SITE)
Thanks to a partnership with Imerys and the City of Sylacauga, a viewing space has been created for visitors to see from where the marble is quarried. Informational signs are available for visitor reference. Although the quarry is not currently in production, the pool of water is maintained for water processing for the nearby plants.
While the pulverizing of the marble into calcium carbonate is the primary focus for the plants now, Sylacauga Marble still quarries big chunks out of the ground and is cut into sheets in Bessemer, Alabama. There the marble is cut with diamond saw blade into sheets.
SIGNIFICANT PIECES CREATED FROM SYLACAUGA MARBLE
In 1907, sculptor Giuseppe Moretti carved “The Head of Christ”. The sculpture is part of the sculpture collection in the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama. Moretti also created “Vulcan” in Birmingham, Alabama although in iron instead of marble.
Sylacauga Marble created the ceiling of The Lincoln Memorial. Marble from Sylacauga was used in the construction of the U.S. Supreme Court building. The Washington Monument has a 2 x 4 piece of Alabama marble mounted in the interior of the monument.
METEORITES IN SYLACAUGA
On November 30, 1954, a meteorite fell in Oak Grove just outside of Sylacauga Mrs. Ann Hodges was struck in the thigh while in bed. She survived the incident. The house is no longer there, but the State erected a sign on the site. The University of Alabama preserved the meteorites for its archives. A duplicate of the stone was made and it is on display at the Isabel Anderson Comer Museum in Sylacauga.
I highly recommend this April festival in Alabama. It grows in popularity each year. Come and get an up-close look at marble sculpting. This artistic festival in Sylacauga is well worth your time and travel. Don’t forget to step across the street to the Blue Bell Creamery for a scoop of ice cream. It’s great on a hot day!