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Set in stone: A stone-carving class in the mountains of Vermont provides father and son bonding time

Chiseling away: Niles Benn, of York, Pennsylvania, works on a marble sculpture during a workshop at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vermont.
Chiseling away: Niles Benn, of York, Pennsylvania, works on a marble sculpture during a workshop at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vermont. Miami Herald staff

Before they teach you about chisels and pneumatic tools, the resident artists of the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center warn you about wild snakes and poisonous parsnip.

My dad and I had enrolled in a recent weeklong stone-carving workshop at the center, located in this town of 2,500 people. High-end marble from local quarries was big business in this part of west-central Vermont until most operations ceased in the 1980s.

The Carving Studio is situated by several of those abandoned quarries, and rocks of varying sizes are strewn about the property. The first order of business was to search for a rock that called out to us, wanting to be our project for the week. The staff told us: Watch out for wild parsnip, which can cause a sunburn-like effect if its sap touches skin, and, yeah, there might be snakes.

We both found the stones we wanted, about 1 cubic foot each, or 180 pounds of pure Vermont marble. No snake bites or parsnip burns.

Our instructor, Rick Rothrock (yes, he gets asked a lot, that’s his real name), is a professional sculptor based outside Philadelphia, and he’s been teaching and creating art at the Carving Studio for several years. Assisting him were a half-dozen interns, student-artists from across the country who spend the summer at the Studio to audit classes, do grunt work and create.

Rutland is home to Killington Ski Resort, the biggest ski area on the East Coast. During the warmer months, when room rates are cheaper, slopes convert to hiking trails of various difficulty, leading to the 4,200-foot Killington Peak, with views of Vermont’s Green Mountains, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks.

From Boston’s Logan International Airport, Rutland is about a three-hour 175-mile drive, the last 40 or so a meandering ride along U.S. Route 4 through the lush Green Mountains. I took a longer route, flying from Miami to Baltimore, then driving with my dad 6 1/2 hours from my parents’ home in York, Pennsylvania.

BIRTHDAY PRESENT

Our class of nine in Rothrock’s workshop, suitable for beginners, included a few full-time artists as well as engineers, doctors and lawyers who, like my dad, make art in various media as a creative outlet.

Over the past 20 or so years that he’s been sculpting for hobby, my dad has won juried art shows for his bronze pieces, beautiful works of human beings and abstract figures, including his interpretation of the 2000 presidential-election recount titled The Last Chad. He’d wanted for some time to try stone carving, so this year, for his 70th birthday, my mom signed him up for the workshop in Vermont.

My gift to him was tagging along for the ride. It was my first art class since middle school, and, far from the artistic type, my creative self-expectations were low. If I came out of the week with a paperweight for my desk and all my fingers intact, I told myself, it would be an accomplishment.

More than the class, I was looking forward to quality time with my dad. Road-tripping, sharing a room at a Best Western, cutting rock in rural Vermont — it was the most one-on-one time we’ve had since I left home for college 15 years ago.

Once we had our stones picked out, Rothrock walked us through the different tools we’d be using and the necessary safety precautions: earplugs, eye protection, dust masks, gloves. We set up around individual wooden workstations under a tent outside the Carving Studio and got to work.

An art-school graduate from Cincinnati who works with crystals began cutting a stalagmite from her rock. A retiree from New Jersey marked off lines with a pencil and ruler that he would chip away to reveal an ocean wave.

ABSTRACT AND FLOWER POT

My dad found a gorgeous piece of snow-white Danby marble that he set out to transform into a long, narrow garden sculpture with an angled cutout near its top. I decided to carve a flower pot for our balcony in Coral Gables. The oblong octagon I envisioned was a step up in difficulty from a paperweight or ashtray but still doable in a week. And no one would mistake it for a Rodin.

“I’m glad to see perfectionism isn’t a roadblock for you,” Rothrock affectionately ribbed me one day at my station.

The work was labor-intensive, dirty and exhausting, but I found the creative process to be constantly rewarding. Every day, we’d carve, chisel, hammer, drill, grind and polish from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., breaking briefly for lunch. At 6 p.m., we’d shake off the stone dust from our clothes and our hair and gather for a communal dinner in the Carving Studio’s loft, hearing from the others about how they approached the day.

Molly Grace, the Studio’s humble cook, always managed to duck out of the dining room before we could give her proper praise. Her fresh, varied and filling meals invariably led to second and third helpings. Big salads with fried jalapeños and herb-flecked dressings, plump and perfectly cooked shrimp with pasta, tender pork tenderloin with blueberry sauce. Grace even adapted her menus for two vegan students among us.

I’d be remiss not to mention two brilliant off-campus meals we had. Roots Restaurant in Rutland does the farm-to-table thing not because it’s trendy but because it just makes sense; I had a shepherd’s pie made with local lamb and local vegetables braised in local stout.

On the way out of town, we stopped at The Silver Fork in nearby Manchester, Vermont, where chef-owner Mark French puts out bold dishes that show German and Puerto Rican influences, while his wife, Melody, keeps the humble front of the house humming.

Manchester, with more of a year-round tourist presence than Rutland, includes a historic Main Street stretch with an outstanding bookstore (Northshire), a great breakfast nook (Little Rooster Café), a giant Orvis retail store and neighboring factory outlet, and the rustic-luxury Equinox Resort & Spa.

We enjoyed a cocktail at the Equinox before our dinner at the nearby Silver Fork. The hotel’s glass-filled, gas-fueled terrace firepit is the social epicenter for the hotel’s well-heeled guests. A preppy father and son tossed a football on the back lawn while a couple next to us at the fire nuzzled together over bottles of Vermont craft beer.

SHARING IDEAS

A highlight of each day at the workshop, besides the food, was when the interns presented lunchtime slideshows of their work. Most of them have explored sculpting in their studies, but their summer at the Carving Studio was their first immersion in stone work. Some of what they’d created in only a few weeks was incredibly impressive.

One intern, Leah Aegerter, a junior at the Rhode Island School of Design, made a set of alabaster figurines inspired by African fertility dolls. I thought my wife, an OB-GYN, might like them for her office, so I made Aegerter an offer, which the emerging artist graciously accepted.

While we worked, Rothrock and the interns circulated among us, quick to demo a particular cutting technique or to suggest a new angle of approach. It was Rothrock’s idea to drill a hole toward the back of my flower pot, not the bottom, so it could drain without needing to be elevated. Intern Samuel Spellman, who recently graduated from college with a psychology degree, suggested that I add texture to the sides using a multipronged pneumatic hammer.

By the fifth and final day, all of us had finished or mostly finished pieces that we were proud of. My dad’s piece turned out just as he had envisioned, and his white marble, when polished, revealed subtle streaks of black and gold that resemble a leopard’s marks.

A very unhappy-looking UPS driver carted a box to my place the other day. (Him: “Whaddya got in there, a bunch of rocks?” Me: “No, just one.”) I opened it and maneuvered my piece of Vermont onto our balcony garden, next to the lime tree, tomato plants, peppers and herbs.

I wanted to plant something that would remind me of our time at the Carving Studio, something I could keep alive until my dad and I rejoin Rothrock’s class next summer.

The parsnips — not the poisonous kind — should be ready to eat by winter.

Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor; on Twitter: @EvanBenn.

If you go

Do

The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center: 636 Marble St., West Rutland, Vermont. 802-438-2097, carvingstudio.org. Two- to five-day workshops $295-$595, includes stone, tools, instruction and some meals. Various art classes are held at the center year-round.

Eat

Roots: 51 Wales St., Rutland, Vermont. 802-747-7414, rootsrutland.com.

The Silver Fork: 4201 Main St., Manchester, Vermont. 802-768-8444, thesilverforkvt.com.

Stay

Best Western Inn & Suites: 5 Best Western Pl., Rutland, Vermont. 802-773-3200, bestwestern.com. Rooms from $125 a night.

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