Getting to the heart of the stone
Aug 30, 2016 04:01PM
By Steven Hoffman
This monumental horse sculpture sits outside Bailey's workshop in Smyrna.
By John Chambless
Richard Bailey has been a sculptor for more than 53 years. The way he sees it, he could hardly have done anything else.
Standing outside the garage gallery where his stone sculptures are packed tightly together on shelves and tables, Bailey recalled, “When I started out, we were sitting in church, and I heard a voice that said, 'I want you to work in stone.' I didn't know what I was going to do. But the Lord led the way and paid the bills.”
Bailey is deeply rooted in Smyrna, where he lives and works to turn unyielding stone into sinuous fish, fluttering butterflies, birds and frogs, and monumental semi-abstract sculptures that vividly express issues of nature and mystery and faith.
At 76, he still sculpts every day, using a forklift to move larger pieces of stone, but maneuvering most of it by hand, cutting and grinding and polishing until the shape within the featureless block has become what it was meant to be.
As he works with marble that is millions of years old, Bailey stands on land that has thousands of years of its own history. His family's 160-acre farm sits on a riverbank that was used by Native American tribes before settlers ever landed in America. His parents amassed thousands of stone tools, spear points, arrowheads and other fragments while working the soil. Oh his mother's side, he has traced his ancestry back to Emperor Charlemagne and King Alfred the Great. “I guess you can call me Sir Richard,” he quipped with a grin.
Bailey and his artist wife of 30 years, Kay Wood Bailey, have a home in Wyoming, Del., but he has a workshop behind the home where he grew up on Smyrna Landing Road. His gallery space is half a mile away. His sculptures have traveled far and wide, and are part of the collections of museums and businesses and art lovers, particularly those who call southern Delaware home.
Both the garage gallery and the workshop are surrounded by slabs of marble, chunks of colorful stone, old tabletops, and thousands of bits and pieces that Bailey has his eye on for future artwork. His workshop is cluttered and no-frills – no air conditioning, for instance – but he knows exactly where all of his 500 tools are stashed in old bureaus.
“I make my own grinding tools,” he said, pulling several examples out of a dusty drawer. Outside are table saws with diamond-tipped blades that he uses to cut stone down to manageable sizes, and then he works with a chisel or grinder or polisher to refine each piece. Bailey can tap a piece of marble and hear its flaws, which determine how the stone can be worked. He knows where the stone for each artwork came from, and nothing goes to waste. Small chips are reworked into mosaics – intricately assembled jigsaw puzzles of brilliantly colored stone cut into animal shapes.
It all began, he said, at Smyrna High School, where he carved a bust of President Eisenhower from a salt block for an art class. The salt block has long since melted, he said with a smile, but he does have what he considers his first important work, a bust of Abraham Lincoln that he completed in 1963 after two years of work. It sits in his gallery space, along with tables full of fish, animal and abstract carvings dating from the 1970s to an expressive bull bust that he recently completed.
His mother was an artist in her own right who painted, then picked up sculpting from Bailey as he learned. There are several of his mother's sculptures in the gallery, carefully protected under a towel. Bailey's father ran the Esso gas station in Smyrna. He bought the 160-acre farm in 1949, removed some barns and built the quirky ranch house that still stands today. “There are 17 different corners in that house,” Bailey said.
When Richard was struck with the unquenchable fire to sculpt, he soaked up all the experiences he could. He studied at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research in New York City with renowned artists John Hovannes, Robert Beverley Hale and Jose DeCreeft. He lived with DeCreeft and his wife, artist Lorrie Goulet, studying and working side by side with the master sculptor at his studio in New York state for three summers.
While managing to live and study in New York City in the 1960s, Bailey was at the crux of an exploding art world. “It was a free schedule, where you could come in when you wanted. There were 65 of the best artists in the world who would come and critique for a day,” Bailey said. With avant-garde art and pop art changing by the day, Bailey didn't succumb to the trend of the week. “I didn't get involved in all that. I come from the country,” he said with a shrug.
“After I started being productive, I started exhibiting on 57th Street,” he said. “I went to the galleries there, and one of them was the Nelson Rockefeller Gallery. I looked in the window and thought, 'It looks like my stuff would work here.' So I went in and told them I was a sculptor from out of town and I did marble work. They told me to bring some things over. I was going to Tiffany, Cartier, all those galleries. And I exhibited at Bergdorf Goodman, right there on 57th Street.” That direct approach paid off, and Bailey's work was spotlighted in prestigious gallery spaces, where it was seen by superstars of the art world.
In 1966, Bailey self-funded a trip to Italy on a coal freighter, and ended up spending two summers in Carrara, Italy, sculpting with 10 professional artists at the Carlo Nicoli Studios. He didn't speak Italian. He still has the marble bust he created during the trip over to Italy. “When I got back, I had $17 in my wallet,” he said. “I guess I budgeted that pretty well.”
Bailey regularly attends auctions where he buys marble pieces from Victorian furniture, or other stone he can use. “They call me 'The Marble Man' at the auctions,” he said.
While he had a lucrative run of repairing marble tops for antique washstands, that craze has faded, he said. He still gets work repairing statues that have taken a tumble, and he cuts marble and granite slabs to order for several customers. His buyers come from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York, and his location is within easy driving distance.
But his greatest satisfaction is creating fish and animals, as well as stretching his creativity with artworks that carry a message. “Most people like the animals and fish,” he said. “We're country people. City people like the abstract things a bit more.” More than 600 of his works are held in private and public collections, including the American Museum of Natural History, and the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. His work is represented at the Hardcastle Gallery in Centreville, Del. And from Oct. 15 to Jan. 15, he will have a spotlight exhibit at the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington.
At his gallery openings, visitors will comment, “I can do that,” Bailey said. “They don't realize that it's a piece of earth, frozen, and how fragile it is. If you drop it, it breaks. They think it's like wood or something.”
In 2013, Bailey self-published a book, “A Sculptor's Miracles,” that outlines his life story and his philosophy. Throughout the book, and throughout any conversation with him, he credits God with guiding his life and work. And there's something in the material he works with that resembles his faith.
“It's like Michelangelo's work that's been here for hundreds of years,” he said. “My stuff will still be here in 500 years, or 5,000 years. I don't know where yet, but it'll be here.”
Bailey will discuss his book on Oct 15 at 2 p.m. at the Kent County Library (497 South Red Haven Lane, Dover). For more information on his work and upcoming events, visit www.richardhbailey.com.