|"I assocaite monsters with playfulness. I've been told
I am incapable of creating a frightening monster.
I take that as a compliment."
When Peter Rockwell enrolled at Haverford College in 1954, he had no interest in pursuing a career in the visual arts. In fact, he intentionally avoided the arts altogether because he says, they were too much “in the family.” In addition to his famous father, one of Peter’s brothers was studying to be a painter, and the other, a poet. Peter instead chose to major in English literature. “My father thought I was going to be the sensible member of the family—that I was going to get a degree in English literature and become an English professor,” recounts Rockwell. “And then, I suddenly announced that I was going to be the least sensible member of the family.”
Rockwell’s change of heart came in his first year at Haverford when he suffered a near-fatal fencing accident. Up to that point, he had “enjoyed not taking art,” but following his recuperation and realizing he would not fence again, he looked for another extracurricular activity to take its place. His mother had once encouraged him to take a sculpture course, so he decided to try it again.
After the third class meeting Rockwell says he “fell head-over-heels in love with it.” “The instructor, Wallace Kelly, “was one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve had in my life.”
The 62-year-old artist, who had also taught at the Philadelphia Museum School and Haverford Friends School, was a noted sculptor, several of whose works are in the Philadelphia area—on the East River Drive and at the east and west entrances of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Kelly studied at the Grand Chaumiere, and later exhibited at the Salon D’Antomne, the largest show in Paris at that time. His sculpture was also displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, TheWhitney, and the Museum of Modern Art.
At the time Rockwell studied sculpture, there was no fine arts major at Haverford, only non-credit courses in the College’s “arts and services” program. With the help of Kelly and others, he convinced the College to give him credit for the course as an independent study project. It was the first time the College had awarded credit for an art course in 75 years.
Rockwell completed his English degree, but realized that sculpture would be his life’s work. He loved the physical and mental demands of stone carving, and although he was never able to draw well, he quickly discovered that he could think “three-dimensionally.”
Following his graduation from Haverford in 1958, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and became completely immersed in the world of art. “Art education at the Academy was very different from a university education,” says Rockwell. “There were no classes or grades. The studios were open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and when first-year students were brought together, the head of the school said, ‘ We have all these facilities for you. If you want to work, work. If youdon’t, stay out of the way of those who do.’
“The whole point of the program was to discipline yourself,” says Rockwell, “and I loved it.”
In 1961, with the support of a travelling fellowship from the Academy,Rockwell, his wife and their infant son, Geoffrey, went to Italy, where the raw materials for stone carving were plentiful and inexpensive. What began as a six-month visit turned into a permanent residence. “One thing or another happened,”says Rockwell, “and we just never finished our six months in Italy.”
Peter and his wife, Cinny, raised their daughter and three sons in Rome. The oldest, Geoffrey, graduated from Haverford in 1982 and currently is an associate professor and director of the Humanities Computing Center, a teaching and research facility at McMaster University in Ontario.
To support his growing family, Rockwell at various times supplemented his income with stints as a tour guide and teacher of sculpture and art history at the Forum School and St. Stephen’s. Always, though, his priority and passion were working with stone.
Peter Rockwell was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., the youngest of three boys. Unlike Peter, his father had always wanted to be an artist, and enrolled when he was 14 in the New York School of Art. Eight years later he painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post.
In 1939, the Rockwell family moved to Arlington,Vt., where they lived
for bulk of Peter’s childhood. The year before Peter entered Haverford,
his family moved to Stockbridge, Mass., which today is the home of the
Norman Rockwell Museum. Many of the paintings held there include one or
more images of Peter, who modeled for many of his father’s Saturday
Evening Post covers until about the age of 16 when, as he puts it, he
ceased to be cute.
Many of Rockwell’s bronzes reflect his early fascination with the circus and acrobatics, animals in motion, and with the work of 19th-century English photographer Edward Muybridge. His sculpture in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, called Family at Play, depicts children and adults holding hands, dancing in a circle.
Since the early 1970s, when he was commissioned to design gargoyles for the National Cathedral in Washington, Rockwell has also been intrigued by stone carvings of monsters and grotesques. Monsters were the subject of one of his larger sculptures, The Climbing Stone,”which was permanently installed on Haverford’s campus in the spring of 1990 alongside Magill Library. Rockwell created the sculpture as a gift to the College in memory of his teacher and friend Wallace Kelly.
During his four-month campus residency then, Rockwell with the help of student apprentices carved over 30 monstrous faces and figures out of a six-foot, 10,000-pound block of Indiana limestone to create a playful work of art that childrencould crawl through and climb.
In an interview with The New York Times days before the sculpture’s installation, Rockwell explained his choice of subject for the climbing stone.”I associate monsters with playfulness,” he said.”I’ve been told I am incapable of creating a frightening monster. I take that as a compliment.”
His sculpted monsters or acrobats can also be found in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Park, at a children’s hospital in Louisville, Ky., and at St. Paul’s American Church in Rome. He has also done portraits of his father, sculpting a series of bronze busts, ranging from abstract to realistic impressions of the celebrated illustrator, which he titled Privately Cutting Up Dad.
Rockwell is one of a few artists today who creates his sculptures by a technique known as “direct carving.” From the outset, partly influenced by Wallace Kelly, who, himself, was a direct carver, Rockwell felt very strongly that it was the way to make sculpture.
“The instructors in art school taught us to make a statue in clay, cast it in plaster, and by means of a measuring technique, copy the figure in marble,” he explains. “Wallace Kelly was part of a group of mostly American and English carvers in the ’20s and ’30s who believed that while you might do drawings initially, you should carve your stone directly rather than carving from a copy that you’d made in another material.” As Rockwell was to find in his later research of archaic Greek sculptors, “direct carving,” wasn’t just a modern invention, but a technique that had been used in the past. Through his research Rockwell came to realize that very little had been written about the history of stone carving generally, and this piqued his interest. Today, he lectures and writes extensively on the subject and is considered a leading expert on the history of stone carving. His reference guide for specialists and non-specialists, titled The Art of Stoneworking (Cambridge University Press, 1993), is considered one of the most important books in the field.
Rockwell also continues to do a great deal of consulting on historical stone carving techniques for various Italian state and city agencies and restoration firms, in particular for the Italian Superintendency of Monuments, the National Museum in Washington, D.C., the Getty, and the Metropolitan in New York. Some of the restoration projects for which he’s consulted include the carved reliefs of the Orvieto Cathedral, a Romanesque-Gothic structure constructed between the 1200s and 1500; the centuries-old Porta del Popolo in Rome; Trajan’s Column, a 125-foot monument surrounded by 2,500 sculpted figures; the Temple of Vespasian in the Roman Forum; and Bernini’s angels on the Ponte Sant Angelo, one of Rome’s oldest bridges.
Over the years, Rockwell’s consulting work has also taken him outside of Italy to other historically significant sculptures and archeological sites in India, Pakistan, and Turkey where he examines the surfaces of carvings for clues as to how the pieces were made. “Carving tools haven’t changed much in the last 6,000 years, but the way they were used has” explains Rockwell. “Often you can tell the date of a particular structure or work by analyzing the marks of the carving tools. From the great many unfinished stone carvings that exist, you can identify different periods by the way carvers used their tools then.”
One of Rockwell’s current projects involves the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Begun around 1172, the Tower was completed in the 1300s, but, Rockwell notes, even before the construction was finished, pieces of stone had to be replaced. “They were replacing capitals, the uppermost section of columns, as late as 1930,” he says.
Having the ability to date past damage and restoration of structures like the Tower, is very important in Italian restoration today. “This hadn’t been done in the past,” explains Rockwell, “so it’s now become an important part of restoration—to know if you’re looking at something whose damage occurred in 1500 or 40 years ago.”
Rockwell’s consulting work has led to a number of commissions with the Catholic Church, the largest involving a building project commemorating the church’s jubilee which is celebrated every 25 years. Working in collaboration with architects and builders, Rockwell was asked to create all the capitals and decorations of a cloister constructed for the Chioggia Diocesan museum near Venice.
When the project was completed in 2000, he had carved 42 capitals, a doorway, 38 grotesques and a series of terracotta masks for the façade—a total of 108 pieces of sculpture.
“Being part of a project of that kind and therefore, learning how a Roman sculptor or medieval or Renaissance carver had to function in the context of a building project, was very exciting,” says Rockwell. “I worked with a number of different people and had to fit into their different rhythms and schedules and still be creative.” In the end, he carved over a third of the capitals atop the cloister’s columns after they had gone up.
At age 66, Rockwell continues to be busy. Currently, he’s completing a 10-foot-high bronze of the tree of life for Boston College. The monument to the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador will be installed an open terraced area in front of the school’s main library . He’s also working on a number of small pieces for a show at Temple University’s facility in Rome; he is writing an article about the carving techniques used to make certain kinds of Buddhist rock-cut carvings in northwest Pakistan, and toward the end of the summer, he is taking part in a stoneworking show. The week-long show is hosted every year in a small town which has a tradition of stonemaking. “Half of the stores empty out and display stone carvings,” says Rockwell. “ Stone carvers from all over Italy come. It’s wonderful.”
Today, Peter Rockwell, by all measures, considers himself very lucky, in part, because he found something he loves to do and has made a successful career from it. “When I think back on it…it was the combination of just sheer good fortune and a brilliant and wonderful person that made me aware of stone carving,” says Rockwell. “I’m still amazed at how lucky I was to meet Wallace Kelly.
Pam Sheridan is director of public information at Haverford. She last wrote for the magazine about Keith Schneider ’78 and the Michigan Land Use Institute.