PHIPPSBURG – Along the nature trails of this coastal city, there’s plenty of wildlife to see.
But some creatures you’ll spot are more sedentary than others, including a heron, loon, belted kingfisher, tree swallow, and red-winged blackbird that aren’t going anywhere.
New York artist Kevin Sudeith has been creating petroglyphs, or rock carvings, on Phippsburg Land Trust properties for three years. He works on the sculptures from late spring through fall, sleeping in a nearby barn and lugging tools miles into the woods, including ladders, diamond saws, dental instruments, and a respirator/mask. He has created over 30 individual images so far, including those mentioned above, at three sites at Ridgewell Preserve and Cooley Center Pond Preserve.
Sudeith, 56, was first struck by the emotional power of rock art as a teenager canoeing in his native Minnesota, when he saw pictographs – rock paintings – dating back to 500 at 9000 years old. The idea of working in an ancient medium appealed to him, as did the ability to chronicle contemporary life in a way that could span hundreds or thousands of years.
“When I was a young artist people would talk about (16th century portrait painter) Hans Holbein painting these collars and garments and how he was documenting the moment. I remember thinking that was stupid, that art was about expressing yourself,” Sudeith said, standing near some of his rock carvings. “But now I understand it’s about documenting the moment, it’s not about me. I want these (rock carvings) to reflect the community.
Sudeith says he tries to represent the nature of the region by depicting various species of birds, as well as butterflies and dragonflies, in his Phippsburg sculptures. He also sculpted an image of NASA’s Mars helicopter, because we live in the space age and because he thinks sending a helicopter to explore Mars is one of the most amazing things humans can do. are doing right now. He also sculpted a 19th-century schooner, appropriate because of the region’s maritime history.
PAINTING, CARPETS AND AN ANCIENT MEDIUM
Sudeith grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and has been drawn to drawing since elementary school. Images from the “Star Wars” movies, including the villainous Darth Vader, were among the first things he drew with passion. He studied art at university – ceramics and pottery first before moving on to painting. He received a BA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
In the early 1990s he began exhibiting his works, mostly paintings and drawings, including “abstract and idealized landscapes”. While painting he had a series of jobs to help pay the bills. One was buying the contents of abandoned storage containers and then selling them, like what people do on the A&E TV show “Storage Wars.” He also started selling Persian rugs and soon specialized in rugs made in Afghanistan in the 1980s with images of airplanes and helicopters on them. The motif began to gain popularity around the time of the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, Sudeith said.
While still studying art in the late 80s, he had traveled to Australia and seen a wide variety of rock art, including contemporary images and some estimated to be thousands of years old. The idea that the art was still there for people to see intrigued him.
Years later, after selling the Afghan rugs, he began to think more about ways to merge contemporary art with older methods. Around 2007, he began planning to make his own petroglyphs.
“I thought it was awesome to be able to paint something that would last for so long,” Sudeith said. “I really liked the idea of doing something contemporary in such an ancient medium.”
The first rock carving he made was in an uncrowded Manhattan park littered with mattresses and hypodermic needles. The piece included images of police helicopters. In all, Sudeith created 11 major petroglyph sites in the United States and other countries, some with many images, and about a dozen smaller petroglyph creations.
Outside a subway station near a beach in Queens, New York, he created images of horseshoe crabs, airplanes taking off, birds and a basketball. In Iceland he sculpted a local horseman and birds. In Kenmare, North Dakota, he created images of agriculture and oil production. Some of his other works can be seen on his website, petroglyphist.com.
All of Sudeith’s Phippsburg Works are accessible to hikers, on or just off the trails of both reservations. He also leads tours of his work and will customize the time and length of tours, depending on what people want. Ridgewell’s works – waterfowl, schooner, helicopter and others – are about three-quarters of a mile into the woods. One of the Cooley Preserve sites is about half a mile away using a steep shortcut, further if you follow the trail around a giant cliff. It features nine cedar wax wings.
The most kid-friendly room is a few steps from a parking lot in the Cooley Center Pond Preserve, on a large rock a few steps out of the way and only a few feet off the ground. While most Sudeith carvings are uncolored, this rock features a bright red cardinal on one end that catches people’s eyes from the trail. Then, strolling along one side of the rock, visitors see a gray catbird, a male red-winged blackbird doing a courtship dance, an American crow, two dragonflies, a common yellowthroat, and a hermit thrush. On the other side are a barn swallow, a swallowtail butterfly and another male red-winged blackbird doing its courtship dance.
“I think the discovery process is important to people’s satisfaction with the job,” Sudeith said.
As part of his art, Sudeith makes time-lapse videos of his projects, setting up a camera in the woods and leaving it there over the days, weeks, or months he’s been working on something. The life-size heron he made in Phippsburg, with highly detailed, layered wings, took about two and a half months to complete. The loon took about 10 days. He also makes carvings of concentric circles, his signature emblem, which are far less demanding to carve.
Some of the rock he carved in the woods of Phippsburg contains mica, giving his work a shimmering quality. But mica is also very flexible, almost the consistency of sheets of paper stacked together, and it is very difficult to sculpt. For some of his more detailed carvings, including the very small intricate markings on butterflies and dragonflies, he brought in dental instruments.
Sudeith, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, was asked to create the petroglyphs by the Phippsburg Land Trust and plans to continue working on his sculptures until next year. He funds his work, at least in part, through donations, but says he doesn’t make money from it at the moment. While sculpting, he lives rent-free in a barn owned by land trustee Sydney McDowell and sleeps in a sleeping bag on a camping mattress.
He was first approached to create petroglyphs in Phippsburg by Dan Dowd, an artist who lives in town and is chairman of the land trust’s conservation commission. The two met at an art show in Miami, Florida in 2018.
When Dowd heard about Sudeith’s petroglyph work, he immediately thought the Phippsburg landholdings would be a perfect place. Sudeith’s wife’s family has been coming for years to a summer residence in Georgetown, a peninsula above Phippsburg. So Sudeith said working in Phippsburg was attractive because he could be close to his family while working.
Sudeith arranged to have a fiscal sponsor—the New York Foundation for the Arts—so he could accept donations for the project. Then he presented a proposal of what he hoped to do to the land trust. Work started in 2019.
After seeing the work Sudeith has done in town so far, Dowd thinks he was right.
“The idea of making this record of our presence here was really interesting to me,” Dowd said. “It’s another way for people to see art and bring more people to our reserves.”
Dowd said he’s seen some people express concerns about the carvings on social media, usually that man-made art doesn’t belong in such a natural setting. But Dowd says when he gets to explaining Sudeith’s work to someone, and the idea of him documenting places and times for generations to come, they often change their minds.
Sudeith hopes to make more sculptures in Phippsburg that represent the community. He would like to make sculptures of ships and boats, after asking local people for suggestions. He hopes to work at Phippsburg again next year but, for now, he still has a few loose ends to iron out.
McDowell, the land trust member who lets Sudeith stay in his barn, likes that his work in Phippsburg can help future generations get a sense of what life was like there at this particular time.
“Looking at the rock carvings, we get a sense of what people were doing at that time, maybe what they were trying to pass on to the next generation,” McDowell said.
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