Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Angel of Bethesda, Mary Mother of Us All-Who created these sculptures, A Woodstock Mystery Solved.


Springfield, Vt.
April 21, 2017

The mystery of the sculptor has been solved, thanks to local sculptor (and amateur sleuth) Charlet Davenport. Davenport was taking area school children on an art walking tour when they visited the Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church next door to their school. They observed the serpentine sculpture "Mary, Mother of Us All." Davenport was curious about the artist that created this piece. She asked around but was having a difficult time finding out the mystery artist.



Davenport knew that a piece called, "Angel of Bethesda", located at the St. James Episcopal Church was created by Mary Eldredge. This sculpture was originally located on Elm Street on the property of Byron and Ivy Thomas. "I always took time to walk on that side of the road to view it when I was younger and walking with children (on the walking) tours" wrote Davenport in an email.

One thing led to another and Davenport discovered the piece "Mary, Mother of us All" at Our Lady of the Snows was also created by Mary Eldredge, a sculptor living in Springfield, Vermont. The connection had been made. "Mary" had been installed indoors and was kept out of the elements. The "Angel of Bethesda" was an outdoor sculpture that was donated to St. James by the Ivy Thomas and her daughter Murray Ngoima.

The hammered copper angel statute had seen better days and Davenport was determine to return this angel back to her glory. After contacting Eldredge and working with Isabelle Bradley at St. James, a plan was starting to form.

The "Angel of Bethesda" was actually a piece created by Eldredge for her master of fine arts thesis at Rosary College (run by Dominican University in Illinois.) A Vassar College graduate, she was in Florence Italy studying the Baroque fountains in Rome in the late 1960s. Combining with her love of angels, this sculptor who began carving chalk with a pin in the Springfield school system (in third grade), and her studies of the Roman fountains she created the "Angel of Bethesda" in 1965.

After a few years of study abroad, she packed up her belongings, crated the angel and boarded a ship bound for the United States. The pieces she created in Italy found their way into many exhibits; at one such exhibit Byron Thomas, a good friend of her father's and a resident of Woodstock purchased the angel piece.

Byron and his wife Ivy hosted a party on September 23, 1966 at their home on Elm Street. The "Angel of Bethesda" was placed in a pool designed by Mary's father. "The only thing I was disappointed with was that the (recirculation) pump kind of made a piddle instead of a real gush" Mary said describing that day in 1966, "it would have been nice to have a real powerful gush."

When the piece was donated by the Thomas family and moved to St. James Church, it wasn't displayed properly; it fell over, the arm broke off and this damage was immediately recognized by Davenport on her art walking tour. Davenport working with Bradley, commissioned a local sculptor to perform the restoration.



Enter, Jeffrey Sass a sculptor and metal worker in the Quechee area. The angel was moved to his studio for restoration earlier this year. "She arrived in pretty bad shape" said Sass. After months of structural support, replacing the arm, creating a new finger and designing a better support system for the wings, the restoration is just about complete. Sass has taken painstaking care to keep to the original design, only making modifications that will protect the statue for the long term.
He created a platform and had to guess if the posture was correct. "I set it up for what worked for my eyes." And after looking at old photographs, his guesswork was right on the money. He designed an internal spoke system up through the skirt for support, creating some resistance to possible wind damage. He also designed a way to keep moisture out and a way for it to drain properly.

In keeping with the original exterior, he had to "age" the copper to try to match the patina of the piece. He even ordered special stains to help in the matching process.

The restoration is complete and the piece is ready to be moved back to St. James, once the site has been properly prepared to receive her.

I asked Mary it she'd take on more sculpting projects, "I feel kind of divorced from it now. If I can find a good place to do it, maybe. Downstairs in the basement, we kind of fixed it up for me to work there and I did actually do quite a bit of work there. (Her first piece created in her basement studio was the "Mary, Mother of Us All.) I did a St. Francis for the Mepkin Abbey Conference center down there. And I did a little stone crèche down there."

Her last hammered copper project as a 17 piece hammered copper crèche for Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. This crèche received 389 votes at the 2016 Mepkin Abbey Crèche Festival. She also created a smaller stone crèche for reproduction for their gift store. "I set up in the other room (next to her kitchen) to do the copper crèche. I don't like to use the torch down there in the basement."

This quiet lady living in a house she designed and built just a few doors down from where she grew up in Springfield, Vermont has sculptures all over this country. Many in churches and abbeys from Stockton, California to Lake Lucerne, New York; from Greenfield, Massachusetts to Morristown, New Jersey. She thinks there are five pieces in Vermont and she knows that Dartmouth College purchased her "Fallen Angel."

And the mystery continues, Mary said she created another angel for Gallery Two in Woodstock years ago but is not sure where that piece is now.