There’s a little zaniness, lots of love and plenty of wry humor in the sculptures of Tim DeChristopher. Whether it’s the Chagall-like surrealism of his unfinished 2011 work, “Occupy,” the whimsical dogs, bulls and other animals in “Noah’s Requium” and “The Full Catastrophe,” or the caricatures in his 2000 “Angel of Industry,” his timeless stone figures contrast the heaviness of limestone, into which they’re carved, with a lightness only an artist with a sharp wit like DeChristopher’s can bring out.
Now, the 62-year-old sculptor, who has lived in Turners Falls for 15 years, is creating his first work of public art for the village — one that he feels captures the essence of its history of mills, commerce and, to some extent, its meeting place role for natives who lived before European settlers showed up.
In “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” which is funded by a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant to River Culture, DeChristopher is creating a three-stone work for a pedestrian park at Avenue A and Third Street.
Simply put, there’s a piece of stone marked “ROCK” in bold, raised letters, a carved “PAPER” mill depicting the familiar buildings along the power canal (which was carved from the bedrock underlying the village) and a “SCISSORS” retail storefront that represents commercial activity along Avenue A.
DeChristopher is carving all three sculptures at his Second Street studio, a former schoolhouse that was also Herman Sons clubhouse. Serendipitous figures from other sculptures he’s done look on. Each of the limestone pieces is from the stone yard that DeChristopher brought to this village years ago from the stone yard at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City.
That’s where DeChristopher — who grew up in the San Francisco, Calif., Bay area and moved to New York to study design attend Cooper Union in 1977 — was first drawn to stone carving. His grandfather had done stone carving in Italy from age 9, before immigrating to this country in his teens.
The son of a toy/product/interior/graphic designer, De Christopher moved to this area in 1992. This was after he left architectural training at Columbia University to train at a stonework institute set up to train inner-city youth. Two gargoyles that he carved there — a monkey and a devil — went on a new wing of the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York.
But “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is something else again for DeChristopher, who also spent a year doing sculpture in Italy. He loves to play with words almost as much as he loves carving images in stone.
In his four-story mill sculpture, factory workers peer out the windows from one side, as if they’re trying to catch a breath of air, while the other side is a dollhouse-like cutaway exposing the millworks.
“I don’t know what we’re going to see yet,” says DeChristopher, as he takes a break from carving the 36-by-28-by-13-inch rock that weighed more than a half a ton when he pulled it out of the stone yard.
“With the sculpture project,” set right at the crossroads of downtown, “we have a unique opportunity to create something of lasting value, something that speaks to the community and the public at-large in a significant and meaningful way,” he wrote in his proposal.
“Turners has never been an easy town,” he added. “From its inception, we have had a complicated mix of cultures with overlapping and competing needs. “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” in this setting serves as a parable for our evolving history, and as a metaphor for a light-handed approach to conflict resolution.”
Turners Falls RiverCulture’s proposal for the $6,000 grant to create the project called for the work to have historical, societal and environmental relevance to the village.
DeChristopher thought about the legacy of mills as a bedrock of Turners Falls, as well as its economic and social history, but also of the geologic significance of the bedrock itself — on which the community is built.
“It just made perfect sense,” he says. “We’ve got these paper mills. The town was created for industry, and it was built on the rocks on the river.”
DeChristopher wrote, “The body of this stone will represent the bedrock that Turners Falls is built upon, the very ground upon which we stand and through which the Connecticut River flows. I will carve depictions of the quarrying and excavation work done to create the power canal in this stone, as well as reference the earliest Native American inhabitants of the region.”
DeChristopher sees the two-story “SCISSORS” storefront as emblematic of the shops in the village and the daily life of the community, with “a clear nod” to the John Russell Cutlery, which moved to Turners Falls in 1870. That sculpture will also show a window display of general store merchandise.
All three blocks of stone will sit on a large stone slab representing the water that surrounds the village — what the artist calls, “the unifying fabric of the town.”
DeChristopher said when the idea jumped out at him, he wasn’t even aware that the rock, paper scissors idea had already been the theme of an earlier public arts project in the village — the “Rock, Paper, Knife” kiosk that Leverett artist Gary Orlinsky created in 2006. It sits where the bike path and pedestrian path intersect in Unity Park.
DeChristopher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors” — focused on the age-old conflict-resolution game, also known around the world as “rochambeau” — was instead a deliberate, if playful, reference to conflicts in his adopted town, including the town’s battles from 2013 to 2015 with storekeeper Rodney Madison about his display of used goods from his shop on the corner, where the new sculpture will be displayed.
The overarching town conflict, though, was the Peskeompskut massacre by colonists under the command of Capt. William Turner, whose May 19, 1676 date DeChristopher is inscribing on “Rock” — flat on one side and rough on the other.
“It’s a metaphor for harmony, or disharmony,” he said of the popular children’s game used to settle disputes, emphasizing that his work is meant to display “a subtle balance of gravity and humor.”
“Turners was built on disputes from the beginning,” he said, and they seem to continue, including the current controversy over continuation of Turners Falls High School’s Indian mascot, he said.
In fact, the artist has suggested that when his sculpture is installed in the spring, it can be accompanied by a “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournament, which could be repeated as an annual event that could draw visitors to Turners. (Who knew there’s even a World Rock Paper Scissors Society with roots dating back to 1842 in London as Scissors Paper Stone Club, which held an annual world championship until 2009?)
Although DeChristopher’s work has been displayed at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and The Jewish Museum, both in New York City, his only other public-art installation is at the Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Emira, N.Y., where his 2000 “Angel of Industry” depicts a complex of mills with a factory owner, a job-seeking newcomer, laborers and more.
“What am I trying to do with my work?” DeChristopher asks and then answers on his website. “I am trying to expel the demons that so often haunt my mind and find some peace in that which lives more deeply within my soul.”
As an artist, he says, he’s passed up earlier invitations to do public-art installations because, in general, the typical budget is “not worth the time and trouble.”
By contributing his own material as an in-kind match, he said, he’s glad to make a contribution to the village that he can take pride in.
“Public art is important stuff,” he said. “It’s vital, if it’s good.”