Eighty-two-year-old sculptor Sy Gresser will do anything to get the right stone. It’s an imperative of his school of sculpture, direct carving: First, seek the stone, then, free the image within it. Gresser equates the technique to a religious exodus, but acquiring the material can be a less sacred experience. One of Gresser’s works, a granite figure of two sleeping girls, was ‘freed’ from the discarded tombstone of two Greek sisters, the victims of a car accident. Though the girls’ father had a tombstone engraved for the girls, he later couldn’t afford to ship both the white marble marker and the girls’ bodies back to their homeland, so Gresser bought the stone off of him for $35, carved it in the girls’ image, and put it in his own backyard. “Once you get a hold of the stone,” says Gresser, “it is yours.”
Gresser’s Silver Spring home is crowded with his stones; they consume his backyard studio space before spilling into his garden and snaking around to his front yard.
In the garden lies a screaming marble face culled from a destroyed Baltimore estate that Gresser looted one night just ahead of a belligerent squatter. “She was screaming at me, saying, ‘Eff you white people, you take everything!’” Gresser recalls. “I lugged a marble stair into my trunk and fishtailed home.”
Lodged behind some works-in-progress is the figure of two women embracing, the result of a panel Gresser obtained during the renovation of the Folger Shakespeare Library in the 1960s. “Let’s not say it was stolen,” Gresser says. “The manager gave it to us because it was chipped, let’s put it that way.” Once, Gresser sought out raw materials in a run-down graveyard. The grave-digging, unfortunately, was botched by the disapproving building manager of a nearby apartment complex with a badge to flash. “Well, but, the cemetery was not in use,” Gresser explains. “They weren’t even burying people there anymore.”
In the spaces that his carvings don’t go, Gresser’s home has accumulated a lifetime of scrawled phone numbers, doodles, mystery jars, aged fruitcake, a boy’s chess set, and ants that crawl, unharmed, over ant traps. It doesn’t matter. Direct carving, a freeform technique that uses the material, rather than a model, as inspiration, is Sy Gresser’s only concern.
In 1949, Gresser was scrubbing tires, selling vacuums, and typing numbers for the phone book. Over the next four years, he’d acquire a wife, four kids, and then, finally, the love of his life. By what Gresser calls “serendipity,” a theater director friend dumped on him a modest sculptor’s fortune—a bag of tools and a block of red sandstone. Gresser was lousy with a pencil but held a vague vision of himself as an artist; as a child, he had passed off a friend’s paintings as his own in an attempt to squeeze into art school, but was revealed as a fraud. Gresser took the sculpting materials eagerly. “I knew I wanted to make something with my hands,” he says. “I wanted to make images so that I could remember.” Gresser slung the sandstone over his shoulder in a burlap sack and headed to the now-defunct Institute of Contemporary Art.
There, he met Bill Taylor, a man his own age who would become his direct-carving mentor. “He didn’t use language,” Gresser says. “He looked and pointed at what he saw. And he taught me how to see.” In the red sandstone, Gresser saw a pair of outstretched hands. He split the stone in the middle of carving it, but didn’t care: The experience was divine. From then on, Gresser converted to the life of a sculptor, finding human form in pine and granite. He began carving when he got home from work, often not stopping until he had to return again the next day. When he secured a research job at the National Archives in 1951, he convinced the women in the office to cover for him as he slept at his desk or slipped off to his studio to work. He hauled hundreds of pounds of rubble into his Hyattsville apartment, pissing off his landlord and filling the space used to raise his four young children with rock, dust clouds, and an incessant chipping sound. As Gresser sculpted stone, the other parts of his life fell away. “I was never very suited to following the rules,” admits Gresser. “Or being a father.” In 1976, he and his wife divorced and he moved, alone, to the Silver Spring space.
There, Gresser’s life’s work remains about the same as the day he started. He’s been sculpting so long he no longer needs to use models, which he used to study. “I’ve been staring at people all day long for all my life,” says Gresser. “Most of the time I don’t see people with their clothes on anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” When asked to identify changes in his work over the years, Gresser will say only that he’s gotten more specific. “It’s not the strength that carves the stone,” says Gresser. “It’s the persistence.” Some of the direct carvings lying around Gresser’s property have been perfected; others are still waiting—50 years later—for the sculptor to find the figure in the stone. Meanwhile, the house has acquired a live-in girlfriend and their 10-year-old son, who operate as much as tenants as they do family members. “She’s been threatening to leave since the second day she moved in,” Gresser says.
The sculpture world, however, has left Gresser. When Gresser learned direct carving in the ’50s, the technique was already a half-century old. Now, the practice has all but worn away, replaced by a new generation of sculpture concerned with post-modern construction and “found” pieces that Gresser does not understand.
“Their language, their idea, is different,” says Gresser. “I don’t have a key to its understanding.” Gresser identifies a lack of God in the contemporary work, which abandons the human form for commercial ephemera. “There’s no religion in it. All of our faith comes from the inside, from the spirit of human presence on this earth. If you miss that, there’s nothing left, only money,” he says.
After a lifetime of stone-carving, Gresser now has emphysema; his arms have grown too weak to carve in stone, so he works in wood. But he continues to be the area’s greatest proponent of direct carving. Even Gresser’s mentor, Bill Taylor, admits that direct carving’s influence had waned before he even learned the technique. “We were never part of the art group, but we paid our dues,” Taylor explains. “The Color School, the Modernists, that was the ‘in’ thing. We came in with the figurative stuff and there wasn’t a place for it. It never bothered me much,” he says, adding, “I was always just trying to sell some stuff, buy a little booze, pay a little rent.”
One show in particular still gets Gresser angry when he talks about it. He displayed his work alongside Taylor’s and that of Gresser’s own protégé, 48-year-old Michael Winger. This was 10 years ago at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. “Nobody cared,” says Gresser. “Not one single person gave it any recognition.”
“When you’re our age, you don’t belong,” Gresser says. “I’m on the outside looking in,” he says of contemporary sculpture. “They’re going in the front door and I’m leaving out the back.”
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