Sculpting Marble in Marble

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on June 13, 2004

Each summer, about 150 sculptors from around the United States and as far away as Japan, India, and Australia travel to Marble, Colo. (pop. 105), for one reason—to sculpt marble in the shadow of the mountain where it is mined.

The gathering is the brainchild of Madeline Wiener, who savors the few days each year that she spends setting up camp, preparing tools, and double-checking supplies for artists traveling to her Rocky Mountain retreat. Artists learn sculpting techniques, experiment with various stone-cutting tools, and exchange ideas in what was once one of the nation’s most significant marble-quarrying regions.

Named for its valued rock, the town of Marble has been home to the Marble Sculpting Symposium, also known as MARBLE/marble, since 1989. Wiener, a Denver sculptor, was inspired in the late-1970s when she came to a fair in Marble and watched friends carve a sculpture.

“They were in such harmony with the whole setting that it was the first time that I thought I wanted to do that also,” she says. “Ever since, I had this dream to start this program of carving marble in Marble.”

The idea remained a dream for more than a decade until Wiener, who was teaching at the Art Students League of Denver in 1988, asked the institution’s Board of Directors if she could organize a workshop in Marble. She expected about 12 sculptors at the inaugural symposium in 1989, but ended up with 48. In 1996, Wiener formed The Marble Institute of Colorado, a non-profit organization that now operates the symposium, which has grown to three eight-day workshops with 35 to 65 sculptors attending each session.

The sculptors work just west of Marble’s old mill site, once the world’s largest marble finishing mill. The walls and roof were removed when the mill was abandoned in 1941, but several old marble columns and two marble firewalls still stand, and large marble slabs lay strewn along the banks of the nearby Crystal River.

“Being located in the mountains with all the huge marble pieces was just amazing,” Texas sculptor Kelly Borsheim says of the symposium.

When the sculptors arrive, the serene mountain setting becomes a center of creativity. “Initially you might think you’re at a giant dental convention,” Wiener jokes, describing the noise of the power tools and the fine residue that fills the air.

Toward the end of each session, the group is taken on a tour of the local quarry, The Colorado Yule Quarry, which has a rich history. Marble deposits were first discovered in the area in 1873, and the town was founded eight years later. The first major project to use the area’s stone was the Colorado State Capitol in 1895. In the early 1900s, the area’s marble was used in hundreds of landmark buildings and structures across the nation, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. However, in 1941, due to the war effort and a move toward other building materials, the quarry closed. Reopened in 1990, Sierra Minerals Corp. now operates the quarry.

During the tour, sculptors gain a better appreciation of the stones they’re working on. “It gives everybody a humbling experience and a lesson in geology and technology,” Wiener says.

Wiener is still dreaming, though. She hopes the institute can eventually build an indoor facility at the Marble site where sculptors can meet in the winter. “A different experience from the very outdoorsy summer program,” she says. Until then, Wiener looks forward to the summer programs in a town that is rich in marble heritage.

“This is a pretty powerful place and program, and it has overwhelmed many folks in the most positive way,” she says. “I count the days until I go back.”