Few people can guess what they’ll do with their lives at the age of 12, but Walter Arnold didn’t have that problem. This clasically-trained sculptor still uses old-school techniques for pieces displayed around the nation.
It didn’t take long for Walter Arnold to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He was just 12 when he decided to be a sculptor and stone carver.
How does a child decide such a thing? For starters, he grew up in a household that appreciated the arts. His father, Rus, was a well-known Chicago photographer who wrote six books about his craft. “This type of work just clicked,” says Arnold, a softspoken, unassuming man. “It was never a matter of what or why. For me, it was how.”
Except for a time 30 years ago, when he worked nights at a grocery store, Arnold has never worked at anything else. That’s because the Elgin-based sculptor is good at his day job – very good. His work has appeared at the White House, the Chicago Board of Trade, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Chicago Tribune tower, the U.S. Capitol, the Chicago Park District, the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), the University of Chicago and the House of Blues Hotel.
Starting with as much as 4,000 pounds of stone, he carves objects like the turtle fountain at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which stands 3.5 feet tall and weighs 1,800 pounds. He also carved the entry panels for the zoo’s Helen Brach Primate House, which is made up of 22 different stone pieces that stand as tall as 14 feet high.
Arnold is fluent in many sculpture styles, including Classical, Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau. He produces ornamental, architectural and religious pieces for museums, municipalities and private homeowners. He creates fireplaces, life-size figures, fountains, garden pieces and memorial projects that “tell the story of a life.”
As for his style, Arnold isn’t quite sure how to describe it.
“I let the project show me a style, and I go with that,” he says. “I have no interest in repeating myself. I want someone to really look at my work and be surprised and delighted. I want them to find a depth that reaches out to them.”
The Learning Years
When he was 17, Arnold applied to join a small group of stone carvers working on a project at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the site of such historic events as state funerals for presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. He wasn’t chosen, but he didn’t allow rejection to derail his dreams. Instead, he moved to Pietrasanta, Italy, where he took an apprenticeship and enjoyed his surroundings, visiting museums, churches, mountain villages and graveyards.
“I made friends and I sat in cafes with other sculptors and carvers, talking about art, traveling and drawing,” he recalls.
In 1980, he applied again, this time successfully, to work on the National Cathedral project. He created nearly 100 carvings there, including about three dozen gargoyles. Along with three teammates, he carved a triptych over the front entrance.
Five years later, he returned to Chicago to open his own stone carving studio, and then spent a decade in Skokie. He moved to Elgin in 2004, and built a 3,000-square-foot studio suited to his needs, on the same property with the home he shares with his wife, Fely. “The high ceilings are just right for some of the rather tall pieces I work on,” he says. “Each project I do is different from the next.”
Every Job is Different
These days, Arnold spends at least four or five days a week in his studio, working mostly alone, except for the company of an assistant who does “a little bit of everything.” His creations can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to complete. He always has multiple projects going at one time, whether a series of park benches or a church gargoyle. In addition to the actual work, Arnold carves out time to bid jobs, talk to prospective clients and do paperwork.
Unlike many modern sculptors who grind, saw and sandblast their way to a finished piece, Arnold mostly chisels his stone by hand, using methods his mentors in Italy taught him. “I’m flexible,” Arnold says. “Every job is different.”
He prefers using natural stone, as opposed to composite, marble or cast stone. Occasionally, he uses clay when he’s working on a model that he needs to change or modify.
Arnold also makes cast reproductions of some pieces, selling them on his Web site, www.stonecarver.com. To his knowledge, he was the very first sculptor to establish a Web site. He set his site up back in 1994, and says his Web presence has proven very useful for attracting clients.
Of all his many wondrous creations, Arnold is most fascinated by gargoyles. He started making clay model replicas of them when he was about 8 years old.
“I think gargoyles appeal to our imagination and the subconscious,” he says. “We give them human characteristics, exaggerate, change them and blend them with animal characteristics, so they can symbolize any aspect of our personalities. Humans are differentiated from the animals by our imagination, creativity, humor and an appreciation of art. Gargoyles fit in that realm, and are part of what make us human.”
Most gargoyles are large enough to be seen from a distance, but Arnold has a small one – only 1.5 inches tall – hidden on the front of his studio. It’s the job of stone masons to install Arnold’s gargoyles securely onto buildings.
One of his most treasured gargoyles came into existence after Arnold was commissioned by the University of Chicago Class of 1999, which sought to present a gargoyle to the school as a class gift. It had special meaning to Arnold, who had grown up near the university, gazing at its gargoyles, dreaming of creating such wonderful works. His gargoyle was installed in the student union in 2000.
Arnold has also completed a set of six gargoyles, made from Indiana limestone, for homeowners in Dallas. “Rose Gargoyle” overlooks the family’s rose garden, wearing a large leaf for a necktie. “Gargoyles give me freedom to play around with the discipline and technique I use in my other work,” he says. “I can experiment, take chances and have fun. The piece will be successful if the human feeling, expression and emotion come through.”
A World of Ideas
Arnold looks for ideas just about everywhere – in books, the human face, his surroundings. He can drive by a building and see things others don’t. “I know the language of the building and how to read it,” he says. “I can interpret the light and the shadows.”
He also pays close attention to trees, animals and sculptures. “I’m always learning. You never master it. If you stop learning, you get in trouble. I like to approach projects with a fresh look.”
There are those days, however, when creativity is difficult to muster. That’s when Arnold must break his normal routine and visit a museum, take a walk, or simply take the day off. “It helps to step away, then come back and work it out,” he says.
Most days, however, there’s little downtime. Nearly 11 years ago, Arnold co-founded the Stone Carvers Guild, a group of artists who visit various studios and learn from each other. He also helped to start the American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting the City of Genoa, Italy, in its effort to preserve the artistic legacy of a public cemetery called Camposanto di Staglieno.
“It generally doesn’t occur to people to visit a cemetery to view art, but that cemetery houses many thousands of masterful marble sculptures,” he says. Two years ago, Arnold wrote a book titled Staglieno: The Art of the Marble Carver, and he returns to Italy at least twice a year, to reconnect with the culture and work with the people who gave him his start.
Closer to home, Arnold is exhibiting 36 Gothic pieces and gargoyles at the Gail Borden Library, in Elgin, through August. He likes helping others to learn through his work. “I have old-fashioned ideas on how it should be done,” he says. “It’s not a quick learn. You don’t become a surgeon by taking classes. You have to put in the time and make the commitment.”
And it can be a lifelong obligation. Arnold knows stone carvers who are still chiseling away well into their 80s and 90s, and sees a similar future for himself. “I see no reason why not,” he says. “I still have 30 years of learning ahead of me.” ❚