Direct Carving is the practice of creating an original stone or wood sculpture, carving from a rough block of stone or piece of wood without making a model to copy. The sculptor lets the material suggest his subject matter and treatment, often leading to creative and artful solutions to the challenges the material presents. In his more advanced classes at the Museum School, Allen taught the principles and techniques of this method to his students who used stones and driftwood harvested from the New England beaches to sculpt extemporaneously.
Stone is plentiful along the Maine coastline, a perfect medium for a sculptor who is inspired by nature. In the summers, Frederick Allen sculpted for his own pleasure at his summer home on North Haven Island, using for materials the granite and greenstone found on the beach of Bartlett’s Harbor and the pink granite quarried at the sister island, Vinalhaven. Native North Haven stone is a schist material called North Haven Greenstone. However, much of the stone found on the beaches was granite, brought by the glaciers. The stones varied in size from ‘pebbles’ (eight inches) to boulders.
When he had the time and peace of mind to carve, he would usually start work there in North Haven where it was quiet. Walking along the shore in front of his cottage, he searched for pieces of stone, shaped by the waves over time. Those that spoke to him, he would turn into imaginative works of art, carving just for fun and to satisfy his creative urges. Some pieces are quirky and charming, others are sophisticated, but all are quite modern in their simplicity.
He carved by hand at first with a hammer and chisel when there was no electricity, then with a pneumatic tool in later years to make his work easier. He preferred to carve and model outside in the special summer light of the island by the ocean which had shaped his material, but stone sculpture takes time and weather doesn’t always cooperate with clay, so he built a boathouse in 1933. He incorporated an overhead skylight so it would do double duty as a studio, and used when it was cold or rainy. His son Frederick remembers those creative projects, He “bought a compressed-air stone cutting outfit and made several stone sculptures.”
Shapes suggested internal forms to him. By chipping away the surface, polished and darkened by the ocean waves, he revealed the forms he saw in his imagination and helped them emerge from inside where they were encased in a discolored shell. Peeling some of that away, the crystalline structure of the stone was exposed and its untouched fresh, bright surface brought into the sparkling Maine light. Here it created form by the way it bounced off the crystals to highlight details or was absorbed into the center to create shadows. Texture and light serve as the sculptor’s color. The juxtaposition of rough and smooth surfaces suggest depth with alternating open space and solid form, while variations in texture, create light and shadow, playing with the subtle tonalities.
Some of his carvings seem like sketches in stone where details are only suggested. They are included to show that “any stone may become a piece of sculpture.” (Betty Smith) However, a sketch format doesn’t mean that the art is unfinished. At times the lack of detail emphasizes the importance of the internal structure to a sculptor, a subject that was hotly debated at the turn of the century. Thayer Tolles, in her essay on “Refined Picturesqueness” states that “By the late 1880’s, most critics understood the concept of finish as the successful projection of effect as much as a reference to the state of an object’s polish.”