Art from a bluestone quarry

A WORK of art may come in very different sizes, from tiny miniatures that can be easily held in one hand to environmental works that you walk through. ``Opus 40,'' by sculptor Harvey Fite, covers 6 acres of ground, and from the bottom of one of its pools to the top of the center stone probably rises as high as several stories of a building. It has great beauty and unity of form for all its huge size and was the work of a single man working alone. It is an irregular, squarish shape. Swirling terraces give it a fluid grace for all its stony massiveness.

How was it done? How did it come to be?

Harvey Fite had no thought of becoming a sculptor - much less of being one of the originators of a new art form now called ``earthworks'' - when he entered law school in Texas. Deciding law was not for him, he studied for the ministry, then joined a troupe of traveling actors. The chance carving of a seamstress's discarded spool backstage started him in his unique direction. In four short years he became recognized as a sculptor and was appointed head of the fine arts division of a small college in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

An abandoned bluestone quarry where paving stones were once dug looked to him like an ideal place for his studio and house. His carved wood and stone sculptures, many based on biblical themes, have a massive look. And as he began clearing out the quarry, he thought that he would like to carve a series of huge stone statues on the themes of the brotherhood of man and the harmony of the races of the world. He decided that high places in the quarry would make striking pedestals for these. As he built ramps up to and connecting these pedestals, it became clear to him that he could make a single beautiful environment out of the whole quarry.

The method he used is very ancient. It's called ``dry key'' construction and does not need any cement to hold the stones together. The ``keys'' are large, heavy stones placed at different spots in the wall. The keys support the smaller stones and are, in turn, held in place by them. When carefully shaped and fitted, such a wall can last thousands of years.

As the work grew, Fite saw that it might take him 40 years to complete - so he called it ``Opus 40.'' ``Opus'' is the Latin word for ``work.'' He was able to work on it for only 37 years, and an uncompleted wall with a pile of loose bluestone beside it remains very much like the unfinished corner of a painter's canvas.

He had expected that ``Flame,'' a one-half-ton stone carving, would be the centerpiece. But that, and two other even larger pieces, looked much too small against the sweeping heights of ``Opus 40.'' They were moved away to stand in the parklike grounds around the quarry. What to put in its place? A search turned up a nine-ton slab lying in a riverbed, discarded from the quarry. Just think of one man raising a solid nine-ton stone from the bottom of a river to the top of his sculptured hill!

Harvey Fite had studied the methods of the pyramid builders of Egypt and used this knowledge to accomplish it. Again, he had thought to carve the huge stone into a more representational shape. But when it was raised in place, he saw how perfect it was: an abstract shape crowning the abstract ground sculpture he had constructed over those 6 acres of quarry.

At that point, ``Opus 40'' was really complete. And, like every work of art, large or small, different people will like it for different reasons. ``Opus 40'' can tell us something about abstract art. It can astonish us with the vision, skill, and dedication of the sculptor. It can teach us about historical methods of stone building. Or, we can just enjoy the fun of climbing up the ramps and stairs and peering down into narrow passageways and pools.

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