“My relationship is with the earth and the geological formation at the level of the quarry where material is being harvested,” says sculptor Darrell Petit.
For four decades, Darrell has been immersed in the natural stone world, creating internationally acclaimed work primarily through the medium of granite which he procures directly from its source. “Many sculptors working in natural stone typically work separately from the quarry environment by accepting material that has already been shaped. For me, it is fundamentally vital that I am there when the material is being harvested. That’s where my creative juices flow and where I feel most in my element.”
Darrell first visited a quarry in early 1990 and he says that experience has since shaped his artistic approach. “I felt this was where I had to go deeper to develop the work. It felt natural to immerse myself in the work and the environment; I believe that was the fundamental beginning of developing a way of seeing and a language of the sculpture. We live in such an expansive world of natural stone materials. My direct interaction with them is how I begin the process of creating.” This approach enables Darrell to work in close collaboration with both the earth and those quarrying the materials, he says. “Due to the scale of my work, I can’t do everything alone. By immersing myself in the quarry – in essence the geological origin – where these materials are created, I am able to work in fruitful collaboration with both the people and the earth.”
Darrell’s work Standing Stones in Cambridge, Massachusetts has been described as a shining example of his collaborative approach. “I was contacted by the landscape architectural firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and asked if I had any interest in working together to develop a scheme for a challenging streetscape site in front of a new life sciences research building. Together, we were interested in the interplay between the architecture, the landscape architecture and the sculpture: what happens to your idea when it is contextualised in this specific environment, and how do you navigate that to make the idea evolve and the work even better integrated into the dynamics of that specific site?
“Our response brought something raw and natural to this environment to create a contrast with the building’s ephemeral glass facade. The result is monumental – 125 tonnes of Stony Creek Granite – and features a vertical, totemic composition.” The scale of the work and seismic issues required precision engineering, Darrell says. “The site is located over a 6-storey underground parking garage, which added a layer of complexity to the integration. We brought in Silman engineers who I have been working with for more than 35 years. They are experts in creating innovative solutions that do not take away from the sculpture but rather help bring the underlying concepts of interdependence and balance to life. We stacked a 17-foot granite element on top of a 19-foot granite element, which required a post-tensioning system that was attached to the steel girders of the underground parking garage. The sculpture is also inches away from the glass facade; the rigging of a work like this is very complex. The whole project was truly a team approach and I believe the sculpture redefined that area and its streetscape into a tactile and phenomenological experience for the pedestrian.”
Darrell has since continued his collaboration with MVVA with a sculpture called Event located at the Four Seasons One Dalton Boston. “It's a challenging and dense urban condition adjacent to the Brutalist architecture of the Christian Science building convergence of streets. The triangular sculpture site is just outside the entrance to the building and acts as a buffer between the inside of the building and the street with vehicular traffic. This was a very different project from Standing Stones, in particular because this was a sculpture that originally existed somewhere else; we created a third element so that it would fit more contextually within this specific site. The objective was always to first understand the conditions and the context to create a new dynamic. Through interaction and by moving and setting the sculpture from different vantage points people may experience the sculpture and paradoxically see beyond the labour or material of the work and experience sensation – much as we encounter nature. Curiosity becomes the experience, lasting to change perceptions.”
Event prioritised local, sustainable materials, a trend that Darrell says he is seeing more and more often. “One Dalton’s owner wanted natural stone that was local to the New England area, so I provided a combination of Stony Creek granite and Barre granite, both sustainably certified and historic materials: American classics in the natural stone world.” Darrell is on the Board of Directors of the Natural Stone Institute where he has been instrumental in initiatives including the development of the Natural Stone Sustainability Standard. “More architects and designers are looking beyond purely aesthetics to sustainable natural material sourcing, which is also relevant for artists working in public art in the urban environment. We should all be considering where natural materials come from, how they’ve been procured and what the implications are of those processes.”
Darrell grew up in Montreal and was inspired by its diverse population as well as its dominating geological feature of Mount Royal. “Park Mount Royal, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is the prominent feature in the urban environment and clearly embedded in my experience. I don’t think I was on track in a straight path to becoming an artist; I was studying to become an architect or city planner at Brown University, but life suddenly changed in 1981. I suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and was told not to take any reading or writing classes. So, I transitioned to art classes and found a way forward, a new sculptural language and an activity that felt natural to me. I felt, instinctively, that I had found my calling.”
His lifelong passion for the work means that sculptures can sometimes take decades to complete, Darrell says. “Working with natural stone is a slow, subtractive process. I am immersed in the source of the material and the processes so, for me, granite is very much alive. And whereas I may continue working on pieces over a long period ,the sculpture is finished when the sculpture is looking back at me. That could take 5 months or 25 years. The direct interaction with the material inspires me, and I am happy to still be at a point in my life where I can physically undertake the hard labour aspect of the work. Many things happen collaboratively because of the scale, but to a large degree, I am directly involved with the work, physically on it and in it. That immersive experience is something I think only artists can understand when making their art.”
Darrell is now in the later stages of completing a 28-foot horizontal sculpture inspired by Irish journalist Lyra McKee who was shot dead in Derry in 2019. He is also embarking on a new collaborative design partnership with architects Naomi Darling and Ray Mann called Ko-Lab Architecture, and exploring new sculptural materials and methods. “I have been working with my engineers on developing a process of computer modelling at the earliest stages of exploring the configurations of the interdependent balance sculptures. This approach may enable me to move more instinctually in the early stages of the process, enabling me to then go into the stone with a clearer idea of how the pieces are ultimately going to be connected. I see this as an important new tool to develop concepts more improvisationally and experimentally without the labour-intensive crane rigging of the 25 tonne+ granite elements.
“I try to propose to work with local materials, so I am looking at opportunities and possibilities for working with historic marble there. Marble is whole new world for me. Ultimately, my call to action is to go to the source, the origin of things. This is the most fundamental aspect of the inquiry.”
To learn more and connect with Darrell, visit https://darrellpetit.com/ where you can find details about his upcoming book Darrell Petit in Stone, to be released in early 2024.