From the trees he harvests, Mark Fenwick sculpts his dreams. At the end of his dirt drive in Guilford, Vermont, a dancing bear, larger than life, poses on one paw, beguiling passersby. Beyond it, an abstract Buddha spirals away from the world, wielding a feather like a saber. Why a feather? He smiles wryly. “Lightness of being, perhaps.” By the front door, amid red clover, a giant foot with horns jutting from the heel pauses as if to say, “Just stepping out of this planet.”
Fenwick’s rangy home is an ax and chainsaw work in progress. Locals refer to it as “The Castle.” Decades ago, in its glory days, town listers wandered through with tape measures and clipboards, noting the deep stone cellar, the “puzzle floor” of thick pine blocks, winding stairs, the sun-filled kitchen empty of usual amenities, dim rooms, hidden niches, the crowning cupola. Nothing standard: every knob and molding, his invention. How to assess this unfinished wonder? Fenwick laughs as he walks up the path.
In all his travels, he has followed the grain of the wood, fashioning a life full of tusks, forks, abstract emblems, biblical and mythic creatures. Fenwick knows what he needs in a tree. “Anomalies may be fascinating and evocative, like a branch growing in the form of a bow. But most of the time I want a plain piece of paper, no knots, a clean slate.”
In his cavernous studio, a young visitor counts nine green turtles climbing the wall. “White pine with a sumac shell,” he explains. Nine cooking spoons spill from a cornucopia like arrows in a quiver. She plays among the chips and shavings as Fenwick sweeps the plane across a birch board. “First it’s rough, then smooth,” the child says. He nods, handing her a bunch of curlicues. The scent of fresh wood mingles with the aura of fairytale. If there are skeletons in the closet, the visitor wants to see how they are made.
“Am I 61 or 16 now?” Fenwick muses. Despite the hitch in his gait, it is hard to tell his age. Born to a shipbuilding family in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – his father, an engineer, his mother, a librarian and frustrated writer – Fenwick grew up steeped in sea lore. At age eight, he began splitting firewood. The forest provided a refuge from a world without sense. “I was nearly blind but nobody noticed for years,” he says without rancor. School was an ordeal. Still, the limitation honed his inner vision. “I remember a dream I had of a mountaintop mausoleum made of wind and loneliness. I woke up moved to recreate it.” At the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, he studied intricate figureheads, ship carvings, and Polynesian art. At home, he took up his little hatchet to carve swans and tiki heads in the woodpile.
The Fenwick family was at home with eccentricity. He and his father once blew the windows out of the house experimenting with a homemade cannon. His mother and he reeled off epic poems by heart. She seemed unconcerned when he skipped school on vague pretexts or spent the night outdoors. He says, “In late summer, when the road was still warm, my brother and I would lie there like snakes and stare at the stars.” His grandmother used to pedal her bicycle as young Fenwick sprinted beside her down winding roads. He had speed and stamina but never cared about winning.
In 1968, a high school renegade, Fenwick moved with a group of older friends to a windblown hill 10 miles from Brattleboro, Vermont. Total Loss Farm, as they jokingly called it, was a collection of writers, artists, and dormant political activists. Only a few had rural experience. That first summer, with an ax and a crosscut saw, Fenwick felled the trees that fed the winter fires. “I wanted to do everything by hand,” he says. Savoring the quiet of the pine grove, the sugar bush, the hemlocks and mixed hardwoods, Fenwick spent far more time on the land than in the kitchen. At the commune, he was the boy-wonder, taciturn, strong, and gifted at learning. He carved up the pigs they raised for the freezer. He built a towering chimney from fieldstone, and a fireplace of scavenged bricks with a marble mantle. The chimney outlived the building it once warmed.
Never resting, he began hewing beams with an ax and adze. Hugh Beame became his pen name when the group published Home Comfort, an anthology of writing and drawing that included his meditation on the seasons and an essay on the reconstruction of an antique “wheel barrow.” Best remembered, however, are Fenwick’s monumental creations for the Monteverdi Players. Each year this freewheeling theater group based at the farm staged lavish outdoor productions for the whole community.
In 1977, when director John Carroll chose Sweet Pond in Guilford as the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Fenwick felt a calling to build a boat. The skill set was somewhere in his DNA. He pored over Howard Chapelle’s History of American Sailing Ships and considered Roman galleys. “I drew out my model on a piece of sheetrock. I laid out the sections and faired the hull by trial and error, using a stick to get my curves.” He needed a platform for a half-dozen actors. Over the winter in a neighbor’s heated barn he finished his craft. In September, when his white boat with the figurehead of a mythic bull and swan at the stern sailed through the manmade mist, the audience gasped at Fenwick’s artistry. Few realized that he’d also built the island: homegrown planking over deck logs floating on lecithin drums. The Stuff of Dreams, a film about the mounting of The Tempest by the Monteverdi Players, documents his feats for posterity. “Sometimes I still shout lines from that play,” he says.
The following summer, for the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, Fenwick constructed over-sized replicas of the farm’s dining table and upholstered chairs. “It doesn’t take much to make a person look small,” he adds. By the mid-1980s, however, after hacking an amphitheater from the forest, erecting a climbing structure for the stage of Prometheus, and improving his still-unfinished house, wanderlust overtook Fenwick and he left the farm.
For 10 years, he disappeared into the hills of northern California and sculpted redwoods. “The loggers left monstrous stumps 15 feet high and I harvested those,” he says. Despite the lure of massive trees, Fenwick gravitated back to Portsmouth. Once there, close to his family, he longed for open spaces again and searched for a boat to restore, hoping to live at sea. He found an old steel whaleboat built in 1948. He and his dauntless partner, Sheila, worked to put it in order. They sailed up the coast, summering in Nova Scotia and the coast of Maine.
Fenwick reflects, “I had to work through my Robert Louis Stevenson phase, the fantasy of sailing to the Happy Isles.” But the reality of life on the water was the opposite: pricey marinas full of sleek cigarette boats and their owners. “I wanted to go sail down the San Juan Carlos River in Nicaragua. No way. Wrong century,” sighs Fenwick shaking his head.
Happy endings unfold more slowly in life than in fairytales. During Fenwick’s journeys far from Vermont, no one else could manage to make a home in his sculpture. The house became “an attractive nuisance.” Teenage revelers shattered windows and kicked in the walls. The Trustees of Monteverdi Artists Collaborative, the nonprofit organization that owns the farm, considered demolishing The Castle. In 2009, Fenwick returned to his battered creation with his vision intact, no wand but a chainsaw. Again, the land provides and Fenwick reciprocates. “In my current work, the tree is rendered, butchered right where it drops. I use biodegradable chainsaw oil, which is a sort of fertilizer.”
Today he will make a stew with butternut squash and replace a rotted sill in the gallery with a hemlock tree he milled. “I run a leveled chalk line from end to end and cut off a slab by eye.” From there he uses a beam machine, a simplified lumber mill that attaches to the chainsaw, to slice the sides and the bottom.
From the slabs, Fenwick fashions whimsical corduroy roads over swampy areas. “It’s an old timey thing,” he says, glancing at the cobbled trails. Someday he hopes the woods will teem with his creations, “The Fenwick Theme Park!” he says. For now, as the stew simmers and the beam bears weight, Fenwick dreams up his next act. “Before you leave, come see my ‘spalt mine,’” he laughs. He gestures toward the side of a trail where blighted beech logs mottle beautifully for his future parquet floor.
Fenwick’s gallery is open “by appointment or chance” at 1139 Packer Corners Road, Guilford, Vermont 05301. Click here to visit his website.
Poet and writing partner Verandah Porche has lived at Total Loss Farm, now the Monteverdi Artist Collaborative, since 1968. Click here to visit her website.