UPPER WEST SIDE STONE CARVER CHISELS AWAY AT ST. JOHN THE UNFINISHED

By Marjorie Cohen

I first heard about Chris Pelletierri from a student in his stone carving class. Intrigued by the idea of a stone carver working and teaching on the Upper West Side, I arranged a visit to Chris’ studio.

Chris met me on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where he is the artist-in-residence. Started in 1892,  the Cathedral is the largest Episcopal cathedral in the world – 121,000 square feet with room inside for 4,500 people. It is an imposing piece of Morningside Heights but it has never been completed – some call it St. John the Unfinished. Chris was one of the young people who were trained to help finish it.

Born and raised on the Upper West Side, Chris sang in the choir at the church and attended the Cathedral School where his mother worked for many years.  When the then-Dean of the Cathedral, James Parks Morton,  started an apprenticeship program at the Cathedral meant to train young people from the neighborhood in the art of stone-carving, Chris, having just graduated from college with a degree in mathematics,  joined the project. Well-known stone carvers from Europe signed on and a full-on stone carving studio was set up with the intention of  finishing the Cathedral. According to Chris: “The program that Dean Morton started lasted less than 20 years, and in terms of completing the Cathedral, achieved far less than he had hoped, but in terms of its impact on people’s lives, particularly mine, it was a huge success. I have fallen under the spell of stone carving and I am convinced that if training in traditional crafts was available to everyone, it would have the same effect on many other lives.” It is Chris’ dream to re-establish the workshop.

Although the project ended years ago, Chris still works in the  hangar-like building that was set up for the workshop in the 70’s and where the stones for the Cathedral’s south tower were carved. He works in an unheated  corner of the building where the air is thick with stone dust, surrounded by the tools of his trade – the chisels, the hammers, the rasps, a drill – some samples of his past work and his works in progress.

When we visited Chris he was working on a commission for the architect Robert A.M. Stern – gates for the campus at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. He explained that he starts with a massive slab of limestone that is quarried in Indiana and that he says is perfect for the kind of carving that he does. We saw him at work on the fox and vine design for the gates, following a template that had been approved by the client.

Chris has worked on several projects for the Cathedral and on a number of projects for private clients. Inside the Cathedral he showed us the Poet’s Corner where every year the name of an American writer is inscribed. Chris has carved tablets dedicated to Langston Hughes, Phyllis Wheatley, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and others. Walking toward the back of the cathedral, he pointed out an historical parapet started in the 1920’s that depicts the heroes of each century from biblical times onward. Chris carved the 20th century niche depicting Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King standing side by side. Outside the cathedral, Chris designed and executed the fountain in the Biblical Garden.

Private clients have commissioned staircases, fireplaces, garden statuary – all beautiful and all on view on his website, www.stonecarving.us.

What’s next for an Upper West Side stone carver? More classes to introduce students to the basics of stone carving, more work for private clients and architects and hopefully, the re-establishment of a workshop modeled on the one where he was trained.  And, he would like to have the chance to complete some unfinished stone carving projects up at Columbia University: first, to create sculptures for the main gate to Columbia’s campus on 116th and Amsterdam Avenue where now there are two empty stone bases and second, to work on a low relief carving on the entrance to St. Paul chapel where a flat block of stone seems to be waiting for a 21st century stone carver’s attention.

ART, COLUMNS, HISTORY | 3 comments | permalink
    1. david alan kjoller says:

      Beautiful work. I’ve always admired the skill of a stone carver. Interesting story. Glad you presented it.

    2. Carole says:

      Wonderful article! The carvings are beautiful and we are so fortunate to have a stone carver here on the Upper West Side. I look forward to seeing Chris’s carvings at Columbia University too!

    3. david alan kjoller says:

      If you would hook up a Twitter link for individual stories that would allow for me to post some of them on Twitter.