When the US descended into lockdown last year, so many New Yorkers stared down the endless hours at home without knowing how to fill the time. World-renowned sculptor John Van Alstine, who grew up in Johnstown, was not one of those people. He went to work, sourcing materials from his own property, including bronze repurposed from a flood-ravaged statue, and poured his emotions into his art.
The end result was so powerful that the collection is currently on display at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, one of the area’s most prestigious art museums.
“It’s a diary from the pandemic, my reflection on 2020,” he says, referring to the intimate collection of bronze and stone pieces that represent the relationship between man-made and natural forces during these uncertain times. “It’s unlike most of the rest of my work, with the sculptures reflecting my feelings about where we were as a country.”
Of course, Van Alstine and his wife, Caroline Ramersdorfer, also a sculptor, weren’t exactly cooped up in a studio apartment. They’ve built a life, an artists’ retreat of sorts, on nine acres along the Sacandaga River in the Adirondacks. He currently sources mostly slate (“it has an incredible surface texture and color”) from Granville for his work, which is documented in the stunning book John Van Alstine: Sculpture, 1971-2018. When COVID hit, Van Alstine had been gearing up for a huge exhibition at the Hyde, an anticipated retrospective that’s now been postponed until next year. Instead, in sync with the times, 17 of the small-scale sculptures he created during lockdown are on display there now through October, with a possible extension in the works.
The spotlight will also be on Van Alstine’s work this fall on a most historic day of remembrance: the 20th anniversary of 9/11. With partner Noah Savett, Van Alstine co-created Tempered by Memory, Saratoga’s moving September 11th memorial in High Rock Park. The sculpture, made from mutilated steel from the Twin Towers, required the assistance of a committee of people, including sculptor Charlie Van Hall, who helped attain the enormous steel pieces from a little-known hangar at JFK, and five ironworkers who volunteered for tasks such as crane operation.
“I was awed by the size of these huge pieces of steel, all marked with engineering forensics, including where in the buildings the materials came from,” Van Alstine says. “One beam was all melted—it had been the closest to where the plane went in. We could take anything as long as we could get it out.”
Van Alstine attends the services at High Rock Park every year on the morning of September 11th and is pleased that his work ended up there after the first planned site on Broadway didn’t pan out. It was dedicated in 2012.
“There is one of Saratoga’s healing springs on either side,” he says. “It’s symbolic—remembering this tragedy, but healing and moving forward, too. [Golfer] Dottie Pepper has really helped keep the landscaping looking beautiful, but I’ve never gotten to meet her and thank her.”