Woman of Steel

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

When Kate Pond plays with fire, art happens

kate_pond_lead_853editBurlington sculptor Kate Pond has created a body of work that encompasses universal principles of art and science. Her immense sculptures — found all over the world — invite engagement, as does she, still hard at work in her 60s. She is pictured with Quiescence near her workshop in South Burlington.

It’s not often that one has an encounter with someone who literally has left her mark on the world. Kate Pond is such a person.

Pond is an award-winning sculptor in concrete and steel whose large and evocative works can be found in locations both private and public around the globe. Her work invites the viewer to become a participant — to touch and sit and climb. “Art,” she says, “is an idea you translate into materials and feel good about.”

A seventh-generation Vermonter — who was born, oddly enough, in Maine, where her father taught at Colby College for two years before returning to Vermont — Pond grew up in Montpelier with four siblings. She took advantage of the natural materials in her surroundings and, as a child, enjoyed making sculptures from found objects such as clay dug from a brook, or twigs, or old cattle bones.

Her first commercial works were pieces measured in inches rather than feet.

Following two years as an art major at Skidmore College and a junior year abroad in Paris with a Sweetbriar College program, Pond returned to Vermont and married Pat Robins in 1960.

“I married Pat,” she says, “then had Chris and Jennie, raised them, and started my art career in the early ’70s, when I went back to UVM to get some credits.” She opened a craft business called Words in Steel, where she sold her cutouts of words and letters with mirrors in them.

Robins, later one of the founders of SymQuest, was then the owner of McAuliffe Inc., a business supplies and equipment company in Burlington. “It was helpful that Patrick was in business,” Pond says. “I had people working for me, and was sending these words and letters with mirrors to 50 galleries and boutiques around the country, including Hawaii.” Although she liked the work, it eventually became “a drudgery,” she says, because of the packing and shipping and paperwork.

“I would say I started full-time sculpting in 1974,” Pond says. “I had a wonderful workshop at S.T. Griswold Co. in Williston. My first large sculptures were concrete mixed with steel.” One of those first sculptures can be seen at her current workshop on Ethan Allen Drive in South Burlington, where she moved last summer after S.T. Griswold was sold.

Through Skidmore’s University Without Walls, she earned her degree in 1979. By then, she and Robins were divorced, although they remain close friends. Her first public sculpture was sparked by an exhibition of smaller plastic laminate pieces — letters of the alphabet nested together. “All were plastic laminate except one,” she says, “which was steel — nesting Fs.”

Burlington was just about to begin work on an addition to the Fletcher Free Library, which had been slated for destruction until a group of residents got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The architect —from Boston — saw this piece and said it would be perfect for the library,” says Pond.

There was no money in the budget for sculpture, however, and Pond found herself needing to raise money from the community. “I put it together, with the help of Hazelett Strip Casting, Vermont Structural Steel, McAuliffe Inc., and Edgcomb Steel of New England.”

The sculpture, called Kiss II, was completed in 1980. It sits in a circular garden to the left of the library’s main entrance. Pond dedicated it to Helen Robins, her late mother-in-law, who had been on the library commission for a long time.

Pond was on the map. She began to be hired to conduct sculpture residencies in Vermont schools, partially funded by the Vermont Arts Council. They would vary in length of time from two weeks to six weeks, and she did quite a few over the ensuing years. “That worked out pretty well in supporting myself,” she says.

“It was very special for the students involved. A core group of students — 12 or 15 of them — would design the piece and another group would do the fabrication. We poured a lot of concrete for the sculptures. S.T. Griswold donated the concrete,” she says, adding, “Doug Griswold was basically my patron into the ’80s and ’90s. He was very generous.”

Through her relationship with Griswold, Pond was able to use the company’s plant as a workshop. “I had the cranes on the trucks, and forklifts, and I could get the guys to come over and help me. She laughs as she recalls something Steele Griswold, Doug’s father, once told Doug: “You should tell Kate to lead the guys, because they do more for her than they did for the company.”

Those residencies involved making sundials, integrating art and science into the curriculum. She turned to Jim Rader, the husband of her sister Meg, for help with the alignments. These sundials led to what she calls the World Sculpture Project.

“By 1990, I was very intrigued by the alignments here,” she says. We are almost at the 45th degree latitude alignment, so I designed a piece that would cast a shadow at solar noon on the equinox.

Called Sunfix, it is a steel sculpture for the General Services Administration Art-in-Architecture Commission and was installed at the U.S. Port of Entry at Highgate Springs in 1997.

That decision inspired five major pieces, each at a specific latitude, with a focus on the marking of place and time. They are located in Stanstead, Quebec (1993); Oslo, Norway (1996); Sendai, Japan (1998); Honolulu, Hawaii (2002); and Nelson, New Zealand (2007). Each marks the passing of a season and they all involve children, she says.

“At the site, I would gather schoolchildren together from sponsoring schools, and they would do little art pieces on postcards, and we would put those into time capsules. The time capsules are to be opened in 2015 at all the sculpture sites.”

The project earned her the 2008 Sawyer Dialing Prize from the North American Sundial Society.

Pond’s sense of community seems to thread through everything she does, says Kate Schubart, who met Pond in 2005 at a Vermont Works for Women event that Pond sponsored at her workshop.

“We were offered the choice of doing welding or tiling, and I chose welding,” says Schubart. She came over and looked at what I was doing and said, ‘Ooh, would you like to do some more of that?’”

“That” turned out to be doing metal work with Pond, Schubart continues — “cutting metal as well as welding.” The two Kates have become fast friends.

Through the years, she has continued to accept private and public commissions from clients across the globe, such as an elegant, 14-foot-high piece called Wellspring for Brandeis University. Her most recent commission is a piece she is calling Come Light, Visit Me, a sundial sculpture for Champlain College to be placed behind the new Perry Hall. The contract was signed in April.

Pond has been making maquettes — small models — which she will send to Frank Phillips, a steel fabricator and design engineer in Colorado who has access to equipment with large rollers — unavoidable here — that can accommodate the precise curves she designs without distorting the angle of the steel.

“The other person who’s helped me along the way is Bill Gottesman,” she says. “He has a company called Precision Sundials and has worked as a math consultant for me for quite a long time.” A local structural engineer, Mel Dogherty, is designing the foundation for the Champlain College piece.

Making the decision to work with Phillips came as somewhat of a relief for Pond, who realized she no longer wants to weld the large pieces herself. “He can continue building my sculpture so I can build a sculpture in my 80s.”

For the last three years, Pond has been working almost all the time, she says. “2008, and 2007 especially, were very hard for me. I realized I needed some time off, so I just went to Paris for three weeks by myself in January and enjoyed going to the museums. I think going to Paris was almost a busman’s holiday for me — in a way, an anniversary of when I was studying art as a student there.”

Her energy recharged, she returned to Vermont and leaped into the Champlain College project. “I’m cleaning the slate a little bit,” she confesses. “I don’t teach anymore; I choose not to enter competitions any more. I’m saving my time, hoping to have more leisure time, but still actively making maquettes and entertaining proposals for commissions.”

Her website, www.katepond.com, has brought in three large commissions and quite a few sales in the last five years.

Pond and her husband, photographer and writer Fred Stetson, whom she married in 1987, enjoy an active life of hiking, biking, and skiing, which she says helps her stay in shape for work. She swims about every other day at the YMCA or in the lake at her camp on the former Flynn estate when it’s warm enough.

There’s little doubt that Pond has inspired a whole group of budding artists through her work and teaching. Asked if she has any advice for those budding artists, she quotes what she says was the best advice she ever received: “When someone asks you to do something new, say, ‘Yes!’” •