Written in stone 

During a trip to India, Elyn Zimmerman happened on a wondrous sight.

“I saw these amazing stone sculpture buildings,” the artist says. “I had never seen anything like them. They were built into living rock, on the side of a mountain, with carved chambers.”

Today, Zimmerman is best known for her large-scale public sculpture which often includes large pieces of quarried stone. Her first major commission was created for the National Geographic Headquarters.

Despite her success with large-scale work, Zimmerman says she will never quit painting, drawing and doing photographic studies. “I’m basically a sculptor, but I’ve done photography since graduate school,” Zimmerman says. “I painted and drew all through college and after. When you do large sculpture, you have to wait until someone calls for you -- small things you can do for yourself.”

On Tuesday, April 13 at 7 p.m., Zimmerman will present a lecture about her work at the Telfair Museum of Art. The museum is featuring a large-scale photographic tree study she created as its April Spotlight on Art.

Zimmerman took the photograph on Little Tybee Island. The widow of Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah native who was a noted art curator, professor and historian based in New York City, she is well acquainted with Savannah.

“She has done images all over the world,” says Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education at the Telfair. “She works in several different media. Her work reflects patterns in nature, the processes of nature.”

Zimmerman grew up in Philadelphia until age 10, when her family moved to Los Angeles. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree at UCLA.

Although she is the only artist in her family, Zimmerman notes that her brother also works with rocks. “My brother is a geologist,” she says.

Her own decision to become an artist was reached when Zimmerman went to Europe. “I saw the great art museums,” she says. “I saw that people took this stuff seriously.

The trip to India in 1976 led to Zimmerman’s desire to work in stone. Visits to archaeological sites confirmed that stone outlasts everything else. “I began making small models because I couldn’t afford to make larger ones,” she says.

In 1980, the National Geographic commissioned her for a project. “I was lucky because the architect was extremely helpful and supportive,” she says. “I had ideas. He liked my ideas and helped me.”

Tackling such a large-scale medium for the first time was difficult. “Each material has its own processes,” Zimmerman says. “I don’t actually cut the stone myself. I work with a quarry.”

Since 1980, Zimmerman has worked with the same Minnesota quarry. Over the years, she has built a strong professional relationship with its employees.

“I work with an engineer,” Zimmerman says. “I take drawings and models to the quarry. They help me get the pieces of stone I want. When I want something new and different, they try to make it happen.”

It took a while to learn about large-scale sculpting. During Zimmerman’s first project, she wanted a block of stone that would have been far too heavy to transport. “They have to ship the stone on trucks or by rail,” Zimmerman says.

“Architects usually use stone as a very thin veneer,” she says. “As a sculptor, I try to do something solid. I’m using a piece of the earth.”

One of Zimmerman’s biggest challenges came with a commission for the headquarters of AT&T. “We had to lift a 35-ton stone over a four-story building with a crane or by helicopter,” she says.

“There was only one crane in the eastern United States that was big enough to do it. We had to wait weeks until it was available.”

In 1995, Zimmerman created a monument to the six victims of the first World Trade Center bombing -- a fountain that incorporated the victims’ names. It was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

“I’m sorry it’s gone, I’m sorry that it happened,” Zimmerman says. “But in the larger scale of things, the fountain wasn’t that important. However, the monument was very important to the families of the six victims. The families were particularly devoted to that small fountain.”

Memorial services were conducted at the fountain. “They didn’t receive the media attention or reparations that the victims of the latest attack did,” Zimmerman says. Zimmerman’s lecture is Tuesday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at the Telfair Museum of Art.


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Linda Sickler

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