Gravenmor was a fantastic adventure about which I have few regrets: I learned that I love to sculpt; I got the hell out of NYC for a while; I taught myself how to make latex molds and plaster mother molds; I challenged myself to sculpt gargoyles and grotesques which were not merely decorative, but would have a household function; I had a kick-ass time hanging out with friends in the woods; I met many magnificent people upstate as well as at the craft shows and the renaissance fairs, and; nearly a dozen businesses were selling Gravenmor products by the time I headed back to my apartment in NYC, single, broke and unable to continue.

For two years, autumn 1993 to autumn 1995, I breathed the crisp Catskill Mountain air - on the mountain top of Greene County — in Jewett, NY for a year and a half and in Windham, NY for the balance. In Jewett, I lived on 150+ acres of what had been a tennis camp, in the summer bungalows poorly converted into year-round cabins. The property had woods and a stream, a pond and meadows. I had moved there with a girlfriend, the artist Bleu Gracey Andersen and her young son, David, to make a life. Several friends from the Wetlands scene had rented cabins there, too, including Leon & Kristanya, Robert & Elizabeth, Carl, Anthony, Jeff and Anissa. We had visions of something resembling communal living, but the set-up had little in common with communes. It was owned by someone who ran the property like a trailer park and dumped on it mercilessly, without regard for ecology or safety. Still, it was a community and most neighbors interacted in friendly ways. The place took on its own culture. But strange car traffic pulled in and out through the nights visiting a shadowy figure that lived in the big, spooky barn at the end of the driveway. The barn’s tenant did not appear at any hour of the day, he remained reclusively inside, but I admit that I did catch plain sight of him once or twice in the daylight, and even heard him speak once. As we hazarded to guess the nature of the relationship between property owner and barn specter, the shadows cast long and dark over the promise of fresh starts. We had escaped New York City only to move into the tiny ghetto of Jewett, known as Alpine Village.

Sculpting at Windham, NY Craft Fair
Cverk, a gnome taking form in SuperSculpy

Bleu and I were not deterred, at least, not initially. We set to work on the business we had planned together — Cradle to the Graven. She intended to create infant and toddler wear for the renaissance fair circuit (the Cradle), and I intended to sculpt gargoyles (the Graven) for the same. Very different products aimed at a similar target audience. While neither of us had done these things for a living before, we were ready to give it a go. But it only took a few months for Bleu to become frustrated with her choice; sewing was further removed from her experience than sculpture was for either of us. So we both focused on sculpting gargoyles and guardians thereafter, and she painted fantastic grotesques on wood as well, incorporating the grain of the wood into her haunting images. I constructed all the molds and we both cast the pieces for our reminted venture - with twice as many sculptors of graven images as before -

With little David in tow we travelled to craft shows and renaissance fairs and to just about anywhere we thought we could make a buck; street fairs, biker festivals and tattoo shows. We loaded stone pieces into that old Dodge Coachman (we named the van Mabel) at dawn, drove hours to the setup spot, kept our smiles on all day working at the gig, broke it down and packed it up, drove hours back to Jewett after nightfall, unloaded many of those same stone pieces from Mabel some 15-20 hours after having loaded her in the first place, only to split a couple of hundred dollars between us for a week’s work. It was a poor business model, and once Bleu and I parted ways after the first year, fool that I am I pursued it on my own. I guess I was ebbing while the universe flowed.

The tent/display at the NJ Renaissance Festival
The tent/display at the Windham, NY Craft Fair

The first season we spent a lot of money, but by trial and error we found some worthwhile shows to bank on. By the second season, of course, I didn’t have enough cash to enter the best shows, even the structure I undertook to build at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire with the help of my friend, Rob Smith, was ill-fated. We were nearly half-way complete when it turned out that the fair didn’t have building permits. Our structure, along with many others, would need to come down. My last summer upstate, in exchange for work at Siam Kennels in Windham, I received room and board. It was a good deal, and I continued to cast my grotesques using rainwater captured in a barrel just outside the entrance of the kennel’s barn. I stored everything left of Gravenmor in the barn at Siam Kennels, and I suspect some of it is still there today. The exhausted van Mabel, unable to start, I unhappily abandoned in the kennel driveway. When I returned to NYC autumn 1995, I had $40, some pocket change and a ball of lint left to my name.

I recall a cherished moment early in that first frigid winter, a point at which I felt high and hopeful. I stepped out into the crisp evening air to walk my dog, crunching the light snow beneath my boots as I strode out into the open meadow on those 150+ acres, out behind my little cabin in the Catskill Mountains, out beneath a sky lit by infinite stars and a bright moon. The mountain peaks, purple borders distanced in the dim glow, encircled much of my horizon, or dark tree limbs reaching above. From inside the nearby cabin there was soft yellow light, love and family. I stopped in the middle of the white meadow and my dog, Lucy, wagged her tail at what must have been my beaming glance. She seemed to smile back knowingly and wink the way she sometimes did. My own breath swirled about me. In the stillness, in that moment, I happily and consciously observed where I believed I stood and committed it to memory. Dressed like Robin Hood, down to the cap and boots, I sculpted gargoyles for a living and intended to sell them at renaissance fairs. It seemed I hadn’t a care in the world, all the worries of NYC receded, washed away by nature’s majesty and by my perception of my own; I was delivered to the bosom of success. This is what it felt like to win.

Jack-O-Man, in Jewett, NY cemetery.
Photo by Donald E. Wilcock
Narcissaurus, in Jewett, NY cemetery.
Photo by Donald E. Wilcock

Gargoyles Conjure the Spirits of Medieval Gods

“There’s nothing that’s going to protect you in life, really. But if having a gargoyle makes you feel safer, you’re already safer.”

Stuart Cottingham is a medievalist who cast gargoyles for a living. He’s also one of the vendors at this year’s AM-JAM Tattoo Exposition. Normally, though, you’ll find him in a cabin, down a winding road, first turn to the left, past the church cemetery in the gnarly backwoods of the Hudson Valley.

Cottingham will tell you that gargoyles, the bizarre and often grotesque figures that lurch from the corners of old buildings, date bwilcoack more than 1500 years to a time when they represented local gods. As Christianity took hold, churches and cathedrals were built on the sites of older buildings that had been the meeting places of pagans who worshipped these gods. The new churches co-opted these gods, some of whom actually became saints.

“These stone masons were actually putting pagan imagery on the outside of the temples, although the temples of the new religion were Christian,” explains Cottingham. “Then, as time went on, they placed the demons on the outside of churches to scare away the other demons. Eventually, they became just architectural symbols on the outside of brownstones and things like that.”

As one talks to Cottingham in his medieval leather mask, one gets the impression that, to him, the little creatures he sculpts and casts into mirrors, candleholders and incense burners may be more than conversation pieces.

“I believe the energy you put into something doesn’t dissipate,” he says. “Material objects can be endowed with something extra. I’m not suggesting a sword become Excalibur, but…”

Cottingham says he doesn’t look at old gargoyles for inspiration in sculpting his own. “I generally just let it flow,” he says. He may see a face in the wood pattern of a kitchen table, or the character may develop out of the function the piece performs, such as an ash tray or a mirror.

He casts his gargoyles in plaster with colored pigment mixed in. Also, in the mixture are fleck of limestone that give the figures a marble quality.

“It sparkles like stone would, “he explains. “If you break it or chip it, it really looks like a chunk of stone. I experiment with the pigments to try and get different color effects and see what people like. I was doing lighter ones recently, but I think darker ones are more interesting to people.”

Cottingham’s promotional brochure suggests that “no home or castle is safe without the watchful eye of the vigilant gargoyle. And they make quiet house pets, too.”

He explains, “What I tell folks when they ask how do you make them work is that you have to talk to them. I try not to put a particular definition on how people talk to them. “The object itself doesn’t have any particular power. It’s just a shape, but that shape has meaning through history for the human consciousness. And then, for an individual to talk to it or bless it or whatever they do makes it more helpful.”

Giggling gargoyles, gnomes and assorted fanciful faces

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the eighth article in an on-going series of articles highlighting area residents who either work at or own out-of-the-ordinary careers or businesses. If you know of anyone who fits this description, please call the Windham Journal office at (518) 734-4400.

JEWETT — When looking into their faces, the stone creations of Gravenmor stare back with expressions that range from leering grins and innocent puzzlement, to eyes that reflect frighteningly intelligent or endearingly slow —witted personalities.

Stuart Cottingham is the creator behind the family of Gravenmor Grotesques. According to Webster’s dictionary, the word grotesque means, “fanciful, bizarre, absurdly incongruous, departing markedly from the natural, the expected or the typical (syn. See Fantastic).” Cottingham’s creations most definitely fit the bill.

A Manhattan native, Cottingham moved to the area about a year and a half ago. His father, a scenic artist, passed his talents on to his son, who for years “avoided art like the plague.” Rather than study art in college, Cottingham graduated from the State university of New York at Purchase with a degree in literature.

After graduating with dreams of becoming a writer, Cottingham found that once he was “out in the real world” his artistic talents were a more suitable means for putting food on the table.

Cottingham has always been fascinated by the medieval period of history. “I’ve always been sort of a medievalist,” he said. He explained that it is the fantasy of the medieval period that he is drawn to rather than the harsh realities of what life was like during that time.

The theme of nature plays an important part in in both Cottingham’s work and personal life. He explained that he moved up to the Catskill mountain region, an area he says he always loved, because he felt the mountains “brought me closer to nature.”

Some of the pieces in Cottingham’s Gravenmor Grotequerie collection that reflect the influence of the natural world upon his work are “Cverk”; a jolly looking gnome, “Mr. Jack O’ Man”; a leafy nature spirit based on the Jack of the Green from Celtic legend, “Moonman”; a sleepy representation of the man on the moon and a shelf titled “The Woman of the Sea” that features a smiling mermaid.

Many of his creations would be described as gargoyles. According to Cottingham these mythical creatures have “spiritual significance.” He explained, “I believe in their ability to protect and serve as guardians and I feel that I am able to convey that.”

Gargoyles have a history of be used as protective figures. He recalled how his mother used to tell him that gargoyles “contained demons used to scare off other demons.” Gargoyles can be found on many old churches and castles throughout Europe.

He explained, “They usually were a combination of form and function.” Some decorative gargoyles were used as water spouts.

According to the New York Public Library Desk Reference, gargoyle is an architectural term for “a spout placed on the roof gutter of a Gothic Building to carry away rainwater, usually carved in the shapes of fanciful animal and grotesque beasts.”

When people hear that gargoyles can be considered protective spirits, Cottingham said some people then ask how they should be used. “What I tell folks when they ask ‘how do you make them work,’ is that you have to talk to them. I try not to put a particular definition on how people talk to them. The object itself doesn’t have any particular power. It’s just a shape, but that shape has meaning through history for the human consciousness, and then, for an individual to talk to it or bless it or whatever they do makes it more helpful,” he explained.

Cottingham stated, “I believe the energy you put into something doesn’t dissipate.” He also added, “Material objects can be endowed with something extra. I’m not suggesting a sword becomes Excalibur, but…”

The process Cottingham undertakes to create his fanciful faces is not a simple affair. One face can take well over a month from start to finish. According to the artist, the sculpture itself can sometimes take several weeks “to get it right, and I’m still not pleased,” he said laughing.

After crafting a mold, Cottingham pours the medium he is using (plaster, terra cotta and mortar) into the mold with a touch of marble dust for sparkle. “It takes a while,” he admitted, adding that the creatures can’t be churned out rapidly.

Cottingham strives to keep his creations functional and they range from mirrors, candleholders, ashtrays, catch-alls and incense burners. His collection also includes a group of four magnets and walls hooks whose names include “Peagoose”, “Ninny” and “Yech”.

Cottingham’s work is available locally at The Garden of Isis and The Bountiful Basket in Windham, Gratefully Yours in Tannersville, Look Around in Cairo and Stones Pieces in Woodstock. His work is also featured at the Windham Craft Show in the summer as well as many other craft shows and various Renaissance Fairs. He is currently seeking wood to build a permanent structure at one of the Renaissance Fairs.

Gravenmor Grotesquerie can be reached at 734-6773 and a catalog of Cottingham’s work is available.

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