Galax artist carves out legacy

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Shackelford spent 9 months creating sculpture

By Shannon Watkins

Christina Pollins-Shackelford, Chestnut Creek School of the Arts’ executive director, recalls the toil that went into the work of art she’s spent countless hours creating.

She stands beside it, a huge sculpture of an older man and his two young daughters. Their shoulders and faces seems to rise up and out of the limestone block that she carved them from over nine painstaking months. The work took place outdoors in her back yard, “in single-digit temperatures and in the 90s,” as she puts it.

“It weighs a ton less than it did, literally. It originally came at 7,200 pounds. I removed 16 buckets that have about 50 pounds of rock in them each. Those go with the piece, “ she explains. She says it’s hands down the biggest sculpture she’s ever done.

Joseph A. Hardy III, founder and CEO of 84 Lumber and owner of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania, had been out golfing when a friend said that he should have a sculpture made of himself and his daughters, Paige and Taylor, to leave as part of his legacy. Taken with the idea, Hardy told his assistant, “‘Find me a stonecarver,’” says Pollins-Shackelford. “He said he wanted ‘Mount Rushmore with me and my girls.’”

The assistant looked up the nearby Touchstone Center for Crafts in Pennsylvania, “which is where I taught for 25 or 30 years, I grew up near there,” Pollins-Shackelford says. Touchstone contacted her, and the rest fell into place.

The huge block was craned to her house – the stone originated from Bybee, a company in Illinois that also supplies stone for the National Cathedral among other clients – and on Saturday was taken out the same way.

Pollins-Shackelford continues, “I’ve gone up and met with their landscape and architect engineer about the base that I need to build. And I wanted it on a knoll, with the scattered debris and a bunch of miniature conifers to give it scale, you know, to make it look larger than it was.”

On Monday, Pollins-Shackelford attended the installation of the piece on the resort’s grounds.

Prior to this, she spent plenty of time viewing and taking pictures of the piece from every conceivable angle, plotting what needed to be done where, driving up to Pennsylvania multiple times to meet with the family and enlisting the help of friends and colleagues. Rob Redus, a retired engineer, was “the chunk master” who helped remove large pieces from the block.

Todd Price, a working artist from Elk Creek, told her, when Pollins-Shackelford said she was debating the commission, “‘Chris, this is what you pray for – of course you say yes!’” she laughs. She also got input from two other artists: her mother and a friend in Floyd.

Of Price’s help in particular, she says, “Bless his heart, I feel like I gained a brother out of it.”

The final stretch of sculpting is the most important, she notes. “That last quarter inch is where you really nail it or really miss it. I didn’t get down to this layer until the last two weeks. You’re working and grinding, and that last month – I call it the honey zone – where they’re swimming underneath the surface of the stone, and you’re really feeling it. Because you want it to look like them; you want it to feel like flesh.”

Finally, Hardy came to town to see the results.

“I was so tired. Every knuckle was just blood. I was beat,” she says. She still seems tired, but with a glow of satisfaction. “Because I’d been working, he was coming, this was it, it was final, I was hyped up.”

“We get him here,” she says of having the executive in her yard while the sculpture was covered up. “He says ‘Where is it, where is it?’ I went, ‘Ta da!’” she said, miming the removal of a cover.

She continues with a smile, “I’m looking at the piece, Todd’s looking at him, and Todd said his eyes crinkled up, he had a big smile, and he said, ‘I love it!’ And he walks up – first thing he does is put his hand on it.”

She had hoped to please, but Hardy’s reaction was above and beyond what she’d expected; he sat in front of it for a while, just looking at it and beaming, she says.

“He said, ‘It’s gorgeous. I had no idea it’d be like this!’”

Pollins-Shackelford touches her work with affection. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s complete. Though, like most artists, she can always think of improvements, even if everyone else can’t imagine any way to make it better.

Like all truly good artists, though, she’s able to let go.

“I could still work on it more, but he’s happy, so I’m done,” she says finally, before heading back inside where it’s warm, and to her waiting friends and family.