Female artists and earth-friendly materials take center-stage at Sculpturefest

Co-directed by Charlet and Peter Davenport, Sculpturefest kicked off its 35th season in Woodstock, Vermont on July 2.

by Maia Stewart | 7/14/23 2:00am


Photo by Stefania Urist

In Woodstock, Vermont, just a few turns off of Central Street and down a quiet gravel road, Charlet and Peter Davenport ring in their 35th annual Sculpturefest. Charlet Davenport says she initially founded the year-round exhibition in an effort to raise money for outdoor art — inspired by her visits to outdoor galleries like Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. 

“Whenever I saw any art outside, I was always stunned and loved it,” she said. “So I decided to raise money.” 

The first few years of Sculpturefest looked different than the present day exhibition — the Davenports formerly hosted dinner parties at their home, charging guests a fee and inviting artists working with three-dimensional media to display their work for the guests to enjoy. 

The goal of these dinner parties was to raise money for painters and sculptors in Vermont, as there was little money from the Vermont Arts Council to support them, according to Charlet Davenport who herself served on the council. However, she said she soon recognized a need for something more.

“I found that raising money for the arts was not as useful as making sure the arts in Vermont had a special field,” Davenport said. She discovered that having a venue to display work was more profitable for the artists — and thus the current Sculpturefest model was born.

The Davenports run Sculpturefest along with designer and artist Dennis Grady, who creates exhibits for Baker-Berry library. Grady has operated their website since 2000 and has contributed artwork to Sculpturefest since 2003.

Stefania Urist is Sculpturefest’s 2023 featured artist. Using phragmites, an invasive species in Eastern North America, Urist created her largest artwork to date by weaving the phragmites into fences. The installation aims to addresses “the complicated issues of borders and migration of all species, and the impact of human development on the environment,” according to the Sculpturefest website.

Urist emphasized Charlet and Peter Davenport’s genuine care for fostering a supportive environment for artists. 

“Charlet and Peter basically do [Sculpturefest] out of the kindness of their own heart — they’re doing it because they love artists, and they love creating a really engaging community art space,” Urist said. 

The Davenports have dedicated themselves to creating a supportive space for both experienced and novice outdoor artists. Often more experienced artists, as well as Davenport herself, assume mentorship and teaching roles for newer artists. 

Melanie Brotz is a new artist to Sculpturefest who has a piece made of driftwood on display currently. Brotz noted Davenport’s ability for mentoring as Brotz created her sculpture on site. Through her relationship with Davenport, she said she has been able to expand her connection to other Upper Valley art communities. 

“She is so connected in the art community around the Woodstock area, and she’s so supportive of trying to help artists make other connections,” Brotz said. “She introduced me to people at the Historical Society in Woodstock who may be interested at some point in my creating [art] on their land.”

Davenport acknowledged the importance of these mentorship networks across the local community. 

“[Artists] share their ideas and materials, and some of them teach,” Davenport said. “For example, Roger Goldbenberg, who has been working at AV gallery teaching, helped a couple people learn to weld, including [artist] Ellen Soroka.”

Ellen Soroka has two sculptures featured at Sculpturefest this season, one of which is made out of a lightweight material called paltiya, an earth-friendly material which looks like stone. As an architect currently living in Taftsville, Vermont, Soroka shared her appreciation for Davenport’s effort to bring in pieces from Upper Valley artists.

“She’s very active in the art world around here,” Soroka said. “I liked the fact that she wanted to bring in local work, as opposed to, you know, stuff from New York or California, so that's kind of why I wanted to be part of it.” 

Herb Ferris is another local Vermont-based artist, working mostly with stone and wood. Ferris  has had his art in Sculpturefest for most of its existence, including this year’s exhibition. One of Ferris’s statues this year is called “Dance of Ideas,” resembling the raised arms of a ballet dancer, and it stands firmly on the Davenports’ property. Ferris praised the natural setting at Sculpturefest, situated in the beautiful nature of Woodstock.

“Peter Davenport takes care of things, and he spends hours and hours mowing and trimming,” Ferris said. “He’s also very good at citing things, so that is a great asset. And Charlet is very welcoming of all sorts of ideas.”

Sculpturefest was where Urist started working outdoors with outdoor sculpture and art, which she credits to the safe, rule-free environment that the Davenports have produced. 

“They’re not a big organization that all say no to things,” Urist said. “They really try to help anybody do whatever they want. So it’s really such a special place.”