Man — or woman, as the case may be — against rock. It’s the proving ground for the human stories we hope will last. It’s me bounding up a face of red sandstone in Moab after the man I loved. It’s friends marking their marriage with a hike across the Swiss Alps. And it’s another couple I know who’ve just pledged to spend their lives together from the peak of Kilimanjaro. And then, when my stony face tells her things have crumbled, it’s a friend trying to lift my spirits by inviting me to rock climb with her at the gym.
Artists, too, have long wrought blood from stones, choosing the medium to tell their most passionate stories. Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and the embracing marble couple in Rodin’s The Kiss recreate, respectively, the agony and ecstasy of the flesh so convincingly you forget to breathe. It’s a trope that never gives out, it seems, if singer-songwriters are any barometer: “Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock,” observes Joni Mitchell in Hejira, “They’re either going to thaw out or freeze”; while Paul Simon’s lovelorn protagonist protests, “I am a rock/I am an island.”
Indiana’s own native stone has played a central role in the drama of human civilization, from building our cities to marking our final resting places. Salem limestone, known as Indiana limestone throughout the construction industry, has been used to build everything from the Empire State Building to the National Cathedral to the capitols of 35 states. And it has been incorporated into the memorials of our most august personages — Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s in Washington, for starters — and our lesser known ones, whose lives are celebrated in the limestone tree stumps and Grecian temples that cover Bedford’s Green Hill Cemetery.
The story of the belt of fine stone — lying roughly from Spencer to Bedford and created from the crushed bodies of creatures who once swam in an inland sea around 330 million years ago — is oft recited around these parts. But the epic process by which blocks of the stone are hewn from the ground and transformed into cities never fails to thrill. The subject was positively irresistible to a couple of young artists who were recruited to the ranks of Indiana University’s faculty in the early ’80s.
“Jeff was photographing the quarries and the mills … and I was writing about the quarries and the mills, but I didn’t know Jeff and Jeff didn’t know me,” explains IU Professor Emeritus of English Scott Russell Sanders. Painter Ron Markman was, however, aware that fellow Fine Arts faculty member Jeffrey Wolin was independently pursuing the same subject matter, and he introduced the two.
“We were very wary,” Sanders admits, “because both of us thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is my turf. I have got this terrain and who is this other guy horning in on it?’ So we decided we would get together for coffee and pie and check one another out and see if we could possibly collaborate.” Meeting at Bruce’s Cafe, a long-shuttered diner on the Near West Side, the two “immediately took a liking to one another and planned a couple of outings, and that confirmed it,” says Sanders.
The young professors spent a year and a half documenting Indiana’s legendary vein of stone — “the largest accessible deposit of premium building stone in the United States,” as Sanders writes — and getting to know the people who worked it. The result was Stone Country, published by IU Press in 1985. The volume paired Wolin’s black-and-white photographs of quarries, workers, and limestone structures with Sanders’ account of the material’s geological and cultural history, leavened with character sketches and stories gathered along the way.
The publication was synchronized with an exhibition of Wolin’s black-and-white photographs from the book at what is now the Grunwald Gallery on campus. “We invited everybody that we had spoken with, along with their families, to the opening,” Sanders recalls. “And about 200 people came. Stoneworkers — many of whom we had seen covered with limestone dust — showed up in their funeral suits. They came with wives, with grandchildren in many cases. It was really moving to us to feel their pride and how it mattered to them that the work they had devoted their lives to — and in many cases their ancestors had devoted their lives to — was recognized as worthy of a book, of photographs, of an exhibition, and that many people from the university and elsewhere in the community came to celebrate this. It made me feel that we had done something useful.”
If they’d been playing a round of “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?,” Sanders and Wolin would have both had to concede that their ostensible subject had started in the last category and migrated to the first. What began as an ode to a geologically stupendous landscape became a paean to the people whose lives had been defined by it. “For me, what emerged as the most interesting thing was the way the land carved the people, in a way,” says Wolin. “It made them who they were. And that’s what I was trying to convey in their faces.” The project completely redirected Wolin’s artistic focus. “I became a portrait photographer as a result of this book. I was a landscape photographer before I went in there.”
Wolin went on to photograph Vietnam vets and Holocaust survivors and generations of residents of Bloomington’s housing projects, while Sanders made his mark writing on place, family, and ecology — not to mention a fanciful recreation of pioneer life in the short-story collection Wilderness Plots. Their collaborative effort, Stone Country, had long since gone out of print when, in late 2015, its authors, recently retired from their respective faculty positions, reunited for a sequel.
For the new edition, Stone Country: Then and Now, they set out to take more pictures and gather more stories. Hoping that the update would provide a longitudinal view of the subject over more than three decades, they asked a quarry owner they’d known in the ’80s whether she could direct them to any of the workers they’d profiled the first time around. Pat Fell, the owner of B.G. Hoadley Quarries, suggested Larry Anderson. On the cover of the original book, Anderson is the hard-hatted figure wedged within a landscape of stacked monoliths, signaling where the off-camera derrick operator should drop the next block. Anderson was still working for Hoadley, but if Wolin wanted to take another portrait of him, he’d have to get on it — Anderson was retiring the following day. Wolin took it as a sign that they were on the right track.
In the new edition, the portrait of Anderson on his last day on the job faces the original black-and-white quarry scene. This time, it’s the figure that dominates the landscape — Anderson’s vigorous stance atop a limestone block in the foreground boosts his hard-hatted head above the horizon.
The pendant portraits indicate a shift in their subject’s orientation toward the stone from which he’s hewn his life. But what of the authors’ attitude toward their stony muse, thirty years on? If there was something of the young man’s game in their initial engagement with the formidable terrain, is there not an elegiac tinge in the reprise? Limestone, after all, has served not only to express the proudest examples of human ingenuity but also to convey our most tender feelings. In another photograph, a crude slab inscribed “Asleep in Jesus,” with a backward “J,” marks the final resting place of a boy who died at age nine in 1945. It’s in a little graveyard “on a knobby hill,” Sanders writes, adjacent to the quarry that gave New York the Empire State Building.
Everyone needs a durable sign that his or her life matters, a fact that artists, and architects perhaps, acknowledge more than most. It’s what prompts people to wrestle with marble to render flesh and to lift multi-ton blocks out of an Indiana quarry to perch at the top of the Manhattan skyline. “Well I looked at the granite markers,” croons Joni Mitchell from the car, on the landscape passing by. “Those tributes to finality, to eternity/And then I looked at myself here/Chicken scratching for my immortality.”
Sculptors, architects, and limestone carvers secure their place in stone, but it was a writer, after all, who came up with the pronouncement, Ars longa, vita brevis (“Art is long, life is short”).
“Libraries full of books — all those words, all those pages, all those images — are the residue of human effort,” Sanders suggests. “Go to the IU Library with its two million volumes. On the one hand it’s a graveyard, and on the other hand it preserves all that human imagination and history and storytelling. And I feel that I’m a microscopic part of that structure. And the two books that we’ve now made together are our own contribution to that accumulation of human expression, human reflection, human imagination. And this particular pair of books is a sort of love letter to the place where we’ve spent our adult, professional lives.”
[Editor’s note: Click here to hear Yael Ksander’s interview with Scott Russell Sanders and Jeffrey Wolin on WFIU’s Profiles. Stone Country: Then and Now, featuring text by Sanders and photographs by Wolin, is available from IU Press. An exhibition of photographs featured in the book is on view at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis through September 10, 2017.]