Metal mammoth watches over Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Drivers negotiating downtown Middlebury’s roundabout already needed to keep their wits about them, ever mindful of the occasional Impala, Jaguar or Mustang that might suddenly dart into that circular asphalt jungle.
Now another animal has joined the herd at that sometimes frenetic site: An almost 10-foot-tall elephant that will spend the next year guarding the small plaza fronting the Middlebury municipal building at 77 Main St. But this particular pachyderm is like none other: It’s a mesmerizing metallic sculpture created by Panton artist Eben Markowski.
She’s called “Gravity,” and is a creative representation of an Asian elephant. She’s been beguiling folks for more than a year at her most recent preserve at the Burlington International Airport.
Two of Gravity’s biggest fans have been Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and Bill Brooks, executive director of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. Both recognized the cultural, artistic and educational advantages of bringing Markowski’s creation for an extended appearance in Addison County’s shire town.
They saw that the sculpture inspires many reactions: fascination, for how the artist transformed salvaged steel into the skeletal foundation and plated hide of one of the great animals still walking the Earth; sadness, for seeing the network of chains that give the animal dimension, but also illustrates the servitude to which many elephants are condemned; and hope, for knowing that Gravity might inspire new generations to keep elephants from becoming abused and/or eradicated for their hides, tusks and bones.
“In discussing the display with Eben and his team, we brainstormed ways to engage the community with Gravity as a springboard for environmental policy discussion,” Ramsay said. “Ideas included Eben hosting tours and discussion groups with people of all ages and backgrounds in our community — tots from daycares; elder care program participants; elementary, middle and high school students; college students; and residents from our retirement communities, just to name a few.”
A CLOSER LOOK at the elephant’s massive foot.
Independent photo/Steve James
Gravity was commissioned in 2013 by a Champlain Valley client (one who prefers to remain anonymous) who has great admiration and respect for elephants, Markowski said.
“She has wanted me to make an elephant for her for around 30 years,” he said. “She envisioned a piece that I would make and put into her backyard.”
The original plan was for an aluminum-skinned elephant that would resemble “an enormous, blown ceramic figurine,” according to Markowski.
Aluminum, he noted, is light and easy to shape. Two people could have picked it up and moved it, though being malleable and light can also be negatives when it comes to sculpture.
“A piece like that could be blown over and is also very susceptible to a tree limb falling on it and really damaging it,” he said.
Client and sculptor emailed back and forth to come up with new ideas.
“‘Chain’ became a recurring theme,” Markowski recalled.
They agreed a chain or chains could be woven into the sculpture to not only give it greater stability and visual impact, but also to impart the sad reality that elephants — at the top of the food chain in the wild — have historically been forced into labor or circus antics when controlled by humans.
Rather than ordering an impressive lawn ornament, the client instead decided to give Markowski great freedom to craft a tribute to elephants that could be shared with folks throughout Vermont and beyond.
“The client did an about-face and said … ‘Let’s go for something provocative and authentic to describe the actual state of affairs (for elephants),’” Murkowski said.
THIS PASSERBY GOT a pleasant surprise while walking past the Middlebury town offices at 77 Main St. this past Saturday. Panton-based artist Eben Markowski and his crew assembled an elephant sculpture called “Gravity.” The steel artwork will maintain vigil outside the town offices for an entire year.
Independent photo/Steve James
He was fortunate enough to access all his Gravity materials within Addison County, with the exception of a few items procured in Hinesburg.
Much of the sheet-form metal or plate-work was easy to find. And he sourced the thicker steel plating from a salvaged underground fuel tank. He used an acetylene torch to heat, shrink and fashion curves in the metal.
“I leveraged the curves that are inherent in that barrel shape (of a tank) and found a close facsimile of how they would work for the anatomy I was going for,” Markowski said. “Steel is so amazing; it’s so work friendly, accessible and incredibly durable.”
He believed it would be a chore to get the amount of quality, weathered chain he would need for Gravity.
“No one ever throws chain away,” he explained. “The chain has to be so bad to throw it away. Because you can always downgrade what you’re going to pull with it. You can always mend it. It always has a value where people don’t want to get rid of it.”
But one day two of his friends happened to be at the same Hinesburg scrapyard on the same day when more than 800 pounds of chain-y goodness came up for grabs. The two men — unaware at first they were both scavenging on behalf of Markowski — called “dibs” and got into a virtual tug-of-war over the chain. They finally realized they were on the same team, and calmly secured the material for their mutual pal’s metal mastodon.
“I ended up with two pickup trucks full of chain,” Markowski said. “It was an enormously serendipitous situation.”
THE ARTIST AT work in Middlebury. Below, a young art appreciator takes in the sculpture.
Independent photo/Steve James
As hoped, the chain, in addition to providing a powerful symbol, gave the elephant an animated, droopy belly.
Gravity’s all-metal skeleton includes four independent legs fashioned with four-by-four steel columns. The two rear legs hook into an improvised pelvis, from which a spine extends to the front shoulder blades.
It and the outside plated “skin” will develop more character with age, as the weather gives the elephant’s hide a weathered patina.
“That surface oxidation is always morphing,” Markowski said. “I find that very attractive.”
A crew of five, including Markowski and his spouse Heidi, moved the elephant from Panton to its new Middlebury stomping ground this past Saturday, April 13. It took a full workday to relocate and reassemble Gravity, a process Markowski believes will get easier each time the beautiful behemoth switches zip codes.
The sum of elephant’s metallic parts tips the scales at more than 1,500 pounds, according to Markowski.
The beast’s keepers are finding ways to shorten the chore, in part by learning how to disassemble the elephant in larger chunks. For example, the elephant’s trunk, at one point, had to be transported in two or three pieces, but now they move it in one piece.
And this time around, Heidi came up with the great idea to attach multi-colored pipe cleaners to individual pieces of the sculpture so its connection points are easy to find during reassembly.
“There’s some logic in terms of how things go together, and there’s an organization to keeping things properly oriented, but the little color codes are the final step in making sure ‘this hook goes on that link,’” Markowski said. “Each time we move it, we get to learn a little bit more, and refine it.”
Markowski’s brother, Jud, has a modified sheetrocker’s staging setup that allows them to joist Gravity’s spine in place, instead of having to use ladders. The animal also assists in its own assembly.
“The framework of the elephant lends itself as a lifting point,” Markowski said. “I can hook a pulley to the front of the spine and actually winch the trunk up to the head.”
A nice crowd watched the crew assemble Gravity in Middlebury, which is really a bonus.
“All of this I think will one day play really nicely into idea the performance art of a setup,” he said.
Gravity is just a stone’s throw away from the Sheldon Museum — and a big fan in Brooks.
“I admire his combined talents as an engineer and artist and am especially attracted to his animal sculptures that are often simple in appearance, while complicated and intricate in design,” Brooks said of Markowski in an email. “He brings a historic, thoughtful, deeply personal study of the animals before embarking on his sculptural projects.”
Brooks also called Markowski “an environmentalist, an articulate and impassioned spokesman advocating methods to curb climate change. He is a contemporary artist and engaged citizen teaching us how better live our lives and through his art to better appreciate and understand the challenges faced by threatened animals. Gravity epitomizes his approach to art, the environment, and education.”
Gravity is holding court just around 30 feet from Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster’s office.
“It is fun to see the surprise and excitement on the faces of people seeing it for the first time,” she said on Tuesday.
Webster noted some irony in the visual pull of the metallic elephant.
“It symbolizes much about the darker side of humanity,” she said. “The medium of steel, especially as it rusts and darkens, is quite stark. The chains covering the elephant evoke feelings of how badly we can treat animals, as well as other humans. The ability to see through the sculpture makes me feel how easy it is to make a problem, such as endangered species, endangered world, invisible and transparent.”
Webster said the early reviews have been good.
“I think the artist has created an evocative piece and I love the way it changes in its presence depending on where you stand when viewing and also how the piece looks different in the rain than it does in the sun,” she said. “A few people have commented on the elephant and most responses have been quite positive.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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