Sculpting out life
Sep. 3, 1999

September 3, 1999

Weitzman's works adorn prominent locations around the state

by Liz M. Zylwitis

Staff Writer

From the age of 19, when he accepted his first job as an artist, Steven Weitzman of Takoma Park has always been his own boss.

Weitzman, 46, once a successful painter/illustrator in Boulder, Colo., moved his commercial art business to the Washington, D.C., suburbs 14 years ago to compete for public commissions.

"I like Takoma Park because it reminds me of Boulder," Weitzman said. "It is very green, very laid-back."

While he lives in Takoma Park, Weitzman's studio is in a warehouse on Windom Road in Brentwood about 15 minutes away.

There, he works side by side with three full-time assistants who help him create the molds for up to five large-scale projects at a time. Although Weitzman has the most experience in the group, with nearly 30 years to his credit, he said he makes a practice of hiring skilled sculptors and relies on his staff to get the job done and deliver it on time.

He has a wide range of artistic tastes and has created art since he was a child. Although he never had a mentor, he believes his love of art could have come from his father who died when he was 9 months old.

Weitzman said he always keeps his eyes open for art openings. He finds many avenues to artistic expression in Washington, ranging from the Smithsonian to the local library.

It was an assignment as a substitute teacher at Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Center that first brought Weitzman to Montgomery County in the early 1980s.

Joe Howard, now chairman of the Montgomery County Forestry Board, remembers hiring Weitzman and providing him with room and board during the first few months of his stay.

After reading an article about Weitzman's work with the American Forestry Association in American Forest magazine, Howard had contacted the author of the piece to find out the best way to reach Weitzman. Shortly after he sent the author a letter to forward to Weitzman, they connected.

"I had seen other woodcarvings around and talked to other artists, but none of them were as congenial or talented as Steven is," Howard said.

While teaching at Smith Center, Weitzman developed a woodcarving called, "The Learning Tree," which features a variety of animals and plants native to Maryland. In addition to a Chesapeake Bay retriever, Maryland's state dog, the woodcarving also includes the state insect, the state bird and other symbols of Maryland heritage.

Weitzman's development of this 15-foot-tall woodcarving coincided with Maryland's 350th anniversary. The woodcarving, which was initially displayed outdoors, now occupies Smith Center's main building, White Oak Hall.

"I took Steven around while he was working at the Smith Center and showed him a lot of places," Howard said. "He could look at a tree and see beyond what was there. The woodcarving at the Smith Center included twice as many things when it was finished as I had originally hoped. He really has vision."

After completing the woodcarving at Smith Center, Weitzman did other works at several Montgomery County public schools.

Since that time, the works produced in Weitzman's Brentwood studio have begun popping up at prominent locations throughout the state.

The woodcarving that stands in the Montgomery County Judicial Building in Rockville is one example of the type of project that has won him international acclaim.

He carved that work on the grounds of the United Nations in commemoration of the International Year of the Youth and an international tree planting project that resulted in the planting of one billion trees worldwide.

Titled "The Caretakers," it depicts three young people of different nationalities planting a tree. It took Weitzman six months to create.

"The wood for ["The Caretakers"] came from a 200-year-old American elm tree on Montgomery Avenue in Rockville," Weitzman said. "Everyone who had lived there knew this tree, because it covered both sides of the street. The tree grew up and died on Montgomery Avenue. It was an enormous tree. To give you an idea of scale, the carving is 7.5 feet across the bottom."

To prevent member states of the UN from buying the woodcarving and taking it abroad, Montgomery County officials joined in the bidding and eventually brought it back to the county seat, Weitzman said. The woodcarving has been in the courthouse lobby since 1986.

On another occasion, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission asked Weitzman to design a bronze sculpture for the lobby of its corporate headquarters in Laurel. At 20 feet long and 7.5 feet tall, it shows two men trying to turn off a broken water main valve while water escapes from a crack in one of the pipes and spouts upward.

Weitzman later made a woodcarving of two children planting a tree using a branch from the Wye Oak, which is the largest white oak tree in the United States. This work displayed in the Tawes State Office Building in Annapolis. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources' woodcarving is the state's official monument to Arbor Day.

More recently, Weitzman and his staff have been working on a bronze sculpture of the preacher Elijah Pierce for Columbus (Ohio) Community College. From one angle, Pierce appears to be praying but from a different angle, he is carving. Carving was one of Pierce's favorite pastimes.

A development company has hired Weitzman to make a sculpture for a new community being constructed in Maryland near the District line. When it is complete, it will feature a 21-foot sundial and a fountain in the design of a timepiece to contrast ancient and contemporary time. In-laid concentric circles and quotations about time will complete the motif.

And finally, Weitzman is also working on a series of sound barriers with creative surfaces that will be used along Interstate 95. The sculptures will include a forest, sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay and birds in flight. When the molds are ready, they will be sent to a subcontractor to be cast in concrete.

"With our molds, you can have a scene that is never the same," Weitzman said. "You stack them in different ways to make the treetops come down to the foreground or mix birds in with boats."