When Stephen Balamut started sculpting as a young man in Brooklyn, he sourced wood from the trees of his borough.
City work crews cut down and sawed apart the arbors, he said, leaving the logs for trucks to pick up. Balamut, who was working for his father’s pillow factory, took advantage.
“I had a station wagon for the business, and I said, ‘pull over.’”
In 1967, he took some wood to his parents’ house in the Hamptons, and with a hammer, chisel, and no carving experience, sculpted “Man and Woman,’ his first piece in nearly 50 years of making art.
“Every step was a learning process,” he said.
Speaking in his Greenpoint apartment, just a few steps from where the factory once stood, Balamut, 75, described his decades-long effort to make art after hours as “troublesome,” explaining that he attended art classes at night and made work on weekends, a mundane utterance of cosmic import. He was in a gallery show once, in Upper Manhattan, but found that the work required promotion, and he was busy running the factory.
In 2011, Balamut exhibited marble sculptures in the factory’s old office on Oak Street, along with the artist Sascha Ascher, whose charcoal-on-paper works hung inside, and dyed fiber works adorned scaffolding outside.
Balamut learned to work with marble from Philip Pavia, the avant-garde sculptor, at the New School in the early seventies. He also started painting, to gain release from the chipping and carving. But for gifts to relatives, he kept his finished pieces, which number more than fifty.
David Cagan, a longtime friend who lives in Stone Ridge, NY, where Balamut has a home, a barn, and ten wooded acres, sees much of the artist’s sculpture as dealing with the sensuousness and difficulty of love relationships.
He also views the uneven craniums in some of Balamut’s busts as representing his friend’s conflict between his occupation and calling.
“He was a businessman all his life, but he wanted to be an artist,” said Cagan, who received a degree in art history from Cornell University.
The woods in Stone Ridge provided the material for Balamut’s most recent work. A local woodsman pointed out a dead cherry tree on his property, and said that the wood beneath the bark might be good.
Looking closely at it, Balamut saw it had been hit by lightning.
“It didn’t split the tree or anything, [it] just slid along the bark. You could see the burn marks,” he said. “The lightning doesn’t come down straight, it has a curve in it.”
“I said to myself, there’s a shape that’s made by God.”
In the work that followed, Balamut aimed “to bring out the lightning, the streaks of lightning coming down.” A photograph of the artist standing beside the eight-foot piece, hanging from a pulley in his local studio, reflects his love for his curvaceous creation.
Visit Stephen Balamut at 68 Commercial Street during Greenpoint Open Studios, or contact the artist here.
Stephen Balamut was born in Brooklyn in 1941. He studied accounting and worked at his father’s pillow factory, but at 25, found himself wandering the art museums of the city. He took a sculpture class at the Brooklyn Museum, and made his first piece, “Man and Woman,” in 1967 from part of a felled city tree. In the ensuing decades, Balamut kept working with wood, learned to sculpt marble, and started painting. He carved his latest piece from an eight-foot section of a cherry tree that was struck by lightning.