NEW HAVEN — When sculptor Dennis Sparling started work on his nine-foot-tall sculpture of Leonardo da Vinci, he didn’t expect that one day he’d have to load the 600-pound behemoth onto a trailer and cart it around on a world tour. But, starting next month, Sparling and “Leo” will hit the road for the first leg of their journey.
For the New Haven artist, creating Leonardo has been more than a technical feat — though it did present challenges. Fabricating the sculpture was almost a manifesto.
“It’s a funny thing getting to the age I’m at, which is 67, and still having some drive to make something, to say something, to find something to make life and the difficulty of it survivable,” he said. “I’ve gotten to this point where my skill is at its top, and I’m not going to die as a pathetic, suffering artist.”
Sparling, who has lived and worked in New Haven for more than 40 years, and his son Daniel, also a self-described “incurable artist,” share a capricious structure built on an old, burnt-out limekiln. Sagging smokestacks, remnants of refinery and decrepit railroad spur offset the three-story “cathedral” that Sparling built in the late 1980s.
The lower floor of the building is a high-ceilinged workshop for the Sparling’s prolific metallurgy. The tools of their trade ring the floor — triphammer, planishing hammer, machine lathe and an assortment of smaller implements.
Father and son have long produced decorative lighting, sculptural tables, chairs and mirror frames in the workshop. The showroom is adrift with them. For nearly a decade, Sparling did steady decorative work for customers around Squam Lake, N.H., but he’s turned his attention to fine art like his Church Street “Leapfroggers,” the UVM “Catamount” and his most recent project, Leonardo.
Da Vinci is a key figure in artistic thought, and Sparling plans to use the sculpture to sensitize viewers to those ways of thinking.
“I need Leonardo, the way he all of a sudden opens people’s eyes, as my calling card,” Sparling said. “He’s my backup. Leonardo tells very clearly about a divine, spiritual human being. From my point of view, the modern world is not really looking or remembering deep enough to where art came from.”
The question of art’s origins dogs Sparling’s creative process. His next full-size piece, “Scythian Horseman,” delves even farther into the human mythos — the subject is an ancient, proto-Mongolian horseman, riding the steppes toward the Black Sea. Sparling’s dynamic concept drawing shows a mounted archer, a hunting panther, an eagle and a snake.
“I want to go back to questions way beyond our spin and our arrogance to think we know everything. Art was all about the mythological story and the mystery of life,” he said.
Like Leonardo, the Scythian Horseman will be crafted from a massive roll of sheet copper, donated by Hazelett Strip Casting of Colchester.
But before he can truly start in on the Scythian Horseman, Sparling needs to find a buyer for Leonardo. He hopes to see the piece installed locally — perhaps as part of a metalworking exhibit in Burlington’s revitalized Moran plant — but Sparling and Leonardo have an itch for the road first.
Sparling estimates that he’ll need to raise $10,000 for the tour, and plans to trailer Leonardo down the East Coast, and farther if necessary. Leonardo has made a pre-tour appearances at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury and in Lincoln, but these are just warm-up laps for the coming odyssey.
“We’ll go as far as we have to sell him,” Sparling said.
Wherever the rolling gallery ultimately takes Sparling and his 600-pound traveling companion, they plan to set up an educational program. And, much like his Renaissance teacher, Sparling will offer his audiences his own variety of humanism.
“Mainly I’m doing it for being human and knowing that we’re in trouble, and trying to leave some thread of seed that something beyond my time to grab on to.”
But as iconoclastic as Sparling can be, he emphasizes that he’s working within the system.
“I’m not trying to abuse the modern world,” he said. “I’m as much of the problem as anybody. But I am trying to have some grace and dignity about it, and to teach.”
Just to visit the Sparling castle is an education in itself. Above the workshop, the building rises to a glassed-in kitchen on the second floor, then again to a lofty living room. The ceilings are peaked in four directions and stippled with yellow, gold, and orange paint so that even the home seems to be made from hammered metal.
Sparling, who designed and built the structure himself, says that it’s a fulfillment of his dreams.
“I give great grace and thanks to be alive today and to be living where I am, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have survived with two amazing children, and we have a love affair that I could never have imagined. And we’re still able to eat!”