Shaping A Life In Stone
Somers Randolph '71
By Shelley Dutton and Carrie McCarthy (photos: ©Wendy McEahern)
When you visit Somers Randolph’s studio, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in historic Santa Fe, you find yourself surrounded by delicate curves and arcs, intricate whorls and spirals, and sensuous, undulating knots – breathtaking shapes that reach upward and outward toward the light as surely as living things do.
Somers recalls, “When I was a student at Princeton, I saw a line drawing in a philosophy periodical that captured my attention. The image was a continuous shape, with no beginning and no end. I’m not big on shapes that stop.” So it’s not surprising that much of his work reflects the inherent energy and absolute integrity of closed curves, endlessly circling back upon themselves. While certain shapes recur, each piece is unique, speaking to the viewer in a distinctive way. Somers observes, “The interesting point for the sculptor is how the same shape can look completely different in each iteration. If I make one longer or wider, change the size, upend the orientation, the effect is always something new. Shapes that engage your mind have limitless potential.”
Stone is Somers’ medium. Most people don’t give much thought to stone; if they think of it at all, they likely envision something grey, heavy, and cold. But Somers sees it differently. He says, “Our world is made of stone. Wherever you are, whether in the mountains, in a desert, or at the bottom of the sea, if you reach out or dig down you will find stone. The mineral content and method of formation determine the stone’s look and characteristics. Over millennia, the Earth has produced incredible colors and textures, which offer a stone carver infinite possibilities.”
Somers creates his pieces using granite, marble, alabaster, and onyx sourced from quarries around the world. And he always has an ear to the ground, alert for opportunities to obtain unique and beautiful stone. He recently noted, “Right now, I’m waiting for a shipment of 16 tons of Persian onyx. Getting it here is an arduous and round-about process that takes a while, but it will be worth the wait. The shipment includes white, blue, green, and pink onyx. It’s gorgeous, translucent stone; when it captures the light it glows from within.”
Just as Somers himself does, when he’s talking about his life and work as an artist.
The Artist’s Journey
Exactly where Somers’ identity as an artist began is hard to pinpoint, but one early influence stands out in his mind: “When I was young, I used to spend part of my summers at my Great Uncle Alfred’s place in Tennessee, surrounded by extended family – aunts and uncles and cousins of various degrees. Uncle Alfred was a federal judge with a particular hobby that he practiced at home and on the bench – he whittled. What I remember is that he was more interested in the long curls of cedar than in the stick itself. Inspired by Uncle Alfred, I took to whittling, too. There’s a unique satisfaction that comes from patiently paring away in order to discover something else entirely.”
Somers continues, “As I grew, whenever he would see me, Uncle Alfred would say, ‘Boy, let me see your pocket knife.’ And he would check to see if it was sharp by using it to shave the hairs on his arm. If it was sharp, I got a nod of approval; if not, I would be exhorted to go sharpen it immediately. A sharp knife was a ticket to wisdom. My great uncle was a sage, a respected elder within his family and community. The love of whittling that he passed down to me was a palpable connection to him and the wisdom that he represented.”
Somers smiles, “And so I was hooked. I whittled my way through school and college and into adulthood. Along the way, I discovered stone and honed my reductive process.”
Somers attended The Potomac School from the third through the ninth grade, and he credits Potomac’s emphasis on the arts with fueling his life’s direction. He recalls, “While some schools saw art and music as optional add-ons, Potomac honored the vital role that exposure to the arts plays in the student experience. Fine art, music, and theatrical endeavors were built in; they were essential components of our education.”
He recalls, “Mr. Hebeler was a great art teacher. He gave us the freedom to explore our creativity. I remember, for example, squeezing big tubes of acrylic paint between two boards and then mashing them together to see what the result would be. We had access to art supplies and the freedom to make and create.”
Upon graduating from Potomac at the end of ninth grade, Somers went on to complete his high school education at Phillips Exeter Academy. It was there that he first picked up hammer and chisel and tried his hand at sculpting in stone. He recalls, “At 16 I decided to be a sculptor. This was the way I would spend my life and make my living. I liked sculpture because I was in charge of the entire process. I got to decide the material, the shape, the finish, and how I would go about achieving my vision for each piece. In art, I was the boss of my world – a feeling that most young people long for. But even then I had no illusions about this path; I knew that it was going to be a long, long road to any kind of success or financial stability.”
As he traveled down that road, Somers’ next stop was Princeton University, where he majored in art history. Continuing to refine his artistic skills and beginning to sell his work, he later spent 12 years in California, then seven in Tennessee, where he explored his family heritage. Eventually, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has lived and worked for the past 25 years.
Along the way, Somers encountered some detours, but none that pulled him entirely away from his passion for sculpting. He recounts a key life change: “In the early 1980s, I got sober. I went to a seemingly endless number of meetings. At first, as I sat there listening and thinking, I whittled on bits of wood. But the sound of my whittling was distracting to others, so I decided to switch from wood to soapstone, a softer material that I could carve away at without making much noise. The shapes that you see in my work today emerged again and again, in different iterations, from these small pieces of soapstone.”
He continues, “Fast forward a couple of decades. I made molds from some of my soapstone carvings and cast the shapes in solid gold and sterling silver, turning them into jewelry. Originally, we produced only limited, hand-signed editions. But as the ‘Somers Jewelry’ line became more successful, we transitioned to unlimited editions, with my initials stamped into each piece.”
He recalls with a touch of pride, “Our designs were displayed at major jewelry shows and won awards. It was an exciting time and a way to monetize my art. But eventually I realized that this was not where I wanted to devote my energy. I was, and am, a sculptor. The pull to be carving full time was undeniable.”
Creation, Not Commerce
In Santa Fe, Somers’ home and studio are situated on the aptly named Museum Hill. He has wonderful views from this high perch, and he observes, “It’s a unique place to live, with a spectacular climate – probably one of the only places in the U.S. where you can ski in the morning and play tennis or golf in the afternoon.”
Tauck tour buses regularly pull up outside his studio, after they have visited the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. As Somers welcomes the visitors in, he draws a clear line between creativity and commerce. He says, “I talk about my process and show the pieces I have in the works, as well as the finished pieces on display. But I always tell them, ‘I’m not selling today. I invite you to look around and if you’d like to make a purchase, you can follow up later by texting me a photo of the piece you’re interested in.”
He reflects, “I am fortunate to be able to support myself as a sculptor. But my art is not a commodity. I want people to look at it, think about it, see how it makes them feel. Then if they happen to have an interest in investing in a piece, I’m more than happy to oblige. But my studio isn’t about selling; it’s where I create art – and I need to preserve that distinction.”
Visitors to Somers’ studio are often fascinated by the process of sculpting in stone. He is quick to explain the idea of a subtractive art form, distinct from “additive forms such as welding or bronze casting or even painting.” Somers notes, “In those mediums, the artist can add elements, take something away, and add something else. But with stone, it’s a one-way journey; the only exit is when you stop. And that’s a boundary I enjoy.”
But what happens when something goes wrong on that one-way journey? Somers shares, “I have kept broken pieces in my studio, sometimes for decades, until they morph from tragedies into possibilities. If it’s good stone, there will usually come a time when I no longer see the piece as a failure but simply as something I can take in a new direction.”
Now in his mid-60s, Somers continues to do the “monumentally physical” work of a stone carver every day. He says, “I’m holding grinders and swinging hammers. I hope the exercise keeps me young enough to continue doing this for years to come.” Fortunately, Somers is not alone in the studio as he puts body and soul into his art; his partner and assistant, BenJames Roybal, works alongside him. Somers observes with gratitude, “Every piece that leaves my studio is polished by BenJames. He is absolutely essential to my current process.”
A Transformative Experience
As Somers Randolph talks, a clear picture of the artist as educator emerges. His wide-ranging observations about art forms and artists, and his ability to explain his own work in clear and compelling terms, reflect a desire to help others appreciate the transformative experience of making art.
While the majority of Somers’ pieces are owned by private collectors, a few are on public display at places like the Tennessee State Museum and Vanderbilt University. Now, he is looking forward to a project at the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens. He says, “Next year, I will have several large pieces there, some of which will be interactive. For example, we’ll have a bench textured with letters and symbols, and there will be paper and crayons available so that children can do rubbings, creating their own artwork. We’re also planning to have a block of marble with sheets of clear acrylic hanging down to provide eye protection, and visitors will be able to put their hands in and use tools to chip away at the marble. I think people will be interested to feel what it’s like to take marble off a block – and this also offers them the opportunity to make their own mark on an evolving piece of public art.”
Somers reflects, “One of the hardest challenges today is to let yourself be an artist. Most people have art in them, but they have not had opportunities to explore and develop that creative instinct. This is why arts education is so important.”
He concludes, “As for being a professional artist – that’s a formidable challenge. It’s not an easy career to pursue in a highly commercialized world. I decided to be a sculptor at 16. Now, at 66, I am rewarded by that teenager’s decision on a daily basis. I have shaped the life I envisioned.”
The Art of Medicine
Somers has another new project on the horizon – one that is especially close to his heart. He is now working with Washington, DC’s Children’s National Hospital to develop a piece of public artwork that honors his father, Dr. Judson G. Randolph, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 87.
Dr. Randolph served as chief of surgery at Children’s National for nearly three decades, performing hundreds of surgeries each year and supervising hundreds more. His obituary in The Washington Post noted that his surgical achievements included separation of conjoined twins; removal of a two-inch pin lodged in a young child’s trachea; and myriad heart, lung, brain, and intestinal procedures. Dr. Randolph founded Children’s pediatric surgical training program, and Somers recounts with pride, “My father trained the current chiefs of surgery at more than 20 children’s hospitals across the United States.” In addition to his skill as a surgeon, Dr. Randolph was known for his caring spirit and the comforting rapport he had with his young patients and their parents.
Somers describes the project this way: “We are going to create a white marble bench in the shape of a ‘C’ for Children’s National. Textured with shapes, letters of the alphabet, and other designs, it will offer children who are patients at the hospital, or visiting someone there, the opportunity to express their creativity through rubbings.”
He observes, “The joy of making art can lift a person out of the present moment. While they are absorbed in creating their colorful rubbings, the children will be transported away from the hospital, which can be a scary and traumatic place.”
Somers concludes, “My father devoted his entire life to caring for children and making their time in the hospital as pain-free as possible. This bench, which will have the potential to distract children from where they are and bring them moments of joy, is exactly what he would have wanted.”