Builder-Turned Sculptor Dave Allen’s Logic-Defying Work
Carved from granite, Allen’s large-scale dynamic sculptures spin, twirl, rock, and transport the viewer into a new headspace while playing with tension.
I first encountered the work of David Allen at one of June LaCombe’s sculpture exhibitions on her farm in Pownal. As I approached the piece I could appreciate how skillfully and exquisitely the granite had been cut, shaped, and polished. It consisted of a simple bench made of a thick buffed slab, its edges left naturally rough, sitting atop two chunky granite blocks. On the bench rested a horseshoe-shaped piece of granite that tapered delicately as it moved up toward the two prongs at the top.
Then June did something that made me gasp out loud. With the slightest, gentlest gesture of her hand, she pushed one of the prongs and the horseshoe began to rock. As it slowly moved back and forth, it oscillated far enough to each side that the prong tips almost touched the bench, and at times I feared it might roll right off and shatter. I was mesmerized.
I have seen many other moving stone sculptures of Allen’s since then—“Eccentric” and “Inclusion” for example, which also rock back and forth, granite rings suspended from trees that twirl gently in the breeze, inverted top shapes that spin on an invisible peg in the base. All of them telegraph everything good about sculpture: tension between thick volumes and attenuated shapes and between polished and rough surfaces; compelling forms; sensual tactility; and a commanding physical presence that, by the works’ intervention in the landscape, defines the space around them. “You don’t think stone that weighs 200 or 300 pounds can move like that,” acknowledges Allen. “People are like little kids with toys when they discover the movement. They suddenly become magical.”
We don’t think of granite as enchanting. Yet enchantment is precisely one of the unique emotions (along with awe) that Allen elicits, through tremendous skill and precision, from the viewer. “Viewer,” in fact, seems a wholly inadequate term. “So many of his pieces are dynamic,” explains LaCombe. “You participate in his pieces. They roll and rock and spin. That’s extraordinary to do with sculpture.”
The 46-year-old Allen grew up with art. His father, Richard Allen, taught art at Chapel Hill–Chauncy Hall School, a boarding school in Waltham, Massachusetts, and continues to exhibit his paintings in Maine. (Allen’s mother, whom he refers to as his “number one supporter,” also had a career in academics, teaching French and psychology and, later, as academic dean at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall). Allen started working in construction when he was about 18. One job he took was with a Portland-based granite countertop fabricator, where he learned stone cutting and polishing techniques.
Books about the work of English environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy that his parents had in the house spurred Allen into his own experimentations with land art, which had, he explains, “no tooling; just working with natural materials in their own environments. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t seen his work.” Eventually these experiments evolved into a serious pursuit.
In 2016 Allen began doing more refined pieces, mostly spheres and cairns built up by using leftover pieces of countertops he had cut. He used no mortar to hold them together, and they remained stationary on the landscape. Through this work, he says, he began to really understand the creative potential of stone. “One reason it’s fascinating,” he observes, “is that you can create so many finishes. There’s an infinite number of ways you can go—from split-face to polished, and all these different grains and colors. It’s kind of an unlimited palette.”
That was a turning point. Stone scraps that would otherwise be discarded into a landfill were readily available. Allen could use them to create something beautiful instead. His sculptures evolved from the spheres and cairns to other forms. He has also adhered pieces with epoxy so they are solid. One at his home in Sebago is a four-foot-tall inverted top shape that you can spin and rock, if you exert a bit more muscle than LaCombe’s soft nudge of the piece in Pownal.
But Allen also uses fieldstone boulders “right out of the ground” and salvaged foundation stones from the area’s nineteenth-century barns and houses. “They have a patina and a history,” he says of the latter. “Every piece was cut by some farmer and used in a building that eventually burned down. I have to honor that, salvage the best aspects of them, and not overwork them.” Indeed, work made from these stones has a kind of palpable narrative quality.
Although not all of Allen’s sculptures move, they are magical in other ways. Some of his portal works—basically enormous stone slabs with holes cut out of them that he places vertically on the land—have an incongruous effect. Because he bevels the inside of the hole on the side facing away from the viewer, the void gives the appearance of a round television screen. The section of landscape we see through it feels like it is separate from the actual view, as if that circular glimpse of it has been pushed toward the viewer and trapped inside the hole. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what happens, but it is mind-bending when you see it.
These pieces are also worked in various interesting ways. The inside of the hole is polished, while the vertical surfaces can be rough or incised with miniscule grid patterns using an angle grinder and then polished at surface level. “I want to evoke some feeling or emotion,” Allen says. “I like the tension. The skill is a reflection of my past career. I’ve been hanging doors, making cabinets, cutting things with a skill saw. I spent a lot of time eyeballing things to make sure they were straight. Now I’m eyeballing the sculptures against the horizon.”
THE SCULPTURE WHISPERER
June LaCombe’s biannual shows at Hawk Ridge Farm in Pownal, where she exhibited hundreds of sculptures placed throughout her woods, meadows, roadside, and home. She has also spoken about sculpture and guest-curated countless shows, including at Maine Audubon, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, where she discovered the work of David Allen.
This year, however, she has suspended her Hawk Ridge Farm shows and instead is leading intimate artists’ studio tours. They are held throughout New England. You can view the schedule on her website: junelacombesculpture.com (click “Events”). For inquiries about David Allen’s and other artists’ work, you can email her at [email protected]