The World According to Calder
The artist's life in Roxbury
Northwest Connecticut has always had its colony of writers and actors. For many years Bridgewater was home to critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks and writer Norman Mailer. But many celebrated men of letters congregated in Roxbury.
As early as 1947, playwright Arthur Miller was already a resident. Just down the road were Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron and wife Rose, who moved into the neighborhood in the 1950s. Over the years their neighbors included actor Richard Widmark, Walter Matthau and his wife Carol; Dustin Hoffman, poet Louis Untermeyer, and artist Alexander “Sandy” Calder.
Calder had arrived long before this esteemed group when he and his wife settled in Roxbury in 1933, after having lived in Paris for many years. They purchased a dilapidated eighteenth century farmhouse, with an icehouse and eighteen acres of land for the meager total of $3,500. He painted the house matte black and turned the icehouse into his studio. Although he was from a family of artists, he got his degree in mechanical engineering, which served him well once he turned to art and began making his mobiles and wire sculptures.
When Calder created his large stabiles, he would begin by making a small model, or maquette, of his idea and bring it to Segre’s Iron Works in Waterbury, who then turned it into the massive pieces that grace city squares, colleges, business, and sculpture parks throughout the country. It was not uncommon in those days to drive past the Waterbury establishment and see Calder pieces lying on their sides, as the sculpture was being constructed.
There was much socializing in Roxbury during the Calder years. Playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, were part of the group and were very close friends with the Calders. He has said that the sun shone on Calder’s life, his spirit tended toward light rather than darkness and that creating was what he enjoyed most. “We used to have dinner with the Millers quite often and Sandy and Louisa were usually there,” recalls Rose Styron. “He was charming, warmhearted and kind. It was not uncommon for him to arrive with a kitchen utensil that he had created for Inge. She had quite a collection.” Morath also had jewelry that Calder had designed and he once presented the Styrons with a little drawing he had made.
One of his most treasured pieces is his “Circus,” part of the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The whimsy and the inventiveness of that piece has never been duplicated by any artist. His radical innovations included open-air wire sculptures and he is responsible for introducing a new art form, the mobile, for which he is probably best known.
“I can remember being at a dinner party with Calder and he would quietly bring out a version of his miniature circus and entertain us all,” says Styron, who sold her house in Roxbury and has moved to Martha’s Vineyard. She also recalled another occasion when Calder pulled up a high stool next to her seat at dinner. Halfway through the evening he put his head on her shoulder and fell asleep. “I had this big furry head on my shoulder through the rest of dinner,” she says.
In addition to his drawings, paintings, utensils, jewelry, mobiles, and sculptures, Calder is represented locally through three murals, painted on outside walls of three Marcel Breuer houses in Litchfield, a result of his friendship with Rufus Stillman who brought Breuer and mid-century architecture to this area. While one of those original murals has been destroyed, the other two have been restored and are still intact.
Today Calder’s work is still coveted as witnessed by the prices his work commands at auction. Thousands of examples of his art remain with the Calder Foundation, founded by his grandson Alexander Rower, also known as Sandy. Various artists’ residences have been established in Calder’s name and the foundation is diligent about keeping his legacy intact. Although he died in 1976, the property remains in the family and is a part of the Calder Foundation. Rower purchased the Burchall property across the street and is building his own contemporary house. And thanks to the outdoor sculpture still at Calder’s house one is able to drive down Schoolhouse Road and still catch a glimpse of his genius.