A petroglyph artist leaves his mark on a Phippsburg nature preserve
By Susan Conley
Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
Excerpt from our September 2022 issue
The artist Kevin Sudeith stood beside a long, high ledge of grayish feldspar and milky quartz in Phippsburg Land Trust’s Ridgewell Reserve, maybe 300 yards along a narrow spur from the main trail. Kevin Sudeith was staring at a life-size Great Blue Heron, which he had recently carved in low relief in the mottled stone. His meticulous rendering of the bird makes him feel almost alive, his variegated four-foot wingspan captured in mid-flight. “It’s all about the feathers,” he noted.
For tens of thousands of years, and probably longer, humans have left petroglyphs – from Latin Petra (“rock”) and the Greek glyph (“sculpture”) – scattered across the landscape. The oldest known examples in Maine were carved along Machias Bay several thousand years ago. For much of his adult life, 56-year-old Sudeith was a painter, exhibiting in galleries in San Francisco and New York. Then, 15 years ago, he carved a large petroglyph on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: bicycles he saw passing by, planes he watched fly overhead. After that, he got hooked. He had found a way to create works of art that could live on their own terms – “independent of the gatekeepers and whims of the art world”, he said. The sculptures could find their own audience and would exist for thousands of years. He began to travel the world, going from rock to rock, from North Dakota to California to the Eastfjords of Iceland.
When he begins a petroglyph, he composes the design on the rock with chalk, then makes several detailed drawings on paper, which he later transfers to the rock. To carve the shallow relief without disturbing the surrounding surface, he uses diamond composite rotating disc saws that can cut just about anything. He chose the Phippsburg site partly because it was not far from his wife’s family home in Georgetown, but more specifically because of the pleasantly shaded knoll around the ledge and because the sheer size of the stone allowed him to do something that would feel epic. . He approached the Phippsburg Land Trustwho gave his blessing, and he got to work three years ago.
His goal with petroglyphs is usually to create an environmental portrait of a place at a given time – a halibut in Cape Breton, an ancient lake sturgeon in Michigan, a horseshoe crab in the Rockaways. In Phippsburg, both in central pond and the Ridgewell reserves, he focused on birds: common eiders, belted kingfisher, tree swallow, red-winged blackbird, loon, hermit thrush, northern cardinal, and more. Using an ancient art form, Sudeith wanted to depict the ecosystem of Phippsburg as it is today. “They are what is here now. Will there still be eiders and herons here in 1000 years? he wondered. “Who knows?”
Walking along the dirt road, past the heron and the swallow, he came to a sculpture of a different type of flight: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, which has been flying around Mars for the past year. Sudeith believes space exploration is humanity’s most exciting ongoing endeavor. Elsewhere during his travels, he sculpted the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and several space shuttles. He is always looking for the perfect rock on which to sculpt a life-size astronaut.
In Phippsburg, the Ingenuity is steps from the eider duck, which is next to a series of elementary-looking concentric circles that might as well be remnants of prehistoric times. It’s Stone Age meets Space Age, under a canopy of pine trees in the Maine woods. Sudeith’s hope? That the sculptures create an overarching narrative about the mystery and wonders of the world, or as he puts it, “about things that cannot be said in words.”
Kevin Sudeith leads a free walking tour of his petroglyphs Sept. 1, starting at Phippsburg’s Center Pond Preserve parking lot on Parker Head Rd., about half a mile after leaving Rte. 209.
BUY THIS ISSUE