‘Champlain’ Sculptor Is Randolph’s Sardonis

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Front Page / Jul. 23, 2009 12:00am EDT

By Bob Eddy

‘Champlain’ Sculptor Is Randolph’s Sardonis By Bob Eddy

At work in his Randolph studio in March, Jim Sardonis finishes the clay sculpture of Samuel de Champlain, prior to the bronze casting. (Herald / Bob Eddy)At work in his Randolph studio in March, Jim Sardonis finishes the clay sculpture of Samuel de Champlain, prior to the bronze casting. (Herald / Bob Eddy)

Randolph sculptor Jim Sardonis has been working for more than a year in preparation for this summer’s quadricentennial (400th) celebration of Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 exploration of the lake that bears his name.

Sardonis’ contribution, in fact, has a central role in the international celebration. He was commissioned by Champlain College to create a larger-than-life sculpture of the famous French explorer, which now presides over a stunning view of Lake Champlain.

The work, cast in the West Rutland foundry of Glenn Campbell, was unveiled at a ceremony at the opening of a College symposium on June 2. It met with immediate enthusiastic approval.

As there are no definitive portraits of Champlain, Sardonis was free to use considerable license in rendering the explorer’s form. Zac Freeman, of Braintree, served as the model for the sculpture. The finished form is larger than life. Standing erect, he would be 7’6” tall.

Clean-shaven and clad only in three-quarter length breeches, the Sardonis Champlain is seen kneeling and looking through a telescope to the lake about a half-mile below.

The telescope, Sardonis explains, had just been discovered in the Netherlands and it “seemed an appropriate symbol for Champlain’s passion for learning, observation, and discovery.

“In Champlain, we have a truly Renaissance man. He was a soldier, explorer, mapmaker and artist, scientist, writer, and ambassador. The telescope becomes in this work a metaphor for his expansive mind.”

The Voyage

It was just after the founding of Quebec in 1608 that Champlain laid ambitious plans for even more discovery, in vast uncharted regions to the south.

Early in the 1600s, Champlain had befriended members of the Montagnais Indian nation. It was from them, while wintering at the Quebec settlement, that Champlain learned about a vast deep-water lake to the south. Early the following year, with many Indians and only two European survivors, he set forth to discover for France the lake that bears his name.

On the banks of that great lake, 269 years later in 1878, Champlain College was founded. And as this year’s quadricentennial approached, the college prepared for a Champlain Symposium, gathering historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and scientists from around the world.

Pulitzer Prize winning author David Hackett Fischer, the author of the 2008 biography “Champlain’s Dream,” opened the ambitious symposium.

As part of its tribute, Champlain College also decided to commission a prominent statue of the explorer, which would represent the college’s identification with both the lake and the man.

Sardonis’ Champlain

Sardonis first learned of the possible Champlain commission in 2008, after he had finished a work commemorating Henry David Thoreau’s nineteenth century explorations of Maine with a Penobscot guide. This piece, executed in collaboration with a Penobscot artist, is a tribute to Thoreau and the Wabnaki Indian nation.

The piece was important to Sardonis, as it celebrated one of few truly positive interactions between European and indigenous cultures in their shared North American history.

In early investigations, Sardonis found that Samuel de Champlain had possessed a collaborative spirit that was unusual, almost unique, among European explorers and those who followed.

To this day, Sardonis observes, there are Indian storytellers who relate Champlain tales from oral tradition, accounts of him as a great and trusted friend. Unlike most of his European contemporaries, Champlain regarded Indians as equals and noted they would be tolerant of other cultures if they too were respected.

Sardonis began the commission by creating five small clay models for the college’s consideration. One depicted Champlain standing waist-deep in the lake. In another, the explorer held a cape over his head like a sail in the wind.

“For one who made nearly 30 Atlantic crossings by sail, this seemed a fitting image,” Sardonis observes.

A third model depicted Champlain crouching on the balls of both feet, his outstretched right hand gesturing toward the lake.

The final two proposals both depicted Champlain with a telescope. In one version, Champlain stands fully clothed with the telescope held behind his back. The other, a design Sardonis preferred, was the kneeling version eventually chosen by the college.

“By removing most of Champlain’s clothing, the figure is stripped of obvious European identifiers. We are left with a young man of vision and boldness.”

Depicting the explorer as clean-shaven hadn’t been done before.

“There are no contemporaneous portraits,” the sculptor explains, “but Champlain did produce two important possible self-portraits on a map of the lake and its environs. One image is of the explorer firing an arquebus, but it is inconclusive, as the rifle is raised and covers most of the explorer’s chin. At the center of the map’s compass there is the likeness of a clean-shaven man, however.”

Several people at the June 2 unveiling saw in the work an almost Indian form. This pleases Sardonis, for he has tried to depict here the influence of the Indians and their culture upon Champlain, whose desire was to live in covenanted peace with these native people he had come to respect and admire.

In the end, the Sardonis “Samuel de Champlain,” is not just a sculpture of the man, but of the spirit of discovery and expansive learning the explorer embodied. The statue rests atop a massive column of polished Quebec granite.

The viewer must look up to see the larger-than-life figure. Then, because of the pose, the viewer’s attention is drawn out, away, to the lake and the mountains beyond.

In his remarks at the unveiling Sardonis said, “Champlain established an atmosphere of trust between the Indians and European settlers. He kept his word. He laid the foundation of a lasting alliance between the French and the Indians.

“His spirit of tolerance and humanity was at the heart of every endeavor. That spirit is perhaps even more important today than 400 years ago. It is the path of peace.”

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