Destruction before creation
Gifted sculptor transforms world-famous marble in his home state
By Jim Plott
Craigger Browne’s search for quality marble took him a continent away. Little did he know at the time that it was waiting for him almost in his own backyard.
The Alabama sculptor, whose carving resume is spread all over the state, took up sculpting while in art school in France. He continued it near Carrara, Italy, home to both the oldest stone studios and marble quarries in the world. Even when returning home to Birmingham, Carrara was his marble of choice.
“I sort of laugh that I spent almost four years working there in Italy, and then going back and forth from Birmingham to Italy to get marble,” Browne says. “All that time I had no idea that I grew up 45 minutes north and went to college (at Montevallo) just west of the only other source of this beautiful pure white marble.”
Since his introduction to Sylacauga marble, Browne, 52, has become a mainstay in Sylacauga, and maintains an outdoor studio just a block from the city’s main thoroughfare.
His presence is evident. Just up the street at the city Municipal Complex is his “Sylacauga Emerging” monument, a tribute to the city’s storied marble industry which through new uses helped keep the city from ruin once a major industry closed.
And across the street at the B.B. Comer Memorial Library is his “Once Upon a Time” statue series, which depicts former Mayor Curtis Liles, an education advocate, reading to children.
His statue at Helen Keller’s childhood home, Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, pays tribute to Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, while he also did a piece to commemorate Monroeville native Nell Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Currently, Browne is metamorphosizing a 24,000-pound block of marble into a tribute to Alabama physician and war hero Mortimer Jordan.
“I tell people that the sculpting process is destruction before creation,” Browne says. “As opposed to starting with nothing and building up, what you are doing is already there and you are just uncovering it.”
The Jordan statue is being done as part of Alabama’s Bicentennial celebration, for which Browne has done several projects. Jordan’s statue will be placed at Mortimer Jordan High School in Morris. Jordan was a commander of Alabama’s distinguished Rainbow Division in World War I and was killed in combat.
Among other projects, Browne also produced out of marble 21 Alabama Bicentennial Schools of Excellence awards.
“As opposed to starting with nothing and building up, what you are doing is already there and you are just uncovering it.”
“Craigger has been an important part of the Bicentennial in several ways,” says Jay Lamar, executive director of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission. “The fact that so gifted an artist from Alabama could play so important a role in several aspects of the celebration speaks to his talents, of course, and also the state’s pride in its makers.”
A new place to call home
Browne grew up in Vestavia and attended the University of Montevallo on a baseball scholarship and where he received a degree in graphic arts.
“When I finished school, computers were taking over everything, and I didn’t want to spend my life in front of a computer,” Browne said.
He was able to get into the art school in Lacoste, France where he was introduced to stone carving.
“I started carving limestone, and I just fell in love with the process. It was so different from anything I had ever done,” Browne says.
Later as an assistant professor, he was able to study in Italy where he began carving “on what I thought was the best marble in world” at Carrara.
Browne was exposed to Sylacauga marble after returning to the states but didn’t think much of it.
“Someone had given me a couple of pieces of the marble that had been scrapped,” he says. “It really didn’t work. There must have been a reason they were scrap pieces.”
A magazine article about Sylacauga marble, shown to him by a friend, reignited his interest and he decided to give it another try.
“I haven’t stopped since in terms of carving with Sylacauga stone,” Browne says.
Browne said comparing Sylacauga marble and Carrara marble is like comparing “a Ferrari with a Lamborghini.”
“They are both top of line and you are going to be happy with either one. I believe the marble here (in Sylacauga) is a little more translucent and really holds the light,” he says. “Either way you are always looking for the perfect stone, but this is natural material and perfect doesn’t exist.”
Whatever his future holds, Browne is comfortable with his station in life and the place he now calls home.
“Sylacauga marble brought me here. It’s the people that make me stay,” Browne says.