Retired as a college instructor, noted sculptor now teaches children in his North Country hometown

Special to the Sunday News
February 22. 2014 1:33AM
Jean Bartoli looks at work done by Olivia Laughton, center, and Madison Girouard, right, during his clay-sculpting class at the Berlin Recreation Center. (Debra Thornblad)

BERLIN -- Sculptor Jean Bartoli, known for his work in marble, is back where he started and doing something he has long enjoyed: teaching.

Bartoli's pupils are a group of 6- to 10-year-olds learning clay sculpting through a program at the Berlin Recreation Center. That age group is one the artist particularly enjoys because, he says, they're young enough to remain open to the possibilities of where their talent may lie.

He gives the youngsters a lump of clay, shows how to flatten and shape it into a rectangle, provides sculpting tools and lets them do whatever they want. Some have chosen to sculpt faces; others form designs incorporating squares, circles and triangles.

Bartoli tells a visitor a story about a class he once taught comprising children the same age as these.

"One little boy was having trouble deciding what he wanted to do when suddenly he looked up and said, 'I want to do a can of sardines,'?" Bartoli recalled. "I said, 'Well, OK,' and he ended up doing a really good job. The can was there, and all the sardines were in it."

Bartoli is of Italian descent, part of one of the many ethnic groups to settle in Berlin. His family has been involved in the arts in one way or another going back at least three generations. His grandfather came here from Carrara, Italy, which Bartoli said is world-famous for its marble quarries.

"Michelangelo got his marble there," he said.

The grandfather was one of the workers who carved the retaining granite blocks for the Brooklyn Bridge, Bartoli said, and he gradually worked his way up the East Coast, quarry to quarry.

Bartoli's father chose another art. He was a musician who played several woodwind instruments and was in several area bands.

Bartoli said his father tried to interest him in the clarinet. But after a lot of squeaks and squealing, he said, his father was relieved when he chose the visual arts instead.

Bartoli was born in Berlin and attended school here. Art was always an interest, he said, but it was Berlin High School art teacher Bob Hughes who steered him in the direction his life would take.

Hughes had graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and was a fine sculptor and painter in his own right.

"I was probably the only one in my class who knew what he wanted to do. I wanted to go to art school," Bartoli said.

He went to one of the best, the Philadelphia College of Art, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts in sculpture in 1964.

It was there that he learned to sculpt in marble, and he honed his skills further by returning to his heritage and spending a year in Carrara.

Returning home during the war in Vietnam, Bartoli joined the National Guard and enrolled at his high school teacher's alma mater, eventually receiving his master of fine arts from RSDI in 1969.

He worked in the Berlin area for a number of years, giving art demonstrations at what is now Plymouth State University and serving as an instructor in the state Commission on Arts' "Artists in the Schools" program. It was there he learned he liked working with the 6-to-teenage group.It was his wife's career as a lawyer that took them to Washington, D.C., where Bartoli became a well-known sculptor, doing many private commissions while working as an instructor at the Washington Studio School. He also gave courses in drawing and sculpture at the Smithsonian.Through it all, he retained ownership of his house on Fourth Avenue in Berlin, where he built a studio made of stone, and when his wife retired last year, the couple returned full time to New Hampshire.

"I liked the idea of going home, working in my studio," Bartoli said.Once here, he began thinking again about how much he enjoys working with fledgling artists and decided to offer a class for children."They're up for anything," he said.

Although much of his work is in marble, he always has his young students work with clay because it's the most forgiving of materials. The children - at least those not too shy to talk to a visiting stranger - had varying reasons why they wanted to sign up for the course.

Alyssa Delafontaine said she already did a lot of painting and wanted to learn how to sculpt. Evan Lilly said he had always enjoyed sculpting with Play-Doh and was interested to see what clay would be like. His brother, Branden, said he wanted to try making designs.Asked what part of his life as an artist he recalls most fondly, Bartoli said it was his time in Italy. While there, he said, he got to meet his grandfather's brother and immediately formed a comfortable relationship.

"It was like he'd known me all his life," he said.

But perhaps most important, he said, Carrara was where he discovered what he was meant to do.

"I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to do when I went there, but by the time I left I was certain," he said.

He's continued sculpting and teaching ever since.

ArtsNH PeopleBerlin

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