Writer  |  Soldier  |  Pilot

Alexander "Sandy" Calder

I wager that most residents of Roxbury are familiar with the small mobile structures one would hang over the crib of a baby.  The purpose was said to increase intellectual development and calm the child.  But how many know where the mobile concept originated?  Mobiles were the invention of a man called Sandy by his friends. Alexander Calder was a family friend where I grew up.  Sandy and his wife Louisa bought an old (1790s) farmhouse in Roxbury, CT, wanting to raise a family in the quaint, rural, New England village.  Additionally, the town had several residents with national reputations in the arts and literature.

Sandy was a burly man of average height, hefty and rugged looking, originally with dark, unruly, short hair but when I knew him it was light colored, then turned white.  He always seemed attired in loose, baggy jeans and a heavy shirt of denim or flannel.  He was a whimsical, often funny person.  He painted his home in a flat black and an old square, but large, icehouse was converted into his studio.  A shingled roof topped the stone and wood structure, with all sides paned glass, with large double-doors open most of the time to keep it airy inside and a breeze constantly flowing through the open, single room.

The studio looked to outsiders as a massive metal storage area strewn with wooden benches, covered with tools, coffee cans filled with small metal objects and the detritus of his trade.  Hugh sheets of cut metal and coiled wire littered the floor and stacked in the corners.  While the entire studio looked like an old, steel junkyard, to Sandy it was where he spent most of his time.  Despite it looking like a disordered array of cut-up metal pieces, everything was placed where Sandy could find anything he needed.  Over a period of three years (1948-51), I was allowed to pursue my interest of art, under the watchful eye of my part-time mentor, navigating my way in his studio.

In grade school, I was drawing more than doing homework.  At age 13, I won a regional art contest, being awarded a year’s art lessons with a national watercolorist, Woldemar Neufeld.  A couple years before that, somehow, my parents arranged with Sandy Calder for me to spend time with him, in his studio.  While I watched him cut and bend large steel sheets and assemble them into weird shapes, he taught me how to use small pliers to twist and bend soft copper wire, into shapes resembling outlines of human figures.  Little did I know, then, he was teaching me the initial skills that made him famous.  My visits were neither regular nor frequent, mainly due to the fact he and his family traveled so often.  Upon entering high school, my days with Mr. Calder ended.  I never saw him again after I went away to college in September 1955.

Alexander Calder’s father (as was his grandfather) was a noted sculpture and the family moved around the US quite a bit.  In grade and high school Sandy loved art.  His father did not see art as a livelihood so Sandy went to college majoring in mechanical engineering (a professional he was ignorant of).  Graduating in 1919 he was initially employed as an engineer, but art never left him, so he moved to NYC and entered the Art Student’s League.  In 1926 he moved to Paris where he continued in a French art school.  In 1931 he married Louisa and in 1933 they bought the old farmhouse in Roxbury.

The Calders had two daughters, Sandra, and Mary.  Mary was the age of my middle sister, June, and they became best friends until Mary entered a private school in Vermont in 1954.  The family lifestyle was rather austere, they grew their own fruits and vegetables.  In the 1930s to mid-40s his art would sell for little (under $60 to around $250 or so).  Yet, after his death, in 2014, a 7 ½ foot hanging mobile sold for $25.9 million.

Originally, fascinated by the circus, Sandy would make out of brass wire, figures like acrobats.  From there he moved into constructing kinetic hanging sculptures which rotated and moved by small motors.  This evolved into his mobiles (so named after a French word referring to movement or motion), powered by wind currents.  In his Roxbury studio in 1934, he created his first outdoor sculpture, called stabiles, because they are stable structures, fastened to the ground.

In fact, in 1975, he created such a sculpture titled Saurien (French for large reptile, he named most of his works with French words) for the IBM building in NYC.  Recently that massive, red-orange edifice was replaced by another piece, so it now resides in a field across the road from Calder’s Roxbury home, where it was made.

In 1948, at a show in Rio de Janeiro, he sold out and became famous world-wide.  In 1973 he signed a contract with Braniff International Airways to create the paint scheme for three airliners.  The planes had red, yellow, and blue flowing, squiggly, colors along the entire plane’s fuselage and wings and engines.  He also created some 2000 pieces of jewelry.

In 1963 Calder moved to France (but kept his Roxbury home).  He was a staunch protester of the Vietnam War (which I suspect may have been a reason to leave the US).  He even created posters denouncing the war.

His works are located around the world.  They are in the Whitney Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in museums in France, Spain, and others.  His art can also be found throughout the US (and other parts of the world) in municipal parks, airport passenger terminals, public and private buildings, and in private collections.

The copper wire figures I created in his studio remained in my parents’ home for decades, but as time passed, they all disappeared.  Sandy died in NYC in 1976 and is buried in Roxbury.