Vince Illuzzi Sr. carved out a life — and Smithsonian-worthy sculptures — in Barre's granite sheds
Mention the name Illuzzi around Montpelier these days and the first association will be with Vince Illuzzi Jr., the Republican state senator representing Essex/Orleans since 1980. Half a century ago, however, thoughts in the capital region would have turned to his father, granite sculptor Vince Illuzzi Sr.
Now 91, the elder Illuzzi worked for many years as an independent carver in the Barre granite sheds. He was a respected figure in the industry but little known outside it, mainly because he wasn’t allowed to sign any of the hundreds of sculptures he had drilled and chiseled. “The manufacturers didn’t want to detract attention from themselves,” the younger Illuzzi explains.
Two of his father’s works have nonetheless been catalogued by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which managed to trace the unsigned pieces back to their creator.
In a voice made hoarse by the years — and perhaps also by his long exposure to granite dust — Illuzzi Sr. reflected on his mostly unheralded artistic career in an interview conducted in the Statehouse Legislative Lounge in Montpelier. The meeting place was chosen by Illuzzi Jr., who at times repeated questions addressed to his nearly deaf father. The older man, who wears yellow-tinted eyeglasses and walks with a cane, had arrived for the Sunday interview clad in a maroon suit jacket and yellow vest. He thumbed through folders of photos and letters he had brought along for the occasion, pausing to point to pictures of his catalogued works, clearly a source of particular pride.
One of them, “Veteran’s Memorial,” has stood in a park in Johnstown, Pa., since 1974, three years after it was commissioned by two local women whose sons were killed in Vietnam. The life-size figure of a helmeted GI holding a child in his right arm rests on a granite base, on which are inscribed the names of 17 Johnstown-area soldiers who died in the World Wars or in Korea, Vietnam or the Persian Gulf.
“Veteran’s Memorial” has not rested in peace, however. Vandals decapitated the sculpted figure five years ago and the original head has not been found. Local benefactors raised $11,000 to enable another Barre carver, Gary Sassi, to re-create the head from a maquette that Illuzzi Sr. had preserved. The restored memorial was unveiled in 2008.
Unlike the piece in Pennsylvania, which appears static and sentimental, Illuzzi Sr.’s other catalogued work — a 1964 tribute to Ukrainian poet and freedom fighter Taras Shevchenko — is rendered in a dynamic, stylized manner like that of a fellow Italian sculptor: Michelangelo. Illuzzi Sr. carved a writhing, muscular, mythological figure straining to free his manacled hands and feet from a jagged array of rocks that encircles him.
The drama of Illuzzi Sr.’s depiction is enhanced by the hero’s placement in relief at the center of a larger wall of Barre gray granite. Alongside it stands a tall bronze statue of a striding Shevchenko made by Canadian Ukrainian artist Leo Mol.
The two-part sculpture’s geographical placement in a park near DuPont Circle in Washington, DC, ignited controversy at the time. The Smithsonian catalog notes that there was considerable opposition to locating the monument in the U.S. capital city due to “the fact that Shevchenko is a hero of the former Soviet Communist Party.”
Although he worked in an industry known for its socialist agitators, Illuzzi Sr. was no radical and, as an independent contractor, did not belong to the stonecutters’ union, although he did pay dues in solidarity with its members. But he recalls with approval the efforts by organizers to protect the health of those who labored in the sheds amid clouds of deadly dust. An unknown — but probably large — number of Barre granite workers died early from lung cancer contracted as a result of breathing in crystalline rock particles.
“There was so much dust in the sheds you couldn’t see guys a few feet away,” Illuzzi Sr. says. “Some of them would be spitting blood.”
The workers eventually won safeguards in the form of ventilated masks. Even afterward, however, “it was a tough and dirty job,” says Illuzzi Jr., recalling his distress as a high school student in the 1960s when he saw his father’s condition after returning home from a day in the sheds.
The elder Illuzzi’s career in the granite industry began in the late 1930s with a job finishing monuments at a studio on the Barre-Montpelier Road. Seventy-five years later, he still considers himself fortunate to have found work at $8 a day during the Great Depression.
Illuzzi Sr. had been brought to Vermont by an uncle who ran a retail monument outlet in the Bronx; he’d immigrated to New York in 1935 at age 15 to avoid conscription into Mussolini’s army. “I was running away from the fascists,” he recounts.
His first impression of Vermont was one familiar to many flatlanders: “It was so cold! I couldn’t believe how cold it was.” Born in Giovinazzo, a town on the Adriatic in southern Italy, Illuzzi Sr. may have been especially sensitive to Vermont’s wintertime temperatures.
He didn’t stay long, however. Illuzzi Sr. joined the U.S. Army after the outbreak of World War II, neglecting to tell recruiters that he was still an Italian citizen. He was assigned to a base in Iceland, where he translated intercepted transmissions of Italian speakers on board enemy submarines in the North Atlantic. The Army expedited his naturalization as an American citizen at the time of his discharge in 1945.
Returning to Vermont a few years later, Iluzzi Sr. worked as a freelance carver in the Jones Brothers shed, which closed in 1975 and was converted a few years ago into the Vermont Granite Museum and Stone Arts School. It was at Jones Brothers that Illuzzi Sr. created the 14-by-10-foot Taras Shevchenko sculpture — a work so large and heavy that it had to be shipped from Barre to Washington in a specially outfitted railroad carriage.
Illuzzi Sr. worked in the Rouleau Granite Co. plant for about 20 years, until his retirement in the mid-1990s. “We kept him busy,” recalls Ray Rouleau, the retired manager of the company that his family sold in 2001 and that subsequently went out of business. “He was a very talented sculptor and a real gentleman,” Rouleau says in a telephone interview from his home in Venice, Fla.
Illuzzi Sr. brought his own tools to a space he rented in the plant. There, he sculpted headstones and monuments from drawings commissioned by Rouleau Co. customers while sometimes working on his own pieces. Among the carvings he made on his own time is a memorial to his wife, Angela, who died in 1993 and is buried in Berlin. She was the mother of three sons: Vince Jr.; Frank, a dentist in Barre; and Joe, who works in the telecom industry.
“They gave me so much trouble,” Illuzzi Sr. says of his sons, a faint smile on his creased lips. “He gave me the most trouble of all of them,” the father adds, gesturing toward Vince Jr., who’s nearby checking email on a computer in the Legislative Lounge.
But isn’t he proud of his boys?
“Oh, yes, very proud,” he answers earnestly.
Illuzzi Sr.’s carvings for the Rouleau Co. in the ’70s and ’80s were shipped to cemeteries in several states, notes Paul Rouleau, who worked in the company’s offices and who is now retired in Bonita Springs, Fla. “He did everything for us — full figures, bas reliefs, everything,” Rouleau says. “He was a great sculptor.”
As an ultimate testament to the Rouleaus’ respect for Illuzzi Sr.’s art, he was commissioned to sculpt the figures that stand on either side of that family’s mausoleum in Barre’s Hope Cemetery. On the right side, where Rouleau women are interred, stands the Virgin Mary. On the left, where the men lie, is a life-size St. Joseph holding the tools of his carpenter’s trade. It’s a representation of the working man, Illuzzi Jr. notes — a tribute to all those who have made a living with their hands.