Dennis Sparling spent more than a year making a 9-foot-tall sculpture of Leonardo Da Vinci. The 70-year-old sculptor dreams of taking it to an institution where he would teach sculpture and other disciplines with a curriculum focused on the life of Da Vinci, a man whose career spanned painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering and other disciplines.
Earlier this month Sparling put his sculpture in a trailer and drove down to Long Island, hoping to interest someone there in this Da Vinci project.
Dennis Sparling lives on a 73-acre abandoned quarry in New Haven. He describes his home as paradise, despite the fact that his ex-wife lives on the premises.
In the cathedral-like building that serves as both his sculpture studio and home, Sparling spent 15 months making the Da Vinci sculpture. The 8-foot, 800-pound work of art was fabricated: copper, bronze and steel were pounded and welded together. Da Vinci wears a locket of his iconic Vitruvian Man on it and holds a crystal ball. I asked Dennis Sparling how much he wants for the sculpture for.
“Oh, $300,000. Or maybe $200,000 and a Porsche,” he laughed.
Before the economic meltdown in 2008 Sparling was making enough money to buy a Porsche. In a 12-year stretch, he worked for wealthy home-owners in New Hampshire. The first house he worked on, a $4 million mansion, brought him a $120,000 commission for custom light fixtures. Sparling earned a quarter million dollars fabricating fixtures for another house. Sometimes he worked on a house for a year or more.
But that work all dried up when the economy crashed. Sparling’s fine art commissions have been few and far between. His sculptures include the leapfrogging kids on Church Street in Burlington, a catamount on the UVM campus and the marquee for the Vergennes Opera House. For the last several years Sparling has survived on modest Social Security benefits.
“Vermont is not a place where I can make a living doing what I do. I had done things that would disappear into people’s homes. No reputation. And so after trying to find work and possibilities for four or five years, I woke up and said, ‘I gotta go.’ I didn’t know what else to do to find attention for this very particular type of work that I do and what I wanted to do in terms of teaching,” he said.
Sparling left Vermont on July 3 in a three-quarter ton Suburban, hauling an 18-foot homemade trailer carrying his Leonardo Da Vinci sculpture. He headed south to Bridgeport, Connecticut, took a ferry across the Long Island Sound and drove to Southampton, the famed Long Island beach town that serves as a summer getaway for wealthy New Yorkers. Sparling had arranged to join the July 4th parade there.
Southampton pharmacist Bob Grisnik runs the parade.
“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got this 9-foot statue of Leonardo Da Vinci. I’m heading down that way. I’d love to be in your parade.’ And I said, ‘I’d love to have ya,” Grisnik said.
Sparling’s trailer has a sleeping berth, so he and Leonardo camped out at Southampton’s firehouse and then at the Veterans Hall. I got a good look at Leonardo while the trailer was parked. Sparling invited me to climb in and have a look at the back of the sculpture.
“Follow me if you can. Be careful,” he warned.
On Leonardo’s back a small reproduction of the Mona Lisa hangs on a door that leads to a secret compartment inside Leonardo.
“So, I signed it inside here and I said, ‘Oh, how we talked. Was it me creating you or you creating me?’ I’ve always been looking for heroes to get on their back and climb,” he said.
Sparling’s embrace of Da Vinci as a hero was influenced by his New Haven neighbor Harry Chaucer, an education professor at Castleton State College. Chaucer created The Da Vinci Curriculum, which uses the life of the great Italian Renaissance Man to teach the common core standards. In the 1990’s Chaucer ran a school, initially in Middlebury and later in Shelburne, that used The Da Vinci Curriculum. Chaucer thinks Sparling’s work is brilliant but says it may be difficult to find an educational institution willing to invest in Sparling’s dream of starting a combination school and sculpture studio.
One thing that Sparling has an easy time doing is stopping passersby in their tracks. Almost everyone is in awe of the sculpture.
On a weekday afternoon, Sparling’s trailer is parked outside a supermarket in Southampton. Richard Gailyiss works in the store’s seafood department.
“Nice sculpture. Wow, that’s something else,” Gailyiss said.
Sparling opens the back of the trailer so a woman named Vicenza Vaccio can climb in.
“This morning about [at] 9:30 I was driving my daughter to work and I saw this go by me. It took my breath away. I wanted to stop to see if I could get his attention. 'Please pull over. I need to see this,'" she said.
Later in the day Vaccio drove by the supermarket and saw Leonardo in the parking lot. She promptly made a U-turn and pulled in to check out the sculpture.
“It’s amazing. It’s beautiful art. I think everybody should see this. You know, they should put this somewhere where everyone can enjoy it,” she said.
People on the street may’ve appreciated the sculpture, but authorities in Southampton called Sparling and warned him not to sleep in his trailer, so Dennis Sparling decided to head back to Vermont. The hopes he had that two locals were going to commission small sculptures were dashed.
“Very disappointing. But I needed to do this. I needed to know what my possibilities are,” he said.
Sparling drove to Albany, New York and spent the night in the parking lot of a public TV station in a fruitless attempt to interest a producer in Leonardo. The following afternoon he parked in front of the New York state capitol and met an engineer who was wowed by the sculpture. The engineer says he introduced Sparling to a dean at a nearby community college who is interested in the Da Vinci curriculum.
Back home in New Haven, Dennis Sparling sent out an email declaring his road trip “a pretty dumb idea” and inviting friends over for “for a swim and some laughter.”