Karen Montgomery didn’t have a relationship with the arts until the evening she took her daughter to a violin lesson in a church. She heard clinking and clanking coming from the building’s lower level and went to investigate.
The noise, she learned, came from a sculpting class. “I took a tool and other tools and proceeded to work on a rock,” she recalled. Montgomery decided to return the next week and formally joined the class.
The medium felt therapeutic after learning that her oldest child had been diagnosed with autism. “I found that sculpture was helpful in working out things quietly and thinking things through while being productive,” she said.
Thus, began Montgomery’s love affair with the arts; it led to a fruitful career including as a faculty member in sculpture and design at George Washington University, executive director of the Arts Barn Gallery and director of development at Olney Theatre Center, to name a few. But many residents know her best as a state senator representing District 14 (Montgomery County) from 2011 to 2016 and as a member of the House of Delegates for the same area from 2003 to 2011.
“To tell you the truth, the years I was in the legislature, there was no time for me to have a dual career,” she said. “I kept making (art), but not at a very great rate because I took the job as a legislator very seriously and spent a lot of time doing what constituents wanted. The minute I retired–after about a month’s recovery, I went back to work. finishing one piece, and I have two more on the way.”
To celebrate her work, the Sandy Spring Museum is hosting “Karen S. Montgomery: A Sculptural Retrospective” through April 28. It features about 40 pieces made of various materials including bronze, marble, wood and soapstone.
Allison Weiss, the museum’s executive director, knew Montgomery for her local political work, but did not realize her talent as an artist. When Montgomery proposed the exhibit idea, Weiss went to her house to see her work. “It showed such a completely different side of her than I knew existed and I think it is great to be able to share that,” Weiss said. “There must be so many people who know her as senator and not the same people will know her as an artist.”
The month-long show is the first time her whole body of work will be shown. “It is really neat a local venue has the ability to showcase this quality of work with someone from community,” Weiss noted.
Montgomery hopes visitors come take away two lessons from the exhibit. “Stone carving is usually a very serious thing and a few of my pieces in stone marble are rather playful,” she said. “Also, a person can have many facets over time to their personality, which can be reflected in their work.”
“Snake Lady,” made from white marble with some dark inclusions, is among the sculptor’s favorites. “For some reason, the smoothness and curves that it made pleased me,” she said. “It is a vertical piece. Nothing in the world like real snakes. Most of them–except a cobra–wouldn’t be standing up. Snakes have played a bit of a role in my life.”
Her daughter gave her a boa constrictor named Jakarta for her birthday. Montgomery recalls thinking “My goodness, what an interesting gift!” As it turns out, Jakarta became a wonderful teacher’s aide. When young men would act out in class, Montgomery would take Jakarta out of her cage, wrap the six-foot snake around her arm and ask if they wanted to pet the snake. They didn’t. “It seemed they would get down to work and quit their quibbling, so it was a wonderful gift,” she said.
Another favorite piece is the marble-based “Marsupial Momma,” an opossum with three little figures. “It’s certainly not flattering to me, but I regard it as bit of a self-portrait,” she joked.
Montgomery does not start out with an idea. “I usually start carving and then, as I work, it kind of falls into place,” she said. “I don’t believe in the crazy story that says you are releasing the piece from the stone. I think every artist that approaches a rock will come out with something different, but what you do as you begin to take off some edges is visualize what you personally want. …I just carve until something is there.”
Many of Montgomery’s pieces weigh hundreds of pounds. She doesn’t work in bronze much anymore because of the expense, but often turns to stones she finds. If she has steady time to create, a piece typically takes about a month to complete.
“You get into a rhythm while you are chipping or carving or polishing, and you become so focused on that, that a lot of the other things in the world … I mean even your immediate surroundings– kind of disappear and you focus very much just on what you are doing,” she said.
Compulsion drives her to complete her pieces. “Once you are at a certain point, you think ‘OK. Let’s get this done.’ When you are in the final sanding stage on marble, there is a joy in seeing roughness become smooth and then, if you so choose, the smooth becomes shiny and polished. It can become a totally absorbing meditative process.”
“Karen S. Montgomery: A Sculptural Retrospective” is on view through April 28 at the Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 301-774-0022 or visit www.sandyspringmuseum.org.