I should start off by saying that my attachment to Ceres, the Roman wheat sheaf-wielding goddess of agriculture, began in London and not in Montpelier. That’s because I worked at a vegetarian café and bakery called Ceres on Portobello Road in my early twenties. The “grain shop,” as it was known, had begun as a macrobiotic pioneer back in the Hippy Era—one that looked something like this.
By the time I got there it was owned by a couple of crazy bon vivants and it had little to do with Zen. And in the time I knew it, Ceres was mostly a veggie take-out, with a decent pastry and bread program, and very close ties to the community.*
Anyway, I started off at Ceres as a replacement baker, but I stayed on as a kitchen hand and cook, and it was definitely the best job I held down during my two years in London. I wasn’t paid much, but I was paid under the table, and I got fed 2-3 meals every day that I worked there, so somehow I still managed to save money to go to shows, see films, and eventually even travel. And I still get incredibly nostalgic about the carry-out containers we used to pack full of brown rice, mac & cheese, fried tofu, veggie curry, sautéed mushrooms, stir-fried broccoli, “cheesy spuds,” and salads of all kinds, including their signature lemon-tahini pasta salad (based on a recipe from a famous veggie café that was located in Harlem in the sixties, or so I was told).
Years later, I can still remember the experience of visiting Montpelier, Vermont for the first time. It was such a tiny town (the population was about 7,000 at the time, but sometimes it felt even smaller than that), such a charming one, but the skyline was dominated by its rather impressive, if diminutive, Vermont State House, with its majestic golden dome. I’m sure I noticed the statue that adorned the dome the first time I laid eyes on it, but it took me years to realize who the statue represented. I’m sure I just assumed it was a statue of Ethan Allen,** or one of Vermont’s other founding fathers, but, in fact, it was Ceres (or, rather, Agriculture) who graced the dome. Wheat sheaf and all.
I never took a close look at this Ceres. I mostly just admired her from afar. So it was only in the last couple of years, when the word began to get around that Ceres needed to be replaced because she was literally falling apart at the seams, that I learned that she already was a replacement.
The original version of Ceres had been carved and erected by a Vermont artist named Larkin Goldsmith Mead. It was Mead’s first major success, and it established him as an in-demand sculptor—one who would have a long and prolific career in public art.***
In 1938, hasty arrangements were made to replace the original Ceres when it was discovered that Mead’s version was in an advanced state of deterioration. The contract for this Ceres was awarded to Dwight Dwinell, a State House employee who was close at hand and willing to take on the challenge. Dwinell was 87 years old at the time. He was also something of an amateur.
As it turns out, in spite of his relative inexperience, Dwinell’s version lasted roughly as long as Mead’s had, but when it became apparent that Ceres 2.0 needed to be replaced as well, an effort was made restore Ceres to her former neo-classical glory, and to make sure this version was built to last: 150 years, if at all possible.
This time it took two artists to recreate Ceres. One of them, Jerry Williams, created a 1/4 scale model based closely on Mead’s original design. The other, Chris Miller—a local stone mason and woodcarver—was the one tasked with carving the 15-foot version out of a block of mahogany (as opposed to the pine that Mead had used).
Miller is a gregarious guy, and a true local character, and one of the conditions he placed on his contract was that his workshop inside the Vermont Granite Museum in nearby Barre be open to the public throughout the carving process. He saw Ceres as being a “people’s artwork,” and, therefore, it was important to him that the people have access to her as she came to life, so to speak, and before she ascended to her summit for the next 150 years.
A little over a week ago, we received an invitation to join our friends M., R., and E. at the Vermont Granite Museum to pay Ceres a visit. Chris was going to be putting the finishing touches on Ceres—applying the final coats of protective white paint, and adding some gold-leaf details—as she was just under a week away from making her ascent. That this was a rare opportunity goes without saying. We jumped at the opportunity.
When we arrived at the museum, we could see that our friends had beaten us there. So we followed the signs to Ceres.
When we reached our destination, it was a little like we’d stepped into a cavernous medical theatre to witness some kind of strange operation.
The patient was there in all her splendour.
An artist/artisan/surgeon was at work.
Informative panels/collages had been set up nearby to help explain the history of Ceres, and of the current project.
Hoiy relics had been made available.
Fittingly, a crowd of pilgrims began to assemble.
And about an hour after we first arrived, we were lucky enough to witness Ceres being anointed with gold.
The application of gold-leaf details was pretty much the final step in the process of creating Ceres 3.0.
A little less than a week later, she took flight again, with a little help from some friends, and in front of a crowd of a few hundred onlookers who’d braved the unusually cold November temperatures to witness a resurrection, Ceres assumed the pedestal she will adorn for the foreseeable future.
Or as long as the Good Lord is willing, and the Winooski don’t rise.
Of course, we’re no fools. We know how these things are bound to end.
But, in the meantime, we feel confident that Ceres was built to stand the test of time. And that she’ll be able to communicate an important message or two to future generations.
* At the time, Ceres also did a very brisk trade in Guarana, if you can remember that moment.
**Allen’s marble statue is actually located inside the State House.
***As it turns out, Ceres is a subject Mead would revisit some 45 years later, when he received a commission to design and carve another version of Ceres—”The Triumph of Ceres”—this time as part of a bas-relief group that would adorn the Agriculture Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.