Harvey Fite was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Christmas Day of 1903. When he was three years old his family moved to Texas, where he spent the barefoot youth of low income Southwestern life.
At the age of twenty, he entered Houston Law School. He studied law for three years before deciding it was not what he wanted to do with his life. Next, under the guidance of his bishop, he headed east to St. Stephen’s college, a small Episcopal institution on the Hudson River.
There he was to study for the ministry. But St. Stephen’s had a theater, and Fite found himself more intrigued by the stage than the altar. At the end of his third year, he left to join a traveling troupe of actors.
But theater is a group art. Harvey Fite’s drive was one of independence and constant, self-directed activity. Backstage one day he picked up a seamstress’s discarded spool and began whittling it. Not long afterward he left the theater, and set about becoming a sculptor.
By 1933, four years after he had left St. Stephen’s, Fite had earned enough recognition as both actor and sculptor to be hired by his alma mater to organize the new Fine Arts Division. The college, now affiliated with Columbia University, had been renamed Bard College. Fite took the job, which he would hold until his retirement in 1969, and settled in the nearby Maverick artists’ colony in Woodstock, N.Y
Harvey Fite was a sculptor of wood and stone. In May of 1938 he found the perfect place to work: an abandoned bluestone quarry in the middle of the woods in the tiny hamlet of High Woods, N.Y He bought this twelve-acre paradise of natural materials from the widow of the last quarrymaster, and built his house and studio on the eastern lip of the quarry.
In that same summer, he received an invitation from the Carnegie Institute to do restoration work on ancient Mayan sculpture in Copan, Honduras. He was deeply impressed by the philosophical strength and understanding of materials that emerged from the art of the Maya.
The following spring he began clearing away the rubble in his quarry; and quietly, without even being aware of it himself at the time, Fite had begun his Opus 40.
From his first experimental impulse — to see how the Mayan building techniques could be adapted to Ulster County bluestone — he began to develop a plan for an outdoor sculpture gallery, which would showcase a series of large carved stone pieces which, taken together, would comprise a statement about a subject dear to Fite’s heart: a world at peace, a reconciliation between all peoples and cultures.
This was the most formal a statement that Fite ever made, even to himself, about the overall theme, message, or plan for Opus 40, and in practice, as those early statues were carved, this message could hardly have been called intrusive. The first pieces, all carved in Fite’s studio, were “Flame,” , a female figure with arms upraised to the sky, in what seems a gesture more of celebration than supplication. It stood in the center, and at the highest point of display. To “stage right” of this figure, Fite placed “Tomorrow,” a seated African or African-American male. “Prayer,” a supplicant child on her knees, with hands clasped in front of her, was placed to stage left, and forward, on a lower pedestal.
The fourth statue, “The Quarry Family,” balanced “Tomorrow” — to the opposite side of “Flame,” approximately equidistant to the central figure, and at approximately the same height as “Tomorrow.” “The Quarry Family” is four figures, a man, a woman and two children — the family Fite had acquired when he married Barbara Fairbanks, and she and her two sons came to live in High Woods. The statue was carved in place, outdoors. A plaster working model shows detail for all four figures, but as the images took shape in stone, Fite chose to leave the two children in silhouette.
Fite began to build ramps and walkways to lead to the individual works, doing all the work by hand, employing the traditional hand tools that had been used by the local quarrymen before him: hammer and chisel, winch and boom. As the stonework grew up around the statues, Realizing that the 1.5-ton “Flame” was too small for the vast expanse in which it was placed, and he replaced it with a 9-ton bluestone pillar which he had found in a nearby streambed. This happened in 1962, more than 20 years after he had begun work on his quarry, although Fite had become aware of the problem years earlier, and had been negotiating to get the stone since 1952.
To raise the central monolith, Fite, an enthusiastic student of the techniques used by sculptors and builders of antiquity, adapted principles used by the ancient Egyptians. He removed “Flame” and its base, and continued to remove stone until he had formed a crater four feet deep in the spot where the monolith was to stand. Using logs and chains, he slid the stone down off the flatbed truck that had brought it there, and placed it so that it rested horizontally, with the tapered end over the hole.
Using guy wires attached to a winch on the back of a pickup truck, Fite began the laborious process of raising the stone a few inches at a time, then propping it up with a crib of heavy wooden blocks. He continued this process until gravity took over, and the stone slid down into the hole, coming to rest at a 45 degree angle.
Fite constructed an A-frame out of 30 foot timbers and raised it over the monolith, then used a chain hoist to lift the stone and suspend it over the hole. Still working stone by stone, he filled in the empty space and built up a pedestal, topped by a three-quarter ton capstone.
The monolith had previously been made ready by trimming its base so that its center of gravity was exactly perpendicular to the capstone. This entailed a calculation of extreme precision, one that was worked out by Fite and his neighbor Berthel Wrolsen, a local man who was a self-taught engineering genius and an unofficial consultant to Fite on many structural issues over the years. The calculations were especially difficult in that the top of the monolith is not only wider than the base, but also asymmetrical. Lowered into place, the monolith was to be held there entirely by its own weight and balance. Fite’s and Wrolsen’s calculations, and Fite’s execution, proved to be correct. The monolith remains standing after half a century’s exposure to all kinds of weather.
He had originally planned to carve the new stone in place (“Flame” had been carved in Fite’s studio), but once the stone was up, he realized that what he had originally conceived as a setting for sculpture had become a sculpture in its own right, and a new kind of sculpture, in which carved representational pieces were out of place. So he removed the other carved pieces, relocating them on the grounds nearby, and continued to work on this new sculptural concept for the rest of his life.
It is important to remember that throughout his life as a sculptor, Fite continued to carve in stone and wood, in addition to working on Opus 40. In his carved pieces, he remained committed to figurative and representational sculpture, making his decision, after twenty years of work, to let go of the representational element of his great outdoor sculpture, and commit himself to this immense abstraction, says a great deal about artistic courage.
In the early 1970s, after he had retired from 30 years as a professor at Bard College, Fite built the Quarryman’s Museum on the grounds–a collection of folk tools and artifacts of the quarrying era. It was around this same time that he finally succumbed to the pressure to give his masterwork a name. At first a joke — “Classical composers don’t have to name things,” he would say, “they can just number them, Opus One, Opus Two, and so on” — he eventually arrived at what was certainly an apropos name. Opus is the Latin word for work, and 40 refers to the number of years he expected he would need to complete the work.
In May of 1976, Harvey Fite was killed in an accidental fall onto the rocks of the quarry sculpture to which he had devoted the last thirty-seven years of his life. He was seventy-two years old.
There is an unfinished wall, and there are piles of bluestone where he would have created more ramps and terraces as he extended his design. But Opus 40 is finished, and in a way it is as complete as it would ever have been. It was the product of Fite’s ceaseless vision, and could only have been stopped with his death.
The following year, his widow, Barbara Fite, who had been a close aesthetic collaborator with him throughout his labors, created the a nonprofit group which still administers Opus 40, and opened it to the public. Barbara Fite died in 1987, and her family continues the work she began. Opus 40 remains a popular tourist attraction, as well as a wedding and concert venue. In 2001 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Brendan Gill, in March, 1989 edition of Architectural Digest, called Opus 40 “one of the largest and most beguiling works of art on the entire continent,” and he has also called it “the greatest earthwork sculpture I have ever seen.” Though Fite was not associated with the Land Art or Earthworks sculptural movement of the 1970s, he came to be known as a pioneer of that movement, and was recognized in 1977 by the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in a show entitled “Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects,” as a forefather of the earthworks movement.