Limestone fence posts are sculptor’s medium

? Locals may take those old limestone fence posts for granted.

They’re a staple feature on the landscape throughout Post Rock Country in north-central Kansas.

But to visitor Fred Whitman, the native Kansas stone that tamed the land and helped pioneers build a life on the prairie has snared his passion.

“I love the historical significance of these posts, what they represent,” said Whitman, 53.

The dentist turned sculptor from Ojai, Calif., is on a “personal journey” to connect with the posts that serve as the canvas for nearly all of his work.

“People ship me these posts to carve,” Whitman said. In a pickup truck camper, he made the trip to north-central Kansas this month to see the posts for himself and experience “Post Rock culture.”

The face of a young woman now adorns the limestone post.

Partially hidden in tall grass atop the eastern slope of a shallow ditch off Kansas Highway 232, Whitman has toiled for hours with a hammer, chisel, a raspy file known as a riffler, and sandpaper, to transform one of those old working posts into a piece of art.

“This is my gift to Post Rock Country,” he said.

Expecting to complete the carving soon, Whitman will leave the sculpture of a woman with long flowing hair and a sunflower to decorate one tiny piece of a cattle pasture.

Meanwhile, the art center in Lucas is pondering ways to promote Whitman’s work.

He would like the word to spread about his gift to Kansas.

Fred Whitman, a dentist-turned-sculptor from Ojai, Calif., carves the face of a young woman into a limestone post south of Lucas. Whitman, whose stone of choice is limestone, is on a “personal journey” to connect with the posts that serve as the canvas for nearly all of his work.

Still functional

Although adorned with a “pretty face,” the stone will continue doing its job as a fence post, as it’s done for 120 years.

The sculpture faces west to catch the afternoon and evening sun, about 100 yards south of Becker Road, or roughly three miles north of the Wilson Lake dam, along the Post Rock Scenic Byway.

“When the sun hits these things, the inner surface glows in a golden color,” Whitman said.

The project began when Whitman stopped and introduced himself to folks at the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas.

“He’s an interesting gentleman,” said Rosslyn Schultz, director of the art center. Grassroots art celebrates the artwork of people with no formal training, just a desire to express themselves through art.

“(Whitman) had this romantic idea to carve a fence post,” she said.

After touring the area, and marveling at the limestone architecture in towns such as Sylvan Grove, Beloit and Concordia, Whitman decided to carve a post just a short drive from Lucas. He obtained permission from the landowners and their tenant, who keeps some bulls in the pasture.

“I think it’s absolutely amazing that somebody can see something on a piece of stone,” said Peg Gilbert, of Wilson Lake. A worker at the Grassroots Art Center, she stopped to visit with Whitman as he carved.

“We’re going to put him on our Facebook page,” Gilbert said.

Post-dentistry art

Dentistry, which involves a lot of carving and shaping of teeth, prepared Whitman for his art. A bad back forced him to quit practicing dentistry seven years ago.

“A dentist is a skilled craftsman. Art comes from somewhere deeper inside,” Whitman said.

He began working with Italian marble, but learned that one piece can take a year to complete. Since being introduced to the “softer” limestone, four years ago, Whitman said his production improved to eight or nine sculptures a year.

“This stone has its own shape and character. It’s not necessarily symmetrical or proportional from top to bottom,” he said. “I start with a scene and the viewer will finish it in their own mind.”

Today, clients pay from $2,000 to $4,000 for one of his limestone sculptures. Those sales account for his sole income.

But Whitman’s visit to Kansas wasn’t about sales.

“I’m not here to make any money,” he said.

Whitman’s sample near Wilson Lake is meant to continue the legacy of the limestone post.

Posts in these parts were quarried nearby, he said, along with stones for homes and barns.

With generous strands of barbed wire, the fences have kept cattle and other critters in their pastures and out of the crops for well over a century.

Shells and other fossils in the stone also tell a “75 million year story,” and now that it’s been shaped into art, Whitman said he’s added, “a brand new story. The other stories are still being told.”