Curse of the Mad Hatter: Down the rabbit hole with a Shelter Island sculptor

As we reported last spring, Island artist Jerry Glassberg is working on a project for the community at his property he’s dubbed, “Jerry’s Wonderland Garden.” The plans are to transform about three-quarters of an acre next to his house and studio on Lakeview Drive into a lush tribute to “Alice in Wonderland,” with free admission for all. The major characters created by Lewis Carroll will be present in a setting of plants, flowers, bushes and trees. “We’ll have ice cream, music, a golf cart at the bottom of the drive to bring people up who have trouble getting around,” Mr. Glassberg told us last year. He showed us the place where he’ll put the entrance to the garden, a gateway of slim trees and hanging vines. Enchantment, he said, is his goal. The sculptor, now in his 80s, recently sent us an update on his work in progress.

It’s been a long struggle. I had my assistant, Fidencio, cleaning up the property two years ago. It was one huge mess of brambles and fallen trees and brush. I had five large truckloads of brush hauled to the Recycling Center.

Then there were the many characters from “Alice in Wonderland” that had to be produced. I made the Cheshire cat, with a mold. It was a very simple sculpture and mold, and I converted one of my existing sculptures into Alice.

But then I was faced with one of the main characters in this fable, the Mad Hatter. I worked on it in the winter of 2017 and finished it in early 2018. Everyone who saw the finished figure thought it was one of my best sculptures. I then started making the mold, so I could produce multiple Hatters.

I had not made a large, complex mold in over 18 years. Mold-making is an intense, difficult, laborious task, particularly if the sculpture is in any way complex. Unfortunately, my brain is not so nimble anymore and I forgot several important things in designing a mold. When it came time to make the mold, the ordeal started.

Since the design was flawed, making the mold became impossible. I worked weeks and months, each time trying to modify and correct all the mistakes. After a few months of futile efforts, I was no closer to completion. If anything, each correction brought about new and frustrating problems. 

It was beyond me. I was growing more and more disgusted. I was facing the fact that I had the choice of abandoning the Hatter and go on with the many other chores in this huge garden project. Each time I looked at the half-completed mold it bothered me. Finally, in July 2019, I felt strong enough to take him on once again. He had now become my mortal enemy. My mind could only focus on nothing but the no-good Hateful Hatter.

After months of frustrating work, I thought I was about ready to make the casting from the mold. The Hateful Hatter had frustrated me so many times I was intimidated. But I decided on a Saturday in October last year to check one more time on a particularly difficult section of the mold. Good thing I did, because I discovered it had a major flaw that would have completely ruined any new casting.

Prior to the casting, I’d had a threatening conversation with the Hateful Hatter. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he turned out deformed, I would not tolerate his mocking me in his flawed state, but take a sledge hammer and destroy him and turn him into 1,000 pieces. I worked on the correction, taking rests, for another three or four hours, hoping that the Hateful Hatter would not prevail. The following day, Fidencio was with me and we made a casting. I wouldn’t know for 24 hours if it was successful because there are a hundred things in a casting that could go wrong.

It got worse. I’d made another mistake. So eager to see how the casting came out, I tried to dismantle the mold on the ground. I hadn’t realized the Hatter is only 30 inches tall. It was difficult, trying to take off the mold working from 1 inch to 30 inches off the ground. It was murder on my body. I can’t bend over without pain; here I was trying to do this intricate de-molding from an impossible position. 

I should have waited until Fidencio was with me on Sunday and the sculpture was placed on a device that could be adjusted to any height. After much labor and frequent resting, it got done. The miserable Hatter came out about 80% O.K. After I make the repairs, I told myself, it will be difficult to spot them. When he’s repaired and painted in my garden, I’ll probably grow to love him. 

I now had the Hateful One on a lift so I could paint him. I generally have the sculpture tied to a bar on the top of the mechanism. As I slightly loosened him from the bar, my heart almost stopped as I watched him, without warning, falling. Luckily, someone (the ghost of Lewis Carroll?) was watching over him, and me, since before his face hit the ground, his legs became entangled in the lift and it stopped his fall. His grinning face was a scant few inches off the ground. If it had hit the ground, the whole casting would have been ruined.

Later, looking in a mirror, or should I say, looking glass, I saw blood on my head. The Hatter had hit me with a glancing blow, which I never felt. The Hatter, with the lift, is about 5 feet off the ground and weighs 60 pounds. If he had hit me squarely in the head, it would have cracked my skull like an egg. Only now, telling the story, can I see the humor in the whole scene.

When someone discovered us, there I would have been, dead, with the Hatter gleefully lying on top of me. The Reporter’s headline: “Mad Hatter kills sculptor.” 

I’ve finished the Hatter’s hat and am waiting for help to install him in the “Wonderland Garden.” It will be a relief to get him where he can’t do any more damage.

I hope.