Ted Ludwiczak’s Easter Island on the Hudson

Ted Ludwiczak’s Easter Island on the Hudson

Article by  Carol Millsom and Victor Studer 

“Rocks talk to me. I pick the ones that have a face in them. Then I follow the shape of the stone. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out.” — Ted Ludwiczak

We saw the stone faces the first time from our boat while sailing on the Hudson River north of New York City. Embedded in a retaining wall, the stones looked old and weathered like something from another time. A few had twisted expressions, one was expressionless, but most smiled enigmatically. Where did these faces come from? If we could find the house, perhaps the owner could tell us.

We knew we had the right house when we saw a whole colony of stone heads in the yard facing the road. It took a few more trips before we found their creator at home. But one day there he was, flanked by his stone proteges, carving yet another one. Like most of them, he was smiling at us.

Ted Ludwiczak (LUD-veh-CHACK), 70 years old this year, has been carving faces in local stone since 1988. It all began, he explained, when he finished the retaining wall we had seen from the river. “It looked bare, called out for something. Then I noticed a rock on the beach and saw a face in it. I could see eyes, maybe a mouth. I picked up a lawn mower blade I had been using to work on the wall and started carving. The face became clearer as I worked. When I finished, I cemented it in the wall. He looked a little lonely. So I made another one and then a whole family. I haven’t stopped yet.”

Although Ludwiczak carves only faces, no two are ever the same. “Rocks talk to me,” he said. “I pick ones that have a face in them. Then I follow the shape of the stone. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out. I usually know about halfway through. It’s not always easy. Sometimes I lie awake at night, trying to figure out how to get the expression to come out of the stone.”

Offering to show us the rest of his “family”, he led us behind the house to another grouping of stone heads. Larger than most of those by the road, the stones have a commanding presence. Silhouetted against the river, these heads face the house so that the sculptor can watch them change with the light and season. Most have benign expressions, though one, a stone hat perched on his head, sticks his tongue out at us. All of them have a haunting quality that to us links them to those spectral figures that emerged in so many parts of the ancient world.

We asked the sculptor about this. “Oh, some people say my stone faces remind them of Easter Island. I know what they mean. I’ve seen the pictures. But I’ve made my own Easter Island — an Easter Island on the Hudson.”

The tide was low enough that we could walk down the steep steps to the river to see the retaining wall where it had all started. Asked how his work had changed over the years, the sculptor replied, “It was a little primitive in the beginning. Now it’s more refined.”

We could see how he was pushing the limits of the carved stone face. The early heads were fairly uniform ovals, but recently he has been tackling a great variety of shapes and sizes, cutting faces into stones that are angular, tall and narrow, even crescent-shaped. Some are boulder size, three or four feet high; others could fit in a shoe box. Several have two faces; one has three. The latest are profiles.

The sculptor has tried his hand at different materials, too. At first he worked the red sandstone he found on the river bank. Then with his son’s help, he dragged granite back from an abandoned quarry near his house. We especially liked the white limestone he pulled in from the river at low tide.

When the city replaced the stone curbing on his street, he used the discarded pieces to make long skinny heads. His newest challenge is the marble a friend brought him from Vermont. He shapes all these rocks the same way — with tools he made himself or found. The best, he claims, is the bent lawn mower blade he has used since he started.

Though he would really like to keep them all, Ludwiczak does sell his heads through a New York gallery. “I feel guilty when I let one go,” he confesses. “I have to replace it even though the new one won’t be the same.” Then he arched his eyebrow and said, “The other stones get lonely, too. The family doesn’t like to be split up.” We nod in agreement. As a group they create an environment.

The artist’s concern with separation betrays an early wanderlust. As a college student Ludwiczak was finishing a summer job on a cargo ship in his native Poland when the captain invited him to come along on the voyage. Discouraged about his future in a Communist country, he eagerly accepted. After docking at ports of call in India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and along the Mediterranean coast, he chanced upon a group of fellow Poles while on shore-leave in Italy. At their urging he decided to stay there, eventually becoming a German-speaking tour guide in Rome with a souvenir business on the side. Then his aunts, who had immigrated to New York City long before, began entreating him to join them.

When he went to the embassy to secure a visa, his fluency in German and English so impressed the staff that they offered him a job in Germany with the U. S. Army. He stayed in Frankfurt five years, was made an honorary Master Sergeant, was assigned his own car and driver, and became an expert in wines. “It was a wonderful life,” he said. But the aunts were adamant, “Come to New York now.” And in 1956 he did.

Once in New York he learned to grind contact lenses, eventually establishing his own business which he maintained until his retirement in 1986. Now by substituting stone for plastic and creating his own designs instead of following prescriptions, he has tapped a latent talent. And though a modest man, he takes pride in his new celebrity. “We’re just simple folk living here on this street, but now millionaires come to see my work,” he says.

Impressed by Ludwiczak’s ability to succeed in so many enterprises in such different parts of the world, we wanted to learn his secret. Believing his good education was really the key, he recalled his school days. “I had to write essays with titles like ‘Go to Life with an Open Heart’ and ‘The Ocean is the Window of the World.’ I don’t remember now exactly what I wrote, but I learned those lessons well.”

The message on the artist’s answering machine echoes the same sentiment, “Go to life with a smile and an open mind”.

CAROL MILLSOM STUDER recently retired as professor of child development and education at New York University.

The late VICTOR STUDER was director of tea research at Thomas J. Lipton Co., and a member of the Folk Art Society’s National Advisory Board.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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