The sculptor Laura Oliphant has some wise words about restoration. “It’s important to maintain the fabric of the history,” she explained. “You also need to consider today’s world with its current needs and balance the restoration with how that space will be used. Buildings that are maintained the best are the ones that are used the most. I always say it’s important to keep the flavor of the building. Upgrade the building, but don’t ruin the classic style of the original.” Laura’s philosophy: The craftsmanship should reflect superior use of materials and produce aesthetic results that don’t draw attention to the restoration but instead draw greater attention to the original work.
“I compare it to my 1951 Chevy pickup truck,” she continued. I’ve had that truck for about 18 years. I updated certain features—rebuilt the 1954 engine, modified the T-5 transmission, added a 12-volt system, etc.—but restored the body of the truck to its original. So, my truck can perform at modern speeds and meet modern needs but retains its classic look and feel. That’s how good restorations works. That is what I love about Gothic architecture. It evolves and changes with the times. Gothic structures often offer room to expand and provide space for contemporary needs and expressions.”
Laura came to love sculpting at an early age. She went to Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County and initially considered biology/veterinary science as a major. But she had amazing art teachers who recognized her uncanny ability to put things together in creative ways, and they encouraged her to try all kinds of art forms. For that reason, she ended up studying at The Corcoran, spent a year pursuing academics at Georgetown University, and then finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Laura’s mother, Hendrika DeVries, an author and therapist, recently published a memoir When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew. Her father is Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist. “His name never really helped me get work,” explained Laura. “I always wanted my work to speak for itself, and I believe it has. I’ve gotten most of my work through word of mouth recommendations. Plus, I never sought the kind of notoriety my dad has and all the things that come with fame. Still, when I was growing up, it was an advantage to interact with his interesting colleagues and other artists.” Today Laura’s mother is remarried and lives in Santa Barbara, and her father, now remarried, lives in Santa Fe.
Laura has worked on restorations as varied as the Lincoln Memorial, Josephine Butler Parks Center, the National Cathedral, and Alban Towers in Washington, D.C. She even restored a tombstone slab in the Oxford cemetery. One day while at the cemetery with a colleague, osprey and eagles flew overhead. They looked at each other, and both remarked that they were fortunate to have the best job in the world.
Certainly, the most notable restoration has to be the Lincoln Memorial, a job which took nine months. She was the only one rebuilding all the joints. She has also done many private commissions—individual small jobs or carvings, plus lots of church work—statues, carvings, and moldings.
Laura works in a variety of mediums, including marble, stone, bronze, metal, and wood. She often works with European restoration mortar. She also designs and installs ceramic tiles.
Recently Laura was in Paris and saw what remains of Notre Dame cathedral. “I looked at it and cried,” she admitted. “I never expected to react that way. I felt such a sense of loss. There is so much history there, and it was such a special place. There simply is not enough money to care for these beautiful edifices. A spark can smolder for a long time and do significant damage. I would love to work on that project. It would be an exciting challenge, and I love Paris—except driving there, of course.”
While in Paris, Laura visited the Musee d’Orsay. When walking up to the building, she was attracted to one particular carving. Then once she started exploring the building, she found rooms that showed the evolution of that carving, allowing her to see what the artist was thinking as the carving evolved. She loves the Rodin sculptures in Paris as well and commented that Rodin’s wife’s works are among her favorites.
Laura said that she and her spouse, Karis Graham, came to Cambridge to buy a boat and ended up buying a house. They appreciate the history of the area and found a 1915 house that they love. They live there with a rescue dog and three rescue cats. Laura finds the whole Eastern Shore an undiscovered gem in many ways. In their free time, they enjoy kayaking, hiking, and fishing on their boat.
“Cambridge reminds me of Baltimore in a way,” remarked Laura. “I happen to really love Baltimore. Of course, it has its problems, but it also has lots of character. It is what it is. I like that.”
Laura explained how politics factor into the arts. “When you get administrations that don’t recognize the need for the arts, budgets tend to get tighter. When we had the crash, a lot of small companies went under. Politics and the economy are all intertwined. That’s why I diversify and do a lot of different things—sometimes for private donors, sometimes government, etc.” Laura also teaches different stone restoration methods and mold making, usually to small groups or for companies who want their employees to learn a specific technique.
“I plan to keep working as long as my body holds out,” Laura stated. “My work is rewarding. I love what I do. Not everyone can say that.”
Laura can be contacted here.
Maria Grant served as principal-in-charge of the Federal Human Capital Practice with Deloitte Consulting. Since her retirement from Deloitte, she has focused on reading, writing, music, travel, gardening, and nature.