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Alum Profile: Adam Distenfeld ’81

Adam Distenfeld ’81, an acclaimed sculptor, is as direct and outspoken as much of his stone work, including his newest piece commissioned by The American University.

“I was born in the Bronx and then I was adopted,” said Adam Distenfeld ’81 of his home life.  “My parents’ first apartment was in Jamaica, Queens. The rest of my life we lived on the Lower East Side, which is now called the East Village.”  His parents noticed and encouraged Adam’s offbeat artistic sensibilities from an early age. “I knew I was an artist when I was 4 years old,” he said. “I started drawing and I started making sculptures. I constantly tried to spend my time doing art. Between age 4 and 13 my favorite gift was a roll of duct tape.  I’d make amazing things with it.”

His penchant for duct tape sculptures led to more lasting artistic passions, and he was thrilled to be accepted into New York City’s High School of Music and Art, which at that time was on E. 135th Street.  He was forthcoming in explaining his parents’ reasons for pulling him out of the school and enrolling him at BFS halfway through his freshman year. “New York in the ’70s was kind of scary. The subway trip in the mornings going from Second Avenue to 135th Street was pretty bad, and I got mugged.”

Ninth grade is not the best time in a teen’s life to switch schools, but it seemed to his parents like a wise choice, although Adam says he didn’t really blossom until his junior and senior years at BFS.  “Don Knies I got a chance to say ‘thank you’ to,” Adam said of one of his favorite and most influential Upper School teachers. “I’m so grateful because there are people in my life I didn’t get to thank who are now gone.  Don Knies co-taught a course about war literature with Lawrence Gibson. That was a great class, it was a year long.”

He also credited teacher Ron Patterson, who “transformed my life… I took a series of classes with him, and those things still inform my life today,” said Adam. “The books that he had us read were so amazing. The people I meet now are amazed at the things I know, and I say ‘I learned that in high school,’ and they say, ‘Oh my god, where did you go to school?'” These books included the work of acclaimed cultural anthropologist Edward T . Hall who wrote about cross-cultural and nonverbal communication. “Hall just passed away. He wrote about spaces and how different cultures use spaces, and being a sculptor I use this all time.”  Adam also credits Ron for encouraging him to conduct independent research and do his own further reading by authors that interested him. “I learned how to do research at BFS.”

He also fondly recalled walking the boards in the Meeting House for a production of Twelve Angry Men. “I was Juror Number Three, ” he beamed. “He’s a complete bigot. Lee J. Cobb played him in the movie! I loved it.”

Adam went on to earn a BA from Sarah Lawrence and an MFA from Hunter College. While at Hunter he had an aesthetic epiphany that gave his work a specific direction that would lead to his ongoing artistic recognition today.  “I was doing wood sculpture, and I was going to lumber yards using wood that had been cut down from forests, and I thought, ‘This isn’t right,'” he said. This harvesting and destruction of natural materials to make art didn’t sit well with him and he wanted to do something about it. Meanwhile, he and his long-time girlfriend Jessica visited the Noguchi Museum in Queens, dedicated to the work of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese artist known for his monumental works primarily in stone and metal. “That was transformative,” said Adam. “I said to my girlfriend, ‘He’s got a machine.'”

He did a little research and found that Noguchi carved stone using a core drill, an industrial tool not available at your run-of-the-mill art supply store. “So I went to Canal Street to the Tunnel Machinery Exchange. It was named for the Holland Tunnel and it opened when the Tunnel was built,” he recalled with a palpable enthusiasm. “They sold industrial core drills.  And I bought one and set about learning how to use it.”

Adam was still a full-time graduate student and working a day job, but, “my girlfriend and I decided to make things interesting,” he said, pausing for the windup. “We bought a house.” It was in Bushwick, Brooklyn where they still live today. “In my back yard I was discovering rocks, and I realized I could use these with the core drill.”

Soon he opened his own studio, BrooklynRockWerks, to formalize his artistic endeavors. “I went to construction sites and said ‘You’re gonna give me these rocks for free,’ and they do, because it saves them money,” he explained of his habit of regularly hauling away discarded boulders from excavation zones. “I don’t use things from the forest anymore.”

His works usually contain a humanitarian or even philosophical message about the human condition, about people working together to support each other and  form a whole, and are often stark versus simply pretty or sentimental. “Yes, their whole point about life on this planet is do no harm. And over and over again I see people who are just living willy-nilly and doing massive harm,” he lamented. “What’s happening in the Gulf [of Mexico with the massive oil spill] is amazing. When are people going to learn? They’re not.”

He takes his philosophy personally and seriously. “I am not trying to add to the glut of garbage that’s on this planet. I’m taking something that’s already on this planet and subtracting from it.” He still does the occasional oil painting, he conceded, “but I don’t want to use paint brushes so I’ve worked on my own methods.”  He wouldn’t elaborate further but encourages the curious to drop by his studio for a visit. “It’s not fingerpainting.”

He and Jessica have created a garden on the studio roof.  “It’s about 1250 square feet,” said Adam. “I want it to look like this is a garden and not a building, so there’s onions and tomatoes and potatoes and string beans and roses and marigolds on the roof. That actually helps with heating and cooling.” The roof garden also features 8 fountains that Adam made, in addition to 6 more working fountains downstairs in his studio.

To date the culmination of all of his heavy lifting and experimentation has surely been the piece he was commissioned to create for American University’s new School of International Service in Washington, DC. “Definitely this is the most exciting accomplishment for me,” he said. “They wanted to build a LEED-certified building and they wanted to be completely green.” Adam loved the concept and embraced the challenge. “When they build a building they dig a hole in the ground and they have all these rocks, and I said ‘wait, that’s where I’ll start.'” The fountain sculpture is made from 5 large stones he selected at the construction site,  and now sits in the school’s inner atrium.

Adam has been with his life partner Jessica B. Kindred, Ph.D, a psychology professor, for 20 years now. “We’re not married, we don’t have kids, we might adopt eventually,” he said in his usual straight-talking style. He described his own adoption from an orphanage in the Bronx as “monumentally phenomenal.” As with most issues, he’s done his homework. “300 million kids are up for adoption all around the planet, and one of three things usually happen to them: they get adopted, they go into military service, they go into prostitution. It’s horrible. All kids need a chance. It’d be so much better if more people adopted.”

Meanwhile Adam will continue adopting unwanted rocks. “I don’t really have hobbies. This building is my hobby,” he said of his Bushwick studio. “I have to make more sales so I can build more of the roof garden, that’s all I think about. If every building in New York City had a roof deck with plants, things would be a lot greener.”

No hobbies?  Well, there is the Facebook account, he admits. “One great thing about Facebook is that I’ve connected with everyone from high school. For 25 years I didn’t have a clue how person X or person Y was from high school. I had no idea. And now I do!” He enjoys reconnecting with old friends “who know some of the same things you know, who had the same experiences you had. You want them to know that you thought they were great.”

Does what he learned at BFS, those so-called “Quaker values,” influence him today? “It didn’t mean much to me then but it means a lot to me now,” he said. “I value silence on my roof deck. When you’re up there you only hear the birds who never shut up and that’s just wonderful.”

Learn more at www.adamdistenfeld.com