Pete Felten: A Life of Limestone

To endure, Pete Felten has stayed true to his mission. To attain longevity didn’t mean that he had to ever re-invent himself, either. The Kansan limestone carver has lived truth and dedication without re-invention. Indeed, for nearly 60 years, Hayes, 81, has nicked out a life from limestone, whittling his existence from sheets of sediment.

Artist Pete Felten at work

Felten’s genre and source of sculpture is an attribute of the state’s unique physiographic regions. Limestone has given rise – literally – to a beautiful, functional feature of the Kansas landscape: fences. The use of limestone for fence posts was crucial to the transformation of central Kansas from free range land to cropland. While there are several types of the hard sedimentary rock in Kansas—many with irresistible names such as chestnut shell, which has a lavender tint, or tuxedo gray, which quarries from Leibenthal (Rush County, population 100)—most of Felten’s material is re-purposed fence post limestone.

“We’ve got the highest quality quarried limestone anywhere right here,” says Felten, sitting on a stool in a dusty garage, decked in a sandy T-shirt and khaki pants. “There’s some good limestone in Bedford, Indiana, the stuff they used for the Empire State Building, too. Silverdale limestone from Silverdale, Kansas, is some of the finest stone in the country, even though it’s a ghost town now.”

Pete Felten’s buffalo monument

State laws abolished “the open range” in 1867 and provided payment to settlers who enclosed their pastures. Still, cattle ranchers wanted their stock to roam. Timber was sparse, so they erected their own fences, utilizing similar stones many had used to build their houses and outbuildings. Fence stones were hoed from bedrock and laid mortar-less into durable, two-sided walls. Miles of these fences tell the tale in swaths of rolling prairie; much of it ended up either crumbled from the elements, discarded, or in the back of Felten’s truck.

“Fencepost stones didn’t rot like wood, and the prairie fires couldn’t do anything to them,” says Felten. “Gosh, there were approximately 40,000 miles of these stone fenceposts at its peak in central Kansas. Forever Kansas built fenceposts to keep the buffalo out and the cattle in, and it only took about one layer of stone to make a post.

“There have to be about 10,000 of them fenceposts around the state not being used. You can get most of your limestone for free. Plus, I get to a lot of places where they’re going to build or tear them down, and I look for extra stone there. There’s some stuff down here (in his garage and studio) that comes as leftovers from the visitor center in town—a white, hard stone.”

The Lawman

Dozens of Felten’s works dot the landscape in Hays, the largest city in northwest Kansas, population 20,000, including the Pteranodon, greeting travelers on the northeast edge of the city. The extinct flying reptile Pteranodon overlooks the ramp of eastbound Interstate 70.

He works on limestone sculptures in the old Felten Truck Line garage or on the lawn outdoors, in front of the Stone Gallery. Most mornings, Felten can be found sitting at the tailgate of his red 1965 International pickup truck, with some kind of gizmo in hand, long white beard, talkative, sly, an octogenarian of brains and guts. In between tapping and forming, there’s a touching story about identity, and what it means to make a name for yourself.

Pete Felten Jr. was born in Hays, Kansas, in 1933. His father believed that young Pete might someday take over the family business. Instead, Pete enrolled in courses at Fort Hays Kansas State College and then joined the U.S. Navy. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1956 and during this time, he says, “I was exposed to art museums on the east and west coasts and Hawaii.”  Pete attended an art league school in New York, and then returned to his hometown to take additional classes at the local college.

In 1957, he formed a friendship with a limestone carver named John Berland. Felten grabbed a slab of rock and started experimenting. While Berland was attracted to the act of carving, Felten found his interest gravitate toward the limestone’s unique characteristics, its regional differences in hardness, color, and texture. He says that he “learned to appreciate the fossil record revealed” as he worked with the mineral.

One of things that Felten still enjoys about carving is that it invites him to wonder about things and leaves him free to inquire. He doesn’t see his art as some kind of phenomenon that requires distinct explaining. He has no impulse to proselytize.

“I can teach you all I know about limestone in a single morning,” smiles Felten. “There isn’t a thing to it that you couldn’t do. But if you were an apprentice, I’d tell you that it’s the physical part that stops the ambitious person. People use high-powered tools for carving things like granite. But with limestone, you do it the old way, like the way they did in Egypt. There was no steel in Egypt. Cut. Cut. Cut. Then you cut some more.”

The breadth and virtuosity of his work, as well as his reputation of being an approachable old-timer who enjoys making small talk, are subjects of legend in Kansas.

Felten’s first large commission piece, completed in 1961, is in front of Hays Public Library, 1205 Main St. Not only do his works abound in the Hays area and western Kansas, but his statues of Four Famous Kansans are home in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Topeka. Felten worked on the sculptures of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, Topeka journalist and U.S. Senator Arthur Capper, and Emporia journalist William Allen White for two years. The sculpture traveled more than 200 miles down Interstate 70, and Felten used the $60,000 to remodel a small house near his downtown garage studio to turn it into the Stone Gallery. The small, blue bungalow, nestled in a group of large trees in the 100 block of West Sixth, features numerous pieces of artwork by area artists, as well as Felten’s. To the west is a large limestone fence behind his working garage, which he completed in April 2015.

The Pioneer Tower at First Presbyterian Church, located at 2900 Hall, features a series of celebrated images symbolic of Kansas, such as buffalo, a wagon train, thunderstorm, and wheat field. Monarch of the Plains was created to commemorate the centennial of the city of Hays in 1967. It’s  eight feet high, 10 feet long, and stands on an eight-foot-high base. It took two years to complete the 24-ton sculpture at Historic Fort Hays, off U.S. Highway 183.

“Twenty four tons of limestone? Everyone watching you? That’s a lot of fun.”

A sculpture of an Angus bull in Victoria caps the grave of George Grant, the founder of the city of Victoria, Kansas, who brought the first herd of Angus cattle to America. It’s located southeast of the corner of Old U.S. Highway 40 and Ball Park Road. Felten painted the bull black to portray a true Angus. Indeed, Felten’s legacy is his love of the local.

“When you look at my life, I’ve got a nice truck, lots of nice stone, my dad’s property—I’m in hog heaven here. I was born and raised here. Where am I going to? Italy?”

Pressed once more about his practice, Felten reiterates that the mysteries of the art of limestone carving are, well, hardly mysteries at all. “The secret is to get the confidence to hit the point of the screwdriver or whatever tool you are working with,” says Felten. “When you hit it directly, you get nice chips off.”

Felten said that there’s a sense of peace and even contentment that comes with this long familiarity. With a few taps of a tool he can guess if the mineral chunk is either well-suited for art or should be tossed in the useless heap pile. Second-naturedly, he tends to work out a section of stone with his hands and tools until it merely feels right.

“If you’ve been around it for as long as I have, you really get a good sense of the stone,” says Felten. “Sometimes you get a piece and you find that there are fossils in the wrong spot, or that there’s some type of cavity, or the inside has been eroded away, and you don’t know if you can work around the defect. Remember, stone is irregular and very natural.”

Tap. Tap. Tap. Felten pays attention to things that are, in themselves, “trivial,” as he says. No matter how he describes his memories or the present moment, there’s a beautiful, rich, human spirit in his work that’s to be thought highly of.

“There’s no such thing as retirement for us artists, you know,” says Felten. “I dread the day when I can’t do it anymore. It hasn’t happened yet.”

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