Good Life

'Walking together:' Patton Township couple share lifetime of artistic creativity

The rain passed in time for the couple to marry.

Across a meadow, through tall grass that almost hid the bride, they walked toward each other. Mozart played from a tape, and a guitarist strummed. On the altar, a stump in the middle, a goblet of wine stood.

Jeanne Stevens and Phil Sollman, two young artists, didn't want a conventional wedding.

So they created their own, a bohemian affair even by 1971 standards.

A friend, the head of Penn State's religious studies department at the time, officiated. They exchanged rings but no vows - in fact, no words at all. She served the wine, made by her grandfather in the 1930s, to his family. He did the same for hers.

Into the October sunshine flew homing pigeons, seven for luck, raised by her father back in Rhode Island. The birds circled the newlyweds, symbolically as intended, before departing over Centre County.

Then everyone retired to the reception, a picnic in the woods complete with a keg of beer.

Forty-two years later, Stevens-Sollman and Sollman still share a life of creativity on their own terms.

Both have become acclaimed figures in their fields. An internationally known medallic artist, Stevens-Sollman produces bronze medallions and relief figures as well as ceramic sculpture such as her signature rabbits.

She also serves on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee for the United States Mint, helping select the final design for new coins.

Sollman, a master craftsman whose nature-inspired furniture appears in design magazines, makes sweeping, burnished chairs, dining tables and book cabinets out of cherry, tiger maple and other native hardwoods. His talents extend to intricate stained glass landscapes for door and cabinet panels.

Together they carved an idyllic spot for themselves from a cornfield in rural Patton Township.

They constructed a matching home and studio - art pieces onto themselves - and a shady, connecting stone patio topped by thick wisteria and featuring a carp pond dotted by lily pads. Elsewhere on their 10-acre property, trees and shrubs, flower and vegetable gardens, and an apple orchard grow where stalks once did.

Each day, they continue building something else - an enduring alliance of kindred souls, an elemental bond between down-to-earth sorts united by an earthy wedding.

"I think for Phil and I, it was an honest approach to our life together," Stevens-Sollman said. "This was not a time for putting on airs or doing something we couldn't afford. This was something we believed in and could afford, and it was simple."

"I think what we did really defined our relationship," Sollman said. "It was true to our relationship."

'Loading the kiln'

Their individual art comes together in a second-story gallery.

Illuminated by skylights, the narrow room displays some of the best work to come out of the two studios under the same roof. The couple use it as a showroom for potential clients, allowing contemplation of the art in a tranquil setting.

On the same floor is Sollman's workshop, where he walks on a film of sawdust and where elaborate homemade vises and jigs help him assemble his singular pieces. On a recent afternoon, he applied the finishing touches to a commissioned table that included flush lazy Susans for rotating displayed art objects.

Magazines such as Fine Homebuilding, Home Furniture, Country Life and American Woodworker have featured his work, as have several furniture and woodworking books and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

Downstairs, his wife creates her award-winning medallions and sculpture in a cluttered studio decorated with cacti, succulents, orchids, dried starfish, antlers and deer and calf skulls. She starts with plaster or oil clay figures, then makes a silicon mold, into which she pours wax. The hardened wax model goes for casting to a Rhode Island foundry - the destination soon for this year's Penn State Alumni Fellow Award, among the several university awards she's annually commissioned to do.

Her own accolades include awards from the Dutch Art Medal Society, the American Numismatic Association and the American Numismatic Society. Museums ranging from the Southern Alleghenies to the Smithsonian and the British Museum in London contain her works in their collections. Closer to home, her life-size bronze wolf pack guards the entrance to Penn's Cave in Centre Hall.

Given the magic conjured in their studios, it's fitting the couple met in one.

The time was 1970, the place Penn State. He was an undergraduate architecture student from Erie taking an art elective at the tail-end of a 5-year program. She was a graduate student from Johnston, R.I., pursuing a master's degree in fine arts and helping teach the pottery class.

"That's where it basically started, where we noticed each other," Sollman said.

Beside him on a sofa, Stevens-Sollman added, "But I believe everyone else noticed before we did."

It happened one class.

Custom dictated a group loading of the kiln at the end of class, with everyone chipping in to hand pots to the loader. Once the job was done, everyone would head to a nearby tavern for a drink or two, returning periodically to adjust the burners.

That afternoon, as the graduate assistant, Stevens-Sollman handled the kiln duty. Gradually, the stream of pots passed to her dwindled.

"As we loaded the kiln that night, people were sort of disappearing, and Phil was the only one left," she said.

"Ta-da!" her husband said.

They proceeded to the tavern and talked over drinks, the start of a beautiful friendship.

"Loading the kiln," Stevens-Sollman said, smiling at her husband.

Sollman smiled back. "That's how Phil and Jeanne happened."

'Glue that keeps us together'

They started out in a 2-room downtown State College apartment, their space cramped but not their imaginations.

Sollman, who constructed homes after graduation, took over the living room while building a cabinet. Still finishing her degree, Stevens-Sollman didn't care. They just lived with his work in progress, stepping around the wood and tools.

After moving to a farmhouse outside town, they found themselves with a bit more space for art. She occupied a tiny studio while he used the basement. It wasn't ideal, certainly not like what they enjoy now, but settings have never stopped them.

"Our creative energy is so powerful, it didn't matter where we worked," Stevens-Sollman said.

In 1976, they bought their land, and Sollman began building their home, his grandest work, a masterpiece filled with Mission and Art Deco touches. The detached studio building would come later. At first, each only had a small room at their disposal - and that was fine.

"You know, you don't need to have things perfect to go to work," Sollman said.

Today, they live closer to perfection, in a veritable artist's retreat overlooking meadows and woods, so still and peaceful the songbirds flocking to their feeders sound amplified. Everything on the property - the flagstone stairs and paths, the cobblestone driveway circle ringing a lush island, the gardens, the groves, the outdoor sculpture, the shaded camp site yards from the house - came from their hands.

But unlike their surroundings, their sensibilities haven't changed from their Pugh Street days.

"If we didn't have the studio and Phil wanted to make something in the middle of the (living) room, I wouldn't care," Stevens-Sollman said. "I'd just tell him to do it. Go make it."

Now in their mid-60s, they remain as close as they must have been during a cross-country trip in a vintage Airstream camper bought to celebrate their silver anniversary.

They plan days over coffee, reconvene from their studios for lunch and take evening walks with their black lab. They like cooking together and, incorrigible nonconformists they are, deviating from recipes. They freely swap thoughts, observations and daydreams, two fertile minds on the same wavelength.

They're sustained by a mutual artistic philosophy: Never fear failure when creating. Like the old sneaker commercial said, just do it.

"I think it's a glue that keeps us together," Stevens-Sollman said. "Because I can talk to Phil and share some ideas with him and he never says, 'You know what? That's a dumb idea.' He doesn't say that."

She paused.

"Well, sometimes, maybe," she said, laughing with her husband. "Then I know I have to do it."

Joking aside, Sollman said, they rely on each other for encouragement and advice.

"When something isn't going right, which it does quite often, we consult each other," he said. "Sometimes it's good to step away from what you're doing and listen to somebody else's thoughts on it."

Stevens-Sollman feels the same.

"What I find really special about our relationship is we have a lot of experience to bring to the table in our works and in our ideas," she said. "And so, if I do seek out his counsel for certain things, I respect what he says because I know he knows what I'm thinking. I think he understands where I'm coming from."

She felt it back at a tavern one night long ago.

"It was like Phil and I were walking down this same road, and we kept on walking together," she said.

And then they stepped forward in the wild grass, committing in silence to a romance sparked by the fires of a kiln.

"There was nothing that I could say more to Phil at the time than to trust me: 'Take my ring. Drink my grandfather's wine. Share my life.' That was the symbolism of all that," Stevens-Sollman said. "So far it's been working."

"Forty-three years," he said.

She didn't hesitate. "I would do it again."

"I would, too."