Rock of ages
Soapstone mining once was a big industry in Grafton, and the museum pays tribute to that.

Rock of ages

How a girl from Cleveland became a self-taught geologist, a painter of rock stars, and a museum curator in Grafton

GRAFTON — Nestled in what used to be a crossroads of northern Windham County is an irony of sorts that has been playing out for more than 35 years.

Unbeknownst to all but a few insiders, Susan Hadden has been quietly and, for the most part, without acclaim, living and finding expression – oscillating between two seemingly disparate areas of deep passion and interest.

Hadden is the owner and co-founder of the Vermont Museum of Mining and Minerals, at 55 Pleasant St. She is also a painter, in large canvases, of rock stars (yes, you read that correctly - rock stars). She says she gets nervous when she is not able to get into the studio regularly, as happened a few winters ago, due to an injury.

Of her hobby of mineralogy and geology, she said, “I started collecting minerals when I was eight years old. I have been fascinated throughout the years.”

Asked what possible connection there could be between her passion for painting rock stars and her lifelong hobby of geology and mineralogy, she explained, “I have always been very creative, and certainly on the aesthetic side. But I have always been fascinated with science because science doesn't deviate from reality as art does when you're creative.”

Hadden is no amateur at either. She was always artistic, painting and drawing from her childhood in Cleveland, and, importantly, is “totally self-taught in mineralogy and geology.”

Without a trace of irony in her voice, she said, “I'm also an artist. I paint enormous oil portraits of rock stars.” Hadden said she won first place in several New England art exhibits, though she could not recall what or when they were. Sometime in the early 1970s, when she lived in Darien, Conn., she supposes.

Growing up in Cleveland, her mother was her biggest supporter.

“She encouraged me in virtually anything that I found fascinating,” Hadden said. “She took me to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History when I was young. As a little girl, I had lots of minerals and fossils and [my mother] encouraged me a great deal with mineral presents.”

“My father wasn't quite as interested,” she recalls with a laugh.

She supposes the common ground between her painting and mineralogy is “the aesthetic nature of the minerals, which is absolutely gorgeous.”

“I would dream about them, yes,” she said. “I dreamed a lot about finding a treasure chest of sapphires and rubies and diamonds.”

At one point, she said, she even hypothesized “that there is a totally carbon planet that is so dense it is probably one huge diamond.” (A prescient hypothesis, as scientists discovered just such a planet in 2012.)

Hadden met and married her husband in Cleveland, where they both grew up, in the early 1970s. Her husband was Alexander Hawthorne “Sandy” Hadden, notable in his own right as counsel to the American League from 1964 to 1970. From 1970 to 1985 he was secretary-treasurer and house counsel for Major League Baseball. Hadden died in 2010.

When then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hired Sandy Hadden to work in New York as the primary lawyer for Major League Baseball, he and Susan moved from Cleveland to Darien, Conn.

“It was through his job that I met all the stars,” Susan explained. “I've met [many] presidents. I had a half-hour conversation with Cary Grant. He was very interesting.”

She said she also met a lot of rock stars, and was fascinated with their look.

From Connecticut, Susan continued, “We bought a ski house in Vermont and kept coming up on ski trips. We liked it so well we eventually moved up full-time in 1979.”

Hadden said her husband would spend the week in New York and come up on the weekends.

Grafton reveals itself

When she started coming up, she said, she had no idea of Vermont's rich mineral and geologic history. Very quickly, she started discovering Grafton's history with soapstone mining, and started making forays to mines around the state, dragging her husband along.

She said she did all her own research, from learning the periodic table of the elements to digging into the geologic history of Vermont. Her interest in mineralogy and the state's geologic history eventually made her one of the state's foremost experts on both. And, it was due to her proposal and help that Vermont's legislature adopted a state gem (the grossular garnet), a state rock (granite, marble, slate), and state mineral (talc).

In her late 70s, Hadden has made Vermont mineralogy and gem history and painting iconic American pop history her life.

She explained that the geology of Vermont is the museum's raison d'etre .

“Vermont was at the end of the North American landmass. There was no New Hampshire millions of years ago. We actually bumped against the ocean,” she said.

Given the pushes and pulls of plate tectonics over hundreds of millions of years, Hadden said, what would become Europe and north Africa “pushed an island arc onto the ocean side of Vermont and formed New Hampshire.”

The geology, she said, is complex and “absolutely fascinating.” For example, she said, one of the reasons we have marble is because it is marine-derived – compressed limestone filled with sea creatures, and usually found at the edge of an ocean. Vermont has a rare inland marble belt, Hadden said.

“Geology is so complex in Vermont that I think people become fascinated when they know what has really transpired here,” she said.

“The mining of minerals became extremely important to the economic health of the state, keeping people employed in great numbers and [bringing] wealth to our state,” Hadden said.

She cites the Lowell-Eden asbestos mine, now closed; the marble and granite quarries in Barre, which are still operating; soapstone mining in Grafton, also closed; and marble quarries in Dover, among others, as proof of the state's lively economic history.

That said she explained Vermont is not known among rock hounds as a hot spot for collecting.

“One of the principal reasons for that is, with the metamorphic activity from mountain building, you have the heating of the various land masses underneath that will metamorphose into various small, teeny, tiny crystals that you don't see all that much with the naked eye.”

But there have been incredible finds, she said. “There was one up in East Dorset where quartz crystals that were three and four feet long were discovered in a pocket because we are primarily a metamorphic geology,” here in Vermont.

According to the Vermont Geological Survey, the following products are found in Vermont: granite, marble, slate, talc, verde antique, and soapstone. Schist, sand, gravel, crushed limestone, marble, dolomite, granite, quartzite, and slate also abound.

As of 2000, Vermont lists 42 fully operational mines. Another 142 are listed as intermittent. The estimated non-fuel mineral production for Vermont in 2003 was $73 million. This was a 3 percent increase over 2002 and $20 million more than the total production in 1993.

As of 2003, Vermont ranked fourth in the United States in dimension stone production by tonnage. In 2001 the state ranked third nationally in production of granite, second in production of marble, and first in production of slate.

Hadden said it has long been her dream to create a Vermont mining and history museum, a dream she realized in co-founding and opening the Vermont Museum of Mining and Minerals in Grafton, after its digs on Pleasant Street became available in 2007.

Hadden has written peer-reviewed papers, one of which was published in Rock & Minerals magazine in its “Vermont Issue” in 1996, on the Lowell-Eden minerals quarried there.

Hadden talks of her museum and Vermont geological and mining history with visible enthusiasm.

“This is the only mineral museum of Vermont. The mining history of Vermont is extremely important both to the future and past of Vermont. [Soapstone] mining was extremely important [in Grafton]. [We] were the leading producer of soapstone in all of Vermont and the leading producers in the nation. Marble, talc, slate, and granite have been important to the monetary success of our state,” she said.

Hadden notes that marble, slate, and granite are still mined, and the industry is vital. But soapstone is no longer quarried here, she says, as it's more profitable to import it from Brazil.

She said the Vermont Soapstone Co. tried to keep quarrying locally, but struggled against strengthening environmental regulations at home, and the ready supply of cheap soapstone in South America, and went out of business.

Hadden's museum has several displays dedicated to the Grafton soapstone mines and the objects local stone produced – such as foot warmers in the shape of feet or cut squares that would be encased in wood and heated to warm sleighs and beds in winter.

Beside these, in the window, is a Chris Dennett replica of Grafton Village executed in marble and slate. In a case opposite, Hadden has created replicas of famous stone settings owned by the rich and famous. She says she has several of the largest geodes in the world. Elsewhere, there's a three-foot split ammonite revealing crystalline deposits within its swirl.

Beyond what she shares of Vermont mineralogy in those three cases, Hadden invites patrons to check out a photo installation of the Green Mountain State's living history of stones and mining.

Souvenir stones and crystals are for sale. There's even a children's exhibit dedicated to animals and carts and human figures made of stones.

Painting rock stars

Hadden said she started painting when she and her husband moved to Darien, an activity she emphasizes her husband fully supported.

Her first studio there was in the basement, and she had to share the space with a furnace and all manner of stored items.

She kept her supplies in a freezer with an elaborate pulley system her husband rigged up to let her raise and lower shelves of paints and other materials for easy access.

“It was a teeny space in the basement where we also kept some bottles of wine. It would heat up of course, and it was the worst studio with no natural light.”

She began her painting career doing “mostly commissions,” she said. But she said those weren't fulfilling.

“You always feel that you're prostituting yourself when you're doing commissions, painting to suit the individual's needs, or matching what color their living rooms are. You can't deviate too much from the conceptual norm that they have for themselves,” she said. “But with the art that I do of rock stars, it is a passion so deep that I feel very nervous if I don't put in my painting time.”

So why rock stars?

“Rock stars are ... extremely interesting looking, more so than doing a commission of a man in a three-piece suit with conventional hairstyles,” Hadden said, laughing. “With rock stars, just visually with their hair and jewelry playing off all aspects of the portrait,” they're more interesting for her to paint.

“You want the backgrounds to function well with all the extraneous items such as the hair. It's more of a whole than a conventional portrait. I have to be extremely painterly about it.” And that is what she loves.

In her studio at home, a large, 6-foot-tall, unfinished portrait of the rap artist 50 Cent stands waiting on the easel, beside a large poster from which she takes her inspiration. Hanging on the wall behind it is a painting of two musicians, one wearing a hat with BOY on the brim, but she does not recall who they are. The eyes are evocative and expressive, looking straight at the viewer, the painting technique masterly.

And on the opposite wall are paintings of Adam Ant and two girls whose names she doesn't recall, but who she calls “the vile Candy and Randy.”

In a hall just off the studio are several more portraits - one of her daughter, Kate Hadden, done in 1998; and high above the entry door, an iconic painting of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin.

Bon Jovi covers a wall in the hallway between there and her studio. Several more portraits are hanging but she can't recall who they are.

“Some rock stars,” she says.

Hadden's paintings of rock stars are only known to a few, and she said, in addition to the dozen or so leaning against walls and hanging in her studio, she has “a gazillion more” in storage.”

Hadden has suffered a “long seige” of health issues, and has not been able to get back into the studio in several years. Hadden's voice and laughter were strong as she ended the interview, with “you never know what the future may hold.” .

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