How the Stone Carves the Sculptor

February 06, 2014

The artists themselves – twenty-eight in all – are as diverse a group as the materials they have chosen. Several generations are here, from new talents to famous names with pieces in collections all over the world. They work in studios under the flyover of the Docklands light railway and in rusting barns tucked into the folds of Dartmoor, on hillsides from Yorkshire to Gozo to Colorado. Some scale their pieces up from exquisite models, while others prefer to let the internal form of the rock itself be their guide; one at least builds his pieces up in layers, like dry stone walling.

After spending a few days in the company of the exhibitors, however, I am less struck by their inevitable, creative variety than by the commonalities of their lives. Each of them has chosen a way of life that, despite modern tools, seems to have more in common with a stone mason of pre-industrial times than, say, an IT worker or a businessperson – or many a contemporary artist. Such are the particularities of this existence that I find myself wondering which, in the human-stone dynamic, is being sculpted, and which is doing the sculpting. Watching one of the artists painstakingly sanding a huge slab of Kilkenny limestone, it dawns on me that the more malleable element is never going to be the rock.

Opposite Dominic Welch’s studio, a tractor crawls up a steep slab of Devon hillside, opening a deep reddish-brown furrow behind him. ‘He’s been ploughing that field for three days already,’ Welch tells me. The day I visit is dull and cloudy and the open Dutch barn where he works creaks under a cold little wind. All around us are sculptures at various stages of completion, rising like some half-glimpsed flock of thoughts out of rubble, dead nettles, broken stone and dust. ‘I watch him as I stand here drilling and sawing…’ he grins. ‘It’s not so different a job. Nine to five. Hard work.’

When the pieces are gleaming in a green shade at Asthall Manor, it will take a mental wrench to recall this moment in their creation. At one level, all the sculptors agree, carving in stone is tough, monotonous manual labour. ‘Very boring,’ says Bridget McCrum briskly, of the first stage of a sculpture when the form is being blocked out in stone. The noise, the goggles, masks and ear-defenders that constantly get clogged up with dust and filth, the winters that make tools so cold they burn your hands, the bad backs – let alone the spectre of lung disease from the dust and white finger from the power tools – in these ways and many others, the stone chisels away at those who would shape it. ‘Believe me, it’s not romantic,’ Jordi Raga remarks.

The relentless solidity of stone in itself weighs down on the life of a sculptor. ‘A lot of it is about problem-solving,’ explains Ekkehard Altenburger. Besides the main problem, of summoning form out of the rock, sculptors are faced with the daily struggle of rotating these vast chunks of material, moving them to and fro to catch different light, pinning them onto bases, transporting them, installing them… Equipment must be devised and endlessly adapted, tools must be developed, wooden crates built. It is a daily round of tasks far removed from that of the ethereal, impractical artist of popular imagination.

Perhaps this explains the surprise that many of the artists display at their chosen medium. For each one who grew up with a fascination with geology or ancient sculpture, there is another who, bizarre though it sounds to the outsider, fell into stone-carving almost by accident. Dominic Welch had just left school when, deciding an artist’s apprenticeship would be interesting, he happened to be taken on by the sculptor Peter Randall-Page. Nigel Watson worked in wood for years until, out of curiosity, he bartered a couple of wooden bowls for a piece of stone and some tools. Guy Stevens had spent his degree at the Chelsea School of Art concentrating on multi-media projects, yet discovered stone while he was working on a building site, and ‘it was the material that stuck.’

Once found, however, there is no turning back. For ‘stone is addictive,’ says Jordi Raga, a sentiment echoed by many of the artists. A sense of well-being seems to emerge just from being near it – a natural substance that connects us to the earth, that is the earth. Peter Randall-Page suggests its very density is comforting. ‘It’s solid, whereas most of the things we deal with are hollow boxes – houses, cars, rooms.’ ‘To love stone is a natural emotion,’ says Rachel Schwalm. ‘People feel drawn to it, its tactility, its sensuality.’

‘Stone appeals to all the senses,’ agrees Rosie Pearson, the owner of Asthall Manor and instigator of on form, remembering a pink granite staircase in Aberdeenshire that hypnotised her in childhood. ‘I loved the feel of it, and the smell. I used to sit there, sniffing it and occasionally giving it a little lick…’ Sculptors, living so close to the stone, are more aware than any of the subtleties of its appeal. William Peers comments on the occasional whiffs of gas that carving releases from within the layers of rock – ‘Fishy, damp, muddy smells … prehistoric air.’ Nicolas Moreton tells me how he will shut his eyes and feel, rather than see his way to the shape he is aiming for: and it is the sense of touch that is perhaps most deliciously seduced by forms in stone. (Do touch, say the signs at Asthall Manor; and the delight on visitors’ faces as they obey this order is one of the pleasures of on form.)

The rules of love are as mysterious in this instance as any other. It seems that once seduced, even the difficulties of working with stone come to be seen as blessings. ‘It’s the process of making that is important,’ explains Peers. Every line, every curve must be shaped using a series of tools, each one more delicate than the last, followed by six different grades of sandpaper. There’s no way of rushing it, which in itself is a relief. As Guy Stevens remarks, ‘As a painter, I used to produce twenty paintings a week – because I could. Stone has slowed me down.’ ‘If I wasn’t patient before I started,’ agrees Welch, ‘I certainly am now.’

Hour after hour passes for stone-carvers in a rhythmic, repetitive series of movements around the stone, like a dance, conducted endlessly over a few square feet of ground. They select the tool, cut, step to one side and then the other to assess how this cut has affected the whole, and repeat, again and again. The process, extended over months, engenders a trance-like state that must be stone’s most potent effect on the sculptor. Many see it as a meditative practice that accesses profound areas of the subconscious, as Peter Randall-Page says succinctly: ‘Carving keeps the body busy and liberates the imagination.’ At the same time the frenetic, anxious everyday personality is calmed and silenced. ‘Joy’, remarks Nigel Watson, ‘comes from disappearing.’

Such moments of transcendence are hard-won. Even stone-workers cannot achieve joy all the time: every sort of humdrum pressure is waiting at the doorstep of the studio to harass and hurry them. At the end of the day they are filthy and aching in every muscle. Yet behind them the work remains, evidence of the moment when an inert mineral, the greedy recipient of all that the artist can give – their energy, time and intention, their love – takes an invisible breath and lives. This is the stone you see at on form, filled drip by drip with a mysterious life-force, like the riot of greenery around it.