On the Path

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.  Stephen DeStabler

The First Cut is the Deepest Sheryl Crow

When people discover I live in an old firehouse, the first question is:

                    Is the pole still there? *

When people discover I sculpt stone, the first question is:

                    Do you work by hand?

What they are really asking is whether I work with hand tools or pneumatic tools. There is some debate among sculptors whether working with air tools makes you less of a “real” sculptor. I believe it is the eye and the heart that determines the success of the image – not the tool.

When I first started sculpting, it seemed important to use only hand tools to create my work. With a 2 pound hammer and a variety of hand forged chisels, I worked slowly and deliberately. The work day was a long symphony of sound and rhythm: tap, tap, tunk; tap, tap, tunk. I worked intuitively. The stone determined the form.

When working on a large scale, it is difficult to imagine removing 10,000 lbs of stone with just a hammer and chisel. Yes, Michelangelo carved marble using only hand tools but never finished on time – engendering the wrath and consternation of his patrons.

Roughing Out Liber

Carving stone is a subtractive process. When sculpting clay, you create the form by adding material. When carving stone, you remove material to release the image.  Artists know when a line is drawn on a blank sheet of paper or a dab of paint applied to a new canvas, the creative path is determined. Once the stone is removed, there is no turning back.

Roughing out is the first step in creating a sculpture. You remove large pieces of stone to reveal the underlying form of the final sculpture. From the roughed out stage, the sculptor must then continue to peel back the layers of stone until the piece is finished –  or the sculptor determines the work is done. (Or the install date has arrived.)

It took 5 days to split off a 4000+ piece of stone  using a 30 lb rock drill with 18 inch x 1” bits (It came from Philadelphia. It was the only one available in the 5 state area.)

Rick with drill

For three days, Rick Rothrock drilled holes on both sides of the stone. It had to be flipped twice with the front loader. Once the holes were drilled, I set  the feathers and wedges.

Feathers CU

We lightly tap each set with a hammer – like playing a xylophone. Tap then wait. The shock waves travel through the stone seeking the weakest points. Tap and wait. Small cracks appear on the surface linking the drill holes. Suddenly the high pitch sounds that come from the tapping drop into a lower octave. The clink becomes a thunk and then kerplunk and the stone breaks off.

Split stone

Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all pervasive companion to your desire to make art.  And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite.

Art and Fear  Bayles and Orland


On My Own

It is quiet after the Maintenance Facility Crews leave the yard for the day. I will have about 5 hours of light in which to work. While I wait for the sun to warm up the air, I suit up. Literally.

In many of the “How to Be an Artist” books, the authors advocate “donning the artist uniform”  before working in the studio. Like entering a monastery, you shed your ‘day  job’ clothing and change into your “heart job” garments. You leave the ‘outside’ work to conduct inner work.

Working with stone is noisy and dusty. Working with stone in winter can also be cold. I start with long johns and jeans, add two layers of work shirts. Next, I don my Carhart overalls. Over that, I add my down vest. Then I pull on my recently acquired super warm hiking socks and shove my feet into my insulated boots. (Good to -20 F.) I double knot the laces.

In Italy, the artigiani wear paper hats to protect their hair and eyes. While working in a studio in Pietrasanta, Italy among dust and noise and some good natured fun, I learned how to make a traditional paper hat.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xb19WLkRLw

However, I need more than a hat made from newspaper to protect my hair, eyes and ears. I wrap a turban around my head , snug up my MSA Safetyworks respirator, slide on my safety glasses and complete the outfit with ear protectors.

(When I was a child living in Maine, we would gear up to play outside. First we donned our long underwear, next we added snow suits, double set of mittens with strings, hat, scarf, plastic bags on our feet and then our boots. It never failed: just before we went out the door, we had to go to the bathroom…. I heed that reminder before I start suiting up in my artist work clothes…)

A year ago, in an article about the reparations of the National Cathedral carvings following the earthquake…Michael Ruane wrote about the stone carvers:

For this work…(they) need their bare hands – to feel the stone, steer the power chisels and the hold the thin files and tools they use like an artist does a brush……The National Stone carvers doing repairs never wear gloves….’Gloves,’ the carvers said, ‘are for cleaning out the cathedral’s roof gutters.’ Washington Post, Monday, December 19, 2011.

 I, however, wear gloves. They help prevent carpal tunnel – a hazard of stone carving. I slip them on and cinch the Velcro straps. I am ready to work.

By now the sunlight has reached the stone. I set my goal for the day. I look for the next layer to remove in my search for Liber.

Pile 2

At the end of the day, I measure how much I accomplish by the size of the pile of stone on the ground .

I am finally on the stone path.

*         It was a volunteer fire department so there never was a pole.

13 comments on “On the Path

  1. Sarah Ritcey says:

    Don’t know how skilled you are at stone sculpting…yet, but I love, love, love your writing!

  2. Thanks for the update, Jo…..

    cannot wait to stop by and see.

  3. Ingrid Willenz-Isaacs says:

    I love the sense of shared lineage among artists, and the image of you putting on so many layers as you remove layers from the stone. May you persevere and stay warm!

  4. Subtraction, addition, erosion, expansion, complexity and simplicity. Your writing makes me value words as much as images.
    Thinking of you and thankful that I have a warm studio and don’t need gloves!

  5. Bob Clegg says:

    I like the way you write. Makes me want to quit my job and write for a living.
    No, wait….I already write for a living! 🙂

  6. Claire says:

    I have been wondering if you got into that block. Now for the fun! 9 degrees this am here in CO. Thanks for the update.

  7. Sandy Oxx says:

    Can’t wait to see what hatches from your creative genius! Thanks for the update

  8. Susan Andre says:

    yeah! you’re on the way!!

  9. Ditto all the comments above about your lovely writing (especially liked the description of the actual stone removal process)…makes me feel like I’m there with you. However, I guess I would never be successful as a stone carver….as soon as I got “suited up”, I’d have to un-suit to get rid of the excess heat generated by my own “personal summer” system. Don’t think I’d get much carving done 😉 Looking forward to the next installment(s) and more photos.

  10. larry and joan says:

    Jo finding your blog very interesting just wish it was closer so we could see it up close
    Larry and Joan

  11. Don Jewler says:

    You’re still the teacher, Jo. Thanks for the inspiring lesson about your craft. Don

  12. Lynn Wheeler says:


    Thanks for the excellent update on Liber. Your blog is wonderful. I agree with comments above that your commentary gives us great insight into the process. Thanks! We’re excited about Liber coming to the park in the spring.


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