Summer Stone Carving Intensive Part 3: A Carver’s Zen

Clay Model for Widowbird
A mushy clay model for the Widowbirds statue

I’ve come to a realization during the last three weeks of this class:  Carving is my favorite therapy.  Let’s face it, life can be down right frustrating even when it doesn’t seem impossible.  But carving, for me, is like meditation.  It’s a step back to focus on something simpler, more immediate, and more concrete.  I mean, it’s hard to get more concrete than stone! (Sorry, couldn’t pass up the pun.)

When I carve, instead of facing fifty-six separate problems all with their own sub-conflicts, I only have one.  And it’s more  of a puzzle than a problem – which is to say, I relish the challenge.  And it’s a straightforward problem:  How do I make shape X out of shape Y?  Sure, there’s some more technical aspects, like how to use tools effectively and some background worries, like how to use tools safely, but when it comes down to it it’s still just removing material to make the block in front of me look like the sculpture in my head.

And to top it off, I’m pretty much isolated from the rest of the world while I work.  For starters, the bottom of my face is covered with a dust mask with round cartridges on either side that makes me look like Darth Vader if he favored blue, grey and pink instead of black.  And it’s not exactly easy to understand people when they talk through these things.  Then add safety glasses that are usually coated with a world-obscuring layer of dust so sight’s a little hazy even without the cloud of dust I kick up while I work.  And last, don’t forget the giant ear muffs meant to protect my eardrums from the cacophony of grinders and pneumatic hammers.  They work pretty well at dampening the lesser noises of voices too.

So I stand there in my little isolated world, my brief reprieve, flanked by my fellow students in their own meditation chambers and think only about how to solve the next complication in making my stone into my sculpture.  This is by far my favorite problem to deal with.  I feel a lot of artsy people I know need art to fill this function, too.  How about you?  What’s your favorite meditative art?

And hey, I’ve finally taken enough off my block that I can move the thing into better positions where I can get at troublesome places like the bottom!  Next week I should be able to start in on the feathers and the birds!

End of week 3 - front
End of week 3 – front
End of week 3 - back
End of week 3 – back

Summer Carving Intensive Part 2: Ah! I Cleaved! Combating a Carver’s Biggest Fear

You’ve seen it in cartoons.  The sculptor takes the chisel and hammer to the nearly finished statue of David and, chink, off slides half of David’s face!  (And a dejected Michelangelo crawls into a corner for a good, long cry.)

I mean, you spend months – or longer – working on a sculpture and it could be ruined in one misplaced strike of a chisel!  It can give a person pause before swinging the hammer, let alone using a pneumatic or an angle grinder that removes material with far greater speed and force.  I’ve spent a good amount of time staring at my rock, deciding where and how much to take off with a deliberation that can border on obsessive.

And there still came that moment this week when I looked at the corner of one of the pedestals and thought, “I should hit this from the other side, or else it’s going to cleave off a huge chunk.”  But I couldn’t find the right angle to get at it from that side.  So I decided I’d just get that sucker off, whatever it took, and move on. (This is commonly known as impatience.)

This was the result:

IMG_1447 Oops.

Luckily, it was only a baby-cleave.  And after assessing the whole design, the material would have had to come off anyway.  Phew! But I definitely stopped and stared at the missing divot in my sculpture for a good few minutes before continuing.

If more material had cleaved I probably would have first stared in silence for an hour, then crawled into the corner with Michelangelo (in the alternate universe where he maimed the statue of David).  Then I would take the rest of the day off.  And finally, after the grief subsided, I would redesign my piece to accommodate the new shape of my stone.

That’s all my fear of chiseling a sculpture to bits is, after all, a fear of not realizing the vision for the sculpture exactly as it appears in my head.  I think a lot of artsy types have this issue.  We want to touch the shape in our minds, make it real and say, “See?  That’s what I’ve been trying to describe to you all this time!”  So when the materials (or our current skills) don’t match up to the idea, it’s disappointing.

My teacher reminds us that we always need to take off more material than we think.  I have a feeling this is because we’re afraid to take off too much.  Chunks aren’t easily put back once they’re removed.  Glue can work in a pinch, but not in every situation.  So we obsess and shave off little bits at a time, making a long process take even longer.  When I’m too hesitant the teacher offers to let other students chisel at the piece.  They’re not afraid.  It’s not their baby!  So they can take the risks more easily.

Sometimes, stone requires a certain amount of bravery.  It takes so long to carve, there’s no thought of starting over if something accidentally breaks off – so one chance is all you get!  I’ve decided to adopt the philosophy of rolling with the punches when it comes to carving.  It can always still work out, just differently.  Maybe better.  (Maybe not, but there will never be any proof!) So I might as well assume that all accidents are always for the better and amend my design to whatever happens.  Then there’s no reason to be afraid of taking off too much stone to find my sculpture!

So far, here’s the progress.  The lines mean I’ve started in with the pneumatic hammer which does speed things up considerably!

widowbird sculpture base - back

Check out where this project started here!

How to Make a Summer Intensive More Intense

1. Come up with an idea that is too awesome to throw out

This is usually my first problem in any art class.  I start sketching, fall in love with the idea (which is often a good idea if the time-frame to complete the project was a year–in this class I have six weeks) and work it out on paper, until every pencil mark indicates about a month of work.  Professors call these ideas “ambitious.”  This can be taken as an encouragement, as in, “What a great student to come up with such an ambitious project.”  Or it can be a warning, like, “That’s a really ambitious project, maybe you should scale back.”  Usually it means both.

summer stone carving sketch
summer stone carving sketch

It’s really a simple drawing.  I tried so hard to make it simple.  Except for the tail-feathers.  Because apparently I can’t help myself, I made those complicated on purpose.  Mostly, I want to see if I can do it.  I think the curiosity and challenge of seeing if something can be done is central to crazy artistic types.  Maybe we just don’t know what to do with easy.

Technically, it could have been a fairly doable project except for size.

2. Pick out the largest block of stone

Two feet tall by a foot and a half wide and a foot and a half deep.  I don’t know how much it weighs but it can’t be moved without a fork-life.  And that’s only the base and tail-feathers.  Check.

Day 2 – front

Okay, at least it’s limestone.  Limestone is softer, much faster to carve.  Which leads us to number three–

3. Feed yourself a daily diet of deceptions/hopeful half-truths

This ensures you don’t give in and come up with a new, simpler idea while there is still time to do so.  It is amazingly easy. I tell myself things like, “Limestone is faster to carve,” and, “With pneumatic tools and angle grinders at my disposal the stone will practically fall off on its own.”  When that doesn’t quite work I go with, “Even if I don’t finish it, I’ll learn so much!”   At least this one is more true.

And when a fellow student looks at your idea and your stone and says, “You can totally finish that in six weeks.  If you do nothing but carve the whole time,”  it’s better just to laugh and agree while inwardly reaffirming all previous self-deceptions.  (I would contemplate her suggestion except that my muscles wouldn’t appreciate the abuse.  And I need my job.  And food and sleep.)

The best way I’ve found to continue with my beloved, ambitious ideas is to recite a mantra every time I find a sliver of doubt:

“But it will be so cool when it’s done!”

This is the best motivation.  And some kind of driving force is a necessity in any project.  I would rather have a difficult, time-eating project that I adore than a simple, quick one I can’t possibly bring myself to care about.  For me, that kind of motivation makes it more likely I’ll manage to pull it off in the end.


What I Learned from a Commission and a Little About Obsessions

Last week I received a commission to make another Birdies pendant.  The original was made about seven years ago before I knew, and felt comfortable using, patinas, when I was just getting excited about riveting and cut metal designs and when experimentation was more important than the end result.  This last one is still the case in everything except my commission work.  A lot happened in those seven years.  For one, I went back to school for jewelry (and sculpture and creative writing — why choose?).  So I probably should have assumed I would be able to improve upon the original.  Somehow, it was still a surprise.

Maybe part of it was having already made it once.  There wasn’t the usual anxiety that it wouldn’t turn out like it was in my head. (A piece, in fact never — or rarely — turns out like it is in the artist’s head.  This fact has been noted as a contributing factor to Artist Anxiety and that one Dark-Night-of-the-Soul that features prominently in every major project.) There was just a sort of blissful focus on technique and the how of it.  And realizing I had improved my skills over the years — priceless!

When the customer ordered one — I was wearing the old one and she ordered it on the spot — she mentioned that she loved birds.  I admitted that I, too, love birds.  This is a half-truth.  I love birds.  They are one of my obsessions.  Along with trees.  And fantasy books with strong and spunky female protagonists.  And windows.

I had a poetry teacher who talked a great deal about obsessions.  In fact, she may have been obsessed with obsessions.  She urged us to gather our obsessions, whatever they were, and write about them.  Unwittingly, I had already done this.  How could I not?  I loved trees, their look, their color, everything.  So I made them.  I loved birds, their lightness, their delicacy, and I made them, too.  Maybe her point was that if we wrote about what we couldn’t let go of, then we just might spark our passion and our work would be the better for it.

Ever since that class I’ve thought about what images and ideas I repeat over and over again.  I think most — if not all — artists and people in any kind of creative field (that is to say everyone) must have these things rolling around in their brains.  And I’m always interested to find out what other people obsess about in their creative lives.  If nothing else, our obsessions are a great way to garner inspiration for the next project.

And, for me, that starts next week with my summer intensive Advanced Technical Carving class!  I’ve already started coming up with ideas… birds… probably birds….

Enjoy your artistic obsessions!

H-E-L-L-O W-O-R-L-D, and a little about cardboard boxes

Hello and welcome to my shiny new artist blog!

I’ve made things (drawings, stories, jewelry, sculpture, the occasional catastrophe) all my life.  I don’t know how to not make things.  There was an attempt at stopping the madness of creating once.  Predictably, it failed miserably.  A couple years ago I returned to college to finish my Bachelors in Fine Arts and somehow fell into a Minor in Creative writing, too.  Oops.  Now, I have about two more years to go and I’m loving my classes – which are more like zealously dedicated play than school.

With this website I hope to share my work, some of the awesome shenanigans that go into making a piece, promote my many artist friends (we seem to collect each other), and generally create a corner in the gigantic arts community.

Artists need community, after all.  It’s a Darwinist survival thing.

I work in a coffee house (a place where coffee plays a close second to conversation) and the question I get asked most often when I admit that I’m an art student is, “What are you going to do with that?”

To which my answer for awhile was, “I’m going to live in a cardboard box.  But it will be a really pretty cardboard box.”

Okay, that’s not precisely my plan but occasionally I have a problem with snark.  It leaks out.  Honestly, I want to make things.  I want to get better at making things.  I want to see what other people are making.  And I want to have fun somewhere along the way.

Last semester I added these two pieces to my Really-Pretty-Cardboard-Box:

In the first I learned to needle-felt and the second I gained an elephantine amount of knowledge about soldering, forming and silver inlay.  The tea set still has some work to get it completely presentable, but the experience is always worth it.  Every projects builds on the one before it.  And all our passions (for me, art, writing, yoga, nature and so many more) influence each other in ways we can’t grasp to make us unique.

So welcome to my cardboard box/website/blog/place-to-gather-the-rebels-and-ramble!  Check back soon!