Speaking with the Stone

Tools required: sketchpad; grease pencil, chalk or crayon; patience.

When you’re shopping for a stone, you may already have a concept in mind. Let’s say you plan on carving a mermaid and that you have access to a resource like Sculpture Supply Canada, where you can walk into a space filled with bins of stone. At any given time, they may have a selection of 10 or 12 different types of stone. Most likely you will find several varieties of alabaster, marble, soapstone and wonderstone. The colours may include black, green, brown, yellow, red or even orange (blue is hard to find, but if you find some, let us know!)

They will be in different shapes and sizes, although many will be cut, with two or more flat surfaces.

Some sculptors find it hard to get inspired by a cube of stone, since the shape suggests nothing in particular. Other sculptors find that a cube of stone makes it easier for them to impose their vision, since the stone is not giving them much input about what it wants to be. If you wet down a cut surface, it gives you a much clearer idea of how the colour and marbling of the finished piece will look, while if you’re working on a randomly shaped piece of natural rock, it can contain many surprises. Oxidization along with the presence of dirt, plants, chemicals and other environmental influences can make the outside of a stone look dramatically different from the inside. Much of the African stone has this sort of hidden personality. The inside may be green and brown, while the outer layer (up to several inches thick) can be red and white. Black serpentine often has a brown and white “shell”. If you conspire to leave some of this outer layer visible in your final piece, this can produce breathtaking effects, enabling you to take advantage of sharp contrasts and allowing you to have as many as four or five strong colours in your finished sculpture. But of course, it also adds a certain amount of randomness to the process. If your personality demands control, or the sculpture you’re working on cries out to be a particular colour, you may be less than happy with this element of surprise.

If you’re carving a mermaid, you may want the whole piece to be pale green. And that’s just fine. Buying cut stone will help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

But if you are buying an uncut piece of rock, you can look for one that strikes you as “mermaid-shaped”.

If you’re like us, you go in without preconceptions and let the stone tell you what it wants to be.

If you find one that says “I’m a mermaid,” then great! But it may say, “I’m a bear” or “I’m a woman’s head” or maybe even “How the heck should I know? Why not attack me with the hammer and chisels and see what happens!”

There are many ways of speaking to the stone.

My partner, Laura is “the stone whisperer”. She can charm any piece of stone into giving up its secret identity, although even she can take months deciding what to carve out of a particular boulder.

What do you do if the stone simply refuses to speak to you? I recommend being patient (you may notice that I listed it as one of the tools you need for step two).

You may puzzle over what it’s going to be for weeks then come home really drunk one night and as you’re in the process of passing out, you look at the stone and see your sister, Darla staring out at you. There you go! Darla is in there, all you have to do is remove everything that doesn’t look like her and everyone in the family will think you’re a genius. Unless of course, you really don’t like Darla. What fun is it looking into that smug, know-it-all-face for the weeks it could take you to finish the sculpture? This may be the point where you can have at it with the hammer and chisels in an anything-but-Darla frenzy. You may end up with a mermaid, or an abstract or something else altogether.