There are as many reasons, one supposes, for carving stone as there is for anything that offers the opportunity for artistic expression, generating an income, fulfilling a mission, satisfying a hobby inclination and/or challenging oneself in a creative outlet. Certainly, as stone masonry work is the oldest skilled trade, stone carving is most likely the oldest 3-dimensional art form.
People look at clouds and see shapes, with a bit of an imagination. In a similar way that someone can see something in a rock shape. New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain, aka Great Stone Face, in Franconia Notch was captured in many a photo for the distinctive resemblance to a man’s face viewed from the north. Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne both wrote of it. The Great Stone Face became the state emblem in 1945, can be found on the state’s license plates, a 3-cent postage stamp and the reverse side of the Statehood Quarter. Alas, in May of 2003, the face, composed of five granite ledges, collapsed and became a memory. Skull Rock, a favorite tourist attraction in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, is also granite, though a much lighter color. Mushroom Rock State Park, the smallest state park in Kansas, has natural Dakota sandstone concretions in mushroom shapes.
But alas, it takes a skilled stone carver to replicate faces, human heads and bodies and even mushrooms, plus animals, flowers, letters, clothing and anything tangible in a piece of rock. The artist bent in the mind of an excellent stone carver can see an image inside a rock. In fact, it was Michelangelo, the Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance, who said:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
Meet Some Stone Carvers
Joseph Conrad has worked and played in the stone industry in Oregon for half a century. “I carve stone because it challenges me like nothing else,” he quips. And he can write. In an effort to inform anyone who follows or stumbles across his blog, Conrad delves into myriad topics on stone carving. In a 2012 piece, he elaborated on three popular sculpture formats:
Assemblage – building up 3-dimensional forms with metal or various materials adding or subtracting materials to suit.
Modeling – developing 3-dimensional forms with clay, adding and subtracting as needed to achieve the form desired, then baking it or sending it to a foundry to make forms to cast in metal.
Sculpture – from the Greek word to remove, most often using wood or stone. Not that wood or stone cannot be used for assemblages, but here I use the word sculpture for subtraction only to create form.
And he continues: “These are very distinct and different art forms, only loosely related to each other. However, we most often refer to all three as sculpture. Stone sculpture tends to be the least understood and consequently the least popular and certainly the most rare of the three. My friend, Gary McWilliams, says that stone sculpture sells at about the same rate as poetry. Because of stone sculpture’s slow sales rate, not many young people can afford to squander their time on it. The starving artist who is suddenly discovered is, for the most part, a myth.
Additionally, stone sculpture, like the unpopular art form of opera, requires many skills. Opera requires language, music, voice and acting skills. Likewise, stone carving demands a cognitive sense of proportion, balance and scale, the ability to interpret possibilities and limitations of a particular stone and technical tool skills.”
However, Conrad closes: “Stone sculpture, like opera, may not be popular, but once you are exposed to it, it can be, and often is, an emotional experience.” And this is precisely how Karin Sprague of Rhode Island, a nationally sought-after stone carver of memorials, discovered her passion. She worked 12 years carving wood signs before tiptoeing into a 2-day stone carving class. She was handed a stone tablet and asked to carve some letters. “I can clearly say there was an ignition in my soul. I thought: ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for all my life,'” she recalls.
A few years later, her beloved father-in-law passed away suddenly, and she carved her first gravestone. She barely had finished it when an article appeared about it, and more than her career was launched. Her life mission was defined.
Karin Sprague Stone Carvers, Inc., is a highly personalized stone-carving studio nestled in the woods of northern Rhode Island. Only about 30% of their work is for the living. Sprague, 53, and her small staff focus on the customer’s loss, grief and healing. Their approach begins with: “Tell me about [first name],” and as the story of an adored child whose life ended far too early or a spouse, parent, friend, loved one unfolds with tears, tea and hand-holding,
Sprague meets and embraces the personality for whom the stone will be designed and carved. Often she says: “Tell me more.” It’s a very different, very authentic approach to creating a stone carving about an amazing person who had departed this life.
It is from this emotionally-charged beginning that Sprague, along with stone carvers Tracy Mahaffey and Adam Heller and behind-the-scenes assistant Kathy Budihas, contemplates the design, the stone, the lettering, the shape and the images for the memorial. They connect with each cemetery about restrictions, heights, materials and details of placement. “We often have variances loosened because they want a piece of our work in their cemetery,” she relates. And Sprague herself has traveled to many states to set the memorial right in its new environment.
The caliber of her work is unrivaled. “I have been blessed to have incredibly talented and deeply compassionate colleagues join me in my life’s work,” she says of her team members. “I am able to minister to my clients so fully and create for them so freely and follow this deep calling for the work that I do because of the work that they do.”
Others step into stone carving as a means to make a living because their options in other professional pursuits appear to be limited. “I was dyslexic growing up in England,” relates renown stone carver Nicholas Fairplay, now based in Ohio. “I couldn’t spell and was actually told to leave school. The only subject I had an A in was art, so I narrowed my choices to stone carving or being a pastry chef. A local stone company had two apprentices and couldn’t pay any more, so I volunteered to work free for six months.”
He knew he had to be better than at least one of them, and at the 6-month mark, one was fired and Fairplay was in. “From the moment I started carving, I loved it,” he muses. “I felt at home, and maybe I have a better sense 3-dimensionally because of the dyslexia. When carving from a model, one has to look at an area, see the shape and hold it in your mind, keeping an image in your head 3-dimensionally while imposing it on stone and pulling it out.”
A stonemason since 1980, Michael Firkaly of Charlottesville, Va., can’t remember a time when he was not a sculptor. “I was shaping paper at 3 years old, and for show-and-tell in school, I always made something out of papier mâiché, wood or steel,” he remembers. He majored in art in college and worked stints as a Sicilian pizza maker, steel worker, teacher and carpenter before becoming a stonemason.
Despite prizes for “Best in Show” and “Best in Sculpture”, Firkaly realized it was not a realistic career path, but he has fun and is still selling pieces. “My work will or will not speak for itself. I’ve already said everything I can with my head, heart and hands.” He is still a practicing master stonemason.
Bob Ragan was a brick, block and stonemason for 12 years before switching to stone carving and founding his company, Texas Carved Stone. “I have been making my living as a carver for 35 years and am entirely self-taught. I studied the history of carving from different cultures and traveled throughout Europe where I was able to study a massive amount of stone carving. I have also had the privilege to travel throughout Mexico and Central America visiting many of the Mayan sites,” he explains.
Find the Stone Carver in You
Stone masonry by its very nature embraces artistic skill, physical endurance and a keen eye for balance, proportion, shape and assembly. Early stone carvers simply marked up one rock with a harder one. Some used antlers for a more fine point. While tools of the trade may have evolved in material and ergonomic factors, hammers and chisels, for example, are basically unchanged across centuries. Most of the primary hand tools today are made of high carbon steel or tungsten carbide. There are many tool kits for beginning stone carvers, but many professional carvers seek out fine tools at places like Trow and Holden, based in Vermont’s marble country.
“Our technology is pretty simple,” states Ragan. “Our most important tool is the air-driven pneumatic hammer which has been in use since the 1880s. It is a small handheld device into which you insert a chisel and carve away. We have numerous different chisels, flats, gouges, tooth chisels, bush chisels, rondels, etc. We also use angle grinders, skill saws, routers, sanders, riffle files and pitching tools. The mill cuts our stone to dimension and planes what they can so that our time is spent carving.”
Fairplay says it’s hard to get training as a stone carver; at least it was in England where he grew up. “There are two sets of guys,” he explains, “the banker masons who are called stone cutters in the U.S., and the stone carvers. The cutters cut everything to the point that the carver begins doing things by hand. Stone carvers can do everything that cutters do, but not the other way around.” New planing machines have streamlined efficiency doing in one day what used to take a cutter a week. Carving a fireplace by hand may take Fairplay three weeks, while with machinery, he can produce four or five fireplace mantles in one week. “Carving is about form, space and line,” he continues, “and not obsessing about the surface until the end.”
Apprenticeship is one way to learn, and one needs to change jobs to gain broad experiences in a variety of materials. Fairplay worked once for a sandstone quarry, which was great, but he needed to keep moving to work with other stones, each of which has different hardness, texture, resistance and other characteristics. Another challenge that Conrad points out is that it can be a difficult art form, heavy and dirty. “Much of it can’t be done in a cozy studio or heated shed,” he says.
Sprague, however, does have a beautiful rustic for her studio. “There have been several apprentices over the years, each learning all aspects of the work and sharing themselves with us as they live and learn the art of stone carving. They’ve immersed themselves in all that we do, from moving stone, carving stone, drawing letters, carving letters and sculpting images to splitting and stacking wood for the stove in winter,” she relates.
“From the pulley system to the tools and even to the heated woodstove, we are surrounded by all things traditional and done by hand. A variety of chisels lies beside a grinding stone that provides just the right edge for each chisel. And beside the work stations, you can see each carver’s favorite hand-worn mallet.”
Stone carving can be a solitary endeavor, and that is part of the appeal to Ragan. “The thing I love best about stone carving is that once you crank up your hammer you’re all alone,” he muses. “You develop a Zen-like concentration that’s very gratifying and so often you can amaze yourself. I was lucky to get into stone carving at a time when there was a renaissance of traditional building in this country. Many of our clients were traveling in Europe and coming home wanting to build in the Mediterranean style. There was a demand for carved architecture and few stone carvers.”
Ragan continues with the overall processes employed at Texas Carved Stone: “We work with several Texas and Indiana limestones, and for sculptural projects, we also use marble, alabaster, soapstone and calcite. Our stone supplier, Continental Cut Stone, also in Florence, Texas, procures and prepares stone for our projects according to our specifications. Free hand, free thought sculpture is very different than architectural carving. For my sculptures, sometimes I make a drawing or a clay model or use photos for inspiration, but usually I just take a piece of stone and start whacking on it until I see something. The piece then evolves from there.”
“Our commissioned architectural carvings are an entirely different process,” Ragan continues. “We start out doing detailed shop drawings for client approval. Then, we produce detailed shop tickets for each piece of stone on the project. Most of our architectural projects are based on historical styles and periods, i.e., Romanesque, Gothic, Louis the 14th, Art Nouveau, Renaissance, etc. To be able to carve well in all these diverse styles, one must spend many, many hours studying details of all the periods. I draw all of our carving details by hand. When our stone arrives from the mill, we measure every piece and visually inspect for any imperfections that might affect our quality. Finishes are specified in architectural work. In free sculpture, they are left to the preference of the sculptor.”
There is much to think about with stone carving, and whether it is a career or a hobby, it can be a very rewarding venture. For every stone carver who dislikes working with the harder stones like marble and granite, there are just as many stone carvers who love carving and lettering in those.
Soft stones like alabaster, soapstone, limestone and sandstone are recommended for beginning carvers to reduce frustration at the outset. Many youtube videos illustrate step-by-step stone carving techniques. And perfect reproduction is not imperative. Firkalay admits to inventing creatures, which are not realistic. Quarries are great places to pick through rock piles – with permission – and find pieces that speak to you of something or someone inside.
The satisfaction and pride that each of these stone carvers takes in his and her work is admirable. With the economy going strong, well-heeled millennials and a revival in authenticity, there’s room in the industry for more accomplished stone carvers, even if recognition does not come quickly. Francois-Auguste-René Rodin, whose pieces now sell in the millions of dollars, was rejected from official academies despite his talent. He spent years working as an ornamental sculptor and by the time he died, he was revered like Michelangelo. No doubt there is a stone carver inside every stonemason who sees inside a stone just like Michelangelo:
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Joanne M. Anderson is a southwest Virginia-based freelance writer with hundreds of articles, blogs, press releases and website content pages in print. www.jmawriter.com
Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: Texas Carved Stone