Saturday, April 14, 2012

What Makes Stone Sculpture Special?

There is  good information on the net on stone sculpture.  Most of it centers on the artist.  There is also a lot of good stuff on methods of carving.  So I don’t intend to duplicate that  work here.  I would like to describe what I believe makes stone sculpture a unique art form,  and why I bother to carve stone.

I don’t know about other areas of the country, but stone sculpture is a mystery to most people in my home, Portland Oregon  This is probably due to the fact that there is little history of stone carving in timber and basalt geography.  By my estimation,  looking at the Oregonian newspaper over the years I would estimate stone sculpture probably shows once every 800 hundred gallery opening.  It would most likely be abstract.  Consequently any one who chooses this art form would have to be quite motivated.


What we call sculpture as an art form comes in 3 popular formats.

1   assemblage - building up three-dimensional forms with metal or various materials adding or subtracting materials to suite.  Google “Cindy Dececco mig welding” for sculpture.

2    modeling -   developing  three-dimensional forms with clay.  Again adding and subtracting as needed to achieve form desired.  Then baking the clay or sending it to a foundry to use to make forms to cast in metal. 

3     sculpture  -  from the Greek word to remove, most often using wood or stone.  Not that wood or stone cant be used for assemblages as well.  But here I use the word sculpture for  subtraction only to create form.

By now you should see that these are very distinct and different art forms, only loosely related to each other.  However we most often refer to  all three of them as sculpture.     It's confusing.  Stone sculpture tends  to be the least understood and consequently the least popular and certainly the most rare of the three.

A friend of mine,  Gary McWilliams, says stone sculpture sells at about the same rate as poetry.  Well said.  I think there a lot of good reasons for this.  I will list a few here.

Because of stone sculpture's slow sales rate not many young people can afford to squander there time on it.  I certainly didn’t, to many financial responsibilities to spend time on art that has little market demand.  Consequently its entry level practitioners are for the most part no longer looking for ways to make money.  They have other motives. Anyone who knows much about the world of art understands that artists who are successful spend much of there time promoting themselves.  It is just part of the business. The starving artist who is suddenly discovered is for the most part another myth. I believe one of the reasons you don’t see much stone sculpture around is is partially due to the fact it is mostly done by a older group who don’t work very hard at self promotion. They probably sculpt stone for personal challenge and enjoy working with some thing that’s real,  in a world that tends to be quite intangible.

Stone sculpture like another unpopular art form, opera,  requires many skills.  Opera as one is taught in music appreciation studies, requires language,  music,  voice,  and acting skills.  Its complex.  Stone sculpture also requires many skills cognitive sense of proportion balance and scale, the ability to interpret the possibilities and limitations of the stone you are working on, and all technical tool skills. The learning curve can be slow,  an unpopular notion these days.


I say stone sculpture, like opera, may not be popular,  but once you are exposed to it,  it can be,  and often is,  an emotional experience.

Another problem facing the stone sculptor is that it is a difficult art form,  heavy and dirty.  Its not like the PBS bit showing a  girl with her bottom facing you holding a chisel above her head striking a beautiful block of white marble. It cant be done in a cozy studio or heated shed.  It’s an outside sport not meant for the faint hearted.  Although 50% of the sculptors I know are women,  they tend to be stout hearted and determined gals.  Google “Tom Small basalt sculpture  carving” the making of the secret language of flowers .  Stone carvers as a group are a determined bunch and do it mostly for personal challenge.

Then there is the problem of material or stone to carve.   Suitable stone is rare in the Pacific Northwest,  a basalt flooded basin.  Locating and purchasing stone can be a difficult process and a real financial barrier.  I personally have spent many summer vacations hunting for stone in southeastern Alaska,  Idaho,  Montana, and California.  Read "Marble on Edge" on Gary Williams'  Stone Arts of Alaska web page.   I will of course have future blogs on this subject.

Tools must be sent for there is no local sculpture supply store.  Cost can be a barrier -- air compressors, saws,  hand tools, grinders,  abrasives, etc. etc. are all specialty items .  SEE Your local stone supplier for tool resources.

Location  - it's loud and messy,  neighbors won't approve of your chosen passion.  Renting a space can be expensive and difficult to find.

Finally there is the storage issue.  I suspect most sculptors keep their art in their homes.  I know two friends who keep theirs in their basement.  I find mine too heavy to carry up and down stairs so I keep mine in my shed as you can see in the video above.

It's no wonder, considering all the barriers,  that stone sculpture is so rare and misunderstood.  I think it is hard for people to have appreciation for something they have rarely seen, and have no knowledge of what it is,  or how it's done.  It is my belief, that if you grow up in a culture where stone art is rare,  you will not have much appreciation for it.  So in the future I hope to shed some light on this strange passion of mine.


  1. I personally know Joe and he is a true artist and sculptor.
    Mr. Conrad is a long time family friend and I have a lot of respect for him (I worked for him for a while in the early 80's.
    You have to have stone in your blood to have what it takes to
    stick with chipping at rocks like he, and myself.
    Good person to get to know.

  2. I agree with you that the stone sculpturing is not easy and kinda difficult because I tried this once because I appreciate this kind of artwork and the main sculpture supply is only stone, but there's a lot of to consider like what you've said it's better to have nice place for doing this.