Wednesday, May 23, 2012

There's Marble in Them There Islands, Part 3

There is a wealth of misinformation surrounding the marble industry. One example is illustrated here. Many people assume marble has value. Over the years I have had prospectors and land owners come to me with accounts describing the number of acres of marble they have. Always accompanied with the statement of inexhaustible supply. Or how often individuals ask me if I would store, or buy salvaged marble slabs from them.

Marble mill blocks in the rain forest

25-foot long mill blocks left over from the Juneau Capitol job

To many the idea of thousands of already-quarried marble blocks lying abandoned in the rain forest of SE Alaska seems preposterous. Yet these blocks have laid peacefully on Marble Island Alaska for over one hundred years. There must be some reason for this.

Swimming in an abandoned quarry

Through a romantic lens, marble mill blocks in your back yard would seem to harbor value, however, as a grizzled stone industry entrepreneur, I realize stone in itself has little value. It only acquires value when you invest your time and money in it. This is typically not understood by prospectors and site owners since from their perspective the stone on their land has value and they expect monetary rewards leaving the risk and investment to someone else. I have always found this to be the case. Marble fever like Gold fever. Easy to understand. In this case the marble blocks have to be transported to a location with infrastructure to saw the blocks into slabs. No such place exists in Alaska. Finished slabs may have value. Risky business, in the stone industry you are competing against the world in sawing technology costs. USA, India, China, Brazil, Italy, Spain, all tough customers to compete with locally.

The dreamer looks at this situation and thinks it must be possible to set up a diamond wire saw and saw one slab at a time, a technology he has seen in stone journals or television specials. (This single wire technology may work in some situations but will not work well in the competitive slab market.) This stone is so unique, has such historic value that surely people will pay what it costs to produce locally. After all we live in an age of local is better. Such naivete. (See my essay Local Knowledge). For the business reality is, white marble competes with other white marble for the white marble market. Few people are discriminating enough to see the difference between them when they are spending their money. Many a local architect or potential commercial or residential customer inquires about using a local material only to say upon receiving your proposal, what do you mean local material costs more then Carrara shipped all the way from Italy.

Everyone who travels to the Apuane Alps looks at the great marble mountains with wonder and romance, only the Italians can generate, as they do with so many products, but it's a rare tourist who stops by the stone factories below, churning out slabs of marble and granite from mill blocks shipped in from throughout the world to be gang sawed with great efficiency then shipped by container back to the world at ocean fright rates. ITS ALL ABOUT GANGSAWING EFFICENCY, ALWAYS HAS BEEN SINCE 1950.

Vermont Marble Company did just that around the turn of the century, setting up gang saws in Tacoma and San Francisco and supplied thousands of square feet of white marble for commercial building throughout the west until the bottom dropped out of construction around 1929. The Italians developed faster and cheaper sawing systems than was done in the USA. This along with international port to port freight rates gave Carrara a competitive edge.

It's a rare and special American who is willing to pay the cost of local material for his or her home or commercial project. Italian romance is hard to overcome since it is also the cheapest. It seems to me that the primary reason all these saw blocks languish in the rain forest is because of international competition for white marble provided by massive sawing economies of scale and international ocean fright rates.

So why doesn’t some wealthy investor see this opportunity and set up a modern gang saw operation in Seattle or San Francisco and barge these saw blocks there and provide local material at a slightly higher cost then Carrara? It would be to risky -- one color is not enough to sustain a sawmill. The volume of sales would never pay the costs. One only has to spend a little time on the internet to see what a silly idea it would be today. Marble brokers have the world at there fingertips with much less risk.

I think environmentalists (I studied physical geography, biology, and urban studies in college in the 1970s planing to be an environmental planner ) who speak of local products being more environmentally friendly do not take into consideration modern container shipping.

I always smile to myself when someone tells me they used concrete, poured on top their kitchen counters rather then foreign granite. There jaw usually drops when I ask them if they think blasting limestone from eastern Oregon, crushing it, then cooking it up to 2500 degrees releasing noxious gases, then trucking it to Portland, then dredging the Willamette river for sand, mixing it up and pouring it on to your ever expanding and contracting wooden counters then sealing it with some chemical so the man made limestone won't immediately react with your food, is more environmentally friendly then drilling and splitting a stone mill block from the ground sawing and grinding it with diamond blades (no chemicals only abrasion) then port to port container shipping is more environmentally friendly? REALLY. Some trendy ideas just fool the general public and they get stuck with a vastly inferior counter at the same cost as natural stone and you had a guy who knew how to use a trowel rather then a master craftsmen do your job, such a deal.

Some photos of local fabrication and finished stone counter at Conrad Stonecutter in Portland, Oregon 

Local use of local stone, in this instance, as much as I would like to see it happen, will likely never occur. But we can take the raw product, stone slabs, from throughout the world and add value locally, a remarkably unique business in today’s US economic situation Just what this country needs.

I knew all this as I tramped about the Alaskan rain forest looking at indigenous marble resources

Chapter 4.

Alaskan mill blocks in Portland

How Are You Inspired?

I once asked a friend, what do you think was on the mind of the woodcarver when he was carving a wall sculpture he had purchased. I think I may have insulted him, for he ignored the question. Of course art doesn’t need explanation, it only has to evoke some emotion to give it meaning. However it seems to me it would be nice to think the artist was thinking of something when he created the art. Maybe I am being cynical to ask for this in art, I don't know.

I often talk of the barriers to stone carving, but I also think stone carvers are lucky in that they have so many ways their medium can inspire them. Stone speaks, so to say. I can't imagine a chunk of clay or a blank canvas inspiring me the way stone does. The stone provides both the limitations and the possibilities for me. This makes it a special art form. Every piece of stone has its own specific characteristics, one may try, but its unlikely that a favorable result will happen if the artist misreads the stone. To be STONEWISE is a real asset. Not to be, shows. The nicest compliment I ever received came at a stone sculpture event when a man told me, “Joe, you read the stone like no one else. ” Never forgot that. Experience helps in stone carving.



Irving Stone popularized the idea that Michelangelo could see a form within the stone. Of course, what does that say? Does an artist paint outside the canvas? My guess is that Michelangelo had a romantic vision that he felt had popular support, and found the largest block of stone he could get, to carve it out. It was all in his head. Mental imaging, genius indeed. From that point on it was all technical skill and endurance. I suspect he established benchmarks in the block so as to keep the proportions he wanted. Its hard for me to imagine the skills he must have had, as well as his artistic vocabulary. This is an extreme example of the most common approach to stone subtraction to get the desired three-dimensional form . imaged. It seems to me this what most all artists must do to create there art. I have never been good at this. But there are many other ways in stone carving for people like me.


I think this is a real plus, for the stone carver, who may be mental imagine impaired. What is one to do with a light pink marble? Carve a animal, or an abstract? Not likely, more likely the human form, most often feminine. For most stone carvers, basalt almost demands a Noguchi like form. Noguchi spent time in Japan's basalt islands working basalt so it was a natural for him. Cut a side away, leave a crusty side and polish another and you're done. Stone speaks. Pure white, to me, almost demands a youthful form. That’s why I did my David in the whitest marble I will ever get, which came from Mt Calder, Alaska. (See my blog “The Making of My David”) The translucence of alabaster and onyx seem to demand natural forms, flowers and foliage etc. Color can be masculine or feminine. Does a gray sandstone want to make you carve a flower? I think color is a great source of inspiration that is unique to stone carving.


I have no heavily veined marbles. If I did, it would likely be used for either an animal form or an abstract, where the beauty of the stone stands alone. The artist only has to bring out the stone's character Many a stone carver has found that heavy veining does not work on a head but great for a free form. Heavy veining in a stone makes it sing.


The most uninspiring shape I can imagine is cubical. It demands pure artistic mental imagining No doubt about it. See the shape in your head and subtract material to free the form imagined. I find this hard to do. On the other hand a difficult shape like a triangle can easily lead me to the New Mexico sculpture pictured. Remember, stone carving is a tough art form and most carvers I have known remove as little stone as possible to get the form they want. The half circle shape definitely inspired me to create Men at Work.


Early Traveler

Practicing Physics

Glacial Activity

I found “Early Traveler” on a beach in SE Alaska where scientists now say that men first came over the Bering Strait to North America. An artist friend, Cindy Dececco, thought she saw a human form there. It immediately jumped right out at me and “Early Traveler” was born. Even the red color worked this time. So “Early Traveler” had shape, location and color to inspire me . What an easy job for me. “Practicing Physics” was pure found art I found these two pieces of quartz on Wadleigh Island Alaska and attached them to a green argillite less then 10 miles away on Prince of Wales, Alaska. “Glacial Activity” came from a road trip and hiking in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The green and red stone forming G. N. P. Are very inspiring to all basalt basin residents like me.


Natural Cleavage



The manner in which natural processes weather stone is a great form of inspiration to me. I have no photos, but I know the skin on basalt is a big part of basalt carving. My favorite stone by far is marble, preferably a northwest marble weathered by wind and rain. Chinese culture has long been enchanted with nature's weathering process on marble, They have elevated it to monumental proportions in what they call scholar stones. The Chinese call this Wuxi and the Japanese use the word Suiseki. The beaches of SE Alaska are weathered by tide coming and going. The photo I took in the Prior Mountains in Montana showing weathering from rain. I used to have a geography professor who would say we came just in time, one million years earlier or later it wouldn’t be the same as we arrived at our field studies. For me weathered local marble is a great source of inspiration.


The Leg Lamp

High Style

My Idaho travertine leg lamp is a salute to Jean Shepard, the author. Some day I hope to put Garrison Keillor’s fishing dog on one side; and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with a fishing pole, on the other side. Sadly no space left for Will Rogers in my ranking system. All four of these great American observers of the human condition deserve a stone carver salute. “High Style”, a tip of the hat to the human fixation on appearance and the fashion industry. There is nothing like an elegant woman to get my attention. Wonderful inspiration.


Apples and Pears

Apples and Pears

Apples and Pears

I have always felt that comparing apples and oranges just doesn’t work well. It's a lot more fun to compare male and female with apples and pears. This idea can turn many ways from abstract to rigidly formal. I like it, and hope to develop this concept many ways in the future. The great book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance struggles with creativity, so I certainly would not presume to know where creativity like apples and pears come from, it's way beyond me, it just is.


Human forms

Carving the human form never gets old. It's a great challenge to get the proportions the way you want, never easy. I am prejudiced but I feel that a lot of abstract stone carving I see is merely tool manipulation. As an old stone fabricator in the industry for so many years I just smile to myself and say looks like he got a new core drill or chain saw etc. Classical form demand classical ability, not tool tricks. Even though I do a lot of tool tricks myself . See my stone bowls below, a subject of future essay. In the end I hope anyone who looks at my sculpture will know what was on my mind when I carved it.

Tool tricks


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Twenty frequent comments from visitors at my stone sculpture studio

The stone yard

1 Do you know Mary Jo? (Mary Jo Anderson is a well-known Oregon sculptor)

2 I know a person who makes sculpture.

3 What are those statues for?

4 Do you make bubble stones?

5 Do you make fountains?

6 How long did it take to make that?

7 Have you been to Italy? I went there after college.

8 Have you read the book about Michelangelo?

9 He could see the form within the stone.

10 Do you get you stone from Italy?

11 All that freight must cost a lot.

12 I like the way you left the the holes.

13 Is that a crack?

14 Do you ever hit it too hard and crack it off? HO HO

15 How come it isn’t smooth all over?

16 Is that finished?

17 Looking at rough marble boulders, what's that?

18 I took a sculpture class in college.

19 Where do get your ideas?

20 I have always felt a connection with stone.


1 What is that? (Looking at my David)

2 How come I don’t see stone sculpture in Portland?

3 What is the process you use to carve stone?

4 Where does this stone come from?

5 What is the difference between marble and basalt and granite?

7 Why do you carve marble instead of granite or basalt?

7 Where did you learn? What tools do you use ?

8 Why do you do this? When did you start carving stone?

9 What is the difference between bronze sculpture and stone sculpture?

10 Do we have any marble or limestone in Oregon? Why not ?

11 How do you make the stone look so different in different places?

12 Why do you do figurative art? It seems so old fashioned.

13 What's the meaning of Apples and Pears?

14 Do you visualize the finished sculpture before you start carving?

15 Do various types of stone direct you to do different things with it?

16 Are there some stones that you don’t like to work with?

17 Where do you get this stone, and how do you determine what to do with it ?

18 Why don’t you show at galleries ?

19 Who teaches stone carving in Oregon?

20 What makes stone carving unique from other forms of art?

21 Stone carving seems so rare. There must be some barriers to doing it, what are they?

22 Why is stone carving so expensive ?