When I go to the quarry to pick stone for my sculptures, I am surrounded by thousands upon thousands of chunks of rough, raw stone. But not all of the stone laid out in front of me is good for sculpture. I spend a lot of time picking through heaps and piles of stone just to come out with (if I’m lucky) a dozen pieces that I can bring home and turn into something beautiful. Some just aren’t shaped right. Some look good on the surface, but a good whack with my chisel or a quick cut with my grinder reveals a stone that will only crack and crumble under the abuse I will need to put it through to make it a work of art.
I’ve become pretty adept at judging which stones are right for my sculptures and which aren’t, but even I make mistakes. On more than a few occasions, I’ve gone to work on a stone I thought was going to be perfect, only to find out it’s a piece of what I call “junk stone” that simply won’t allow me to do what I want with it.
My medium of choice is serpentine stone, which is rare. Many First Nations and Inuit sculptors use soapstone, a relatively soft stone that is easy to manipulate and sculpt. I have sculpted with soapstone before and while I do enjoy working with it, it is my serpentine stone sculptures I have become most well-known for, not only because of the beauty of the stone, but also because it can be such a challenge to work with.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of serpentine is as follows: “Serpentinite is a rock composed of one or more serpentine group minerals, the name originating from the similarity of the texture of the rock to that of the skin of a snake.”
It has been used as a decorative stone for thousands of years and is characterized by the varying shades of green, yellow and brown that run throughout the stone. The downside of working with serpentine is that it is a known source of asbestos and that asbestos can be released when the stone is quarried and, obviously, when I sculpt it. This is why I have no choice but to wear a mask whenever I work with this type of stone.
When I go to the quarry, I’m always on the lookout for quality pieces of serpentine. Sadly, these stunning and unique pieces are getting harder and harder to find. When I do find them, they are usually in a part of the quarry that requires me to hire a team of men and the appropriate equipment to pull them out safely. But the effort and money spent to do this is often worth it because of the intensely beautiful colours found in these unique stones.
Serpentine is a challenging stone to work with because it can be a “hard” stone. Now you’re probably thinking “Paul, most stones ARE hard” but what I mean when I say hard is the ease with which I can use my tools to sculpt the stone without it breaking or, simply not allowing me to create the shape I want. The hardness of the stone also impacts my sanding process – the harder the stone, the harder I will have to work to sand out any imperfections, scratches and grinder marks.
Serpentine stone is also full of other minerals like quartz and granite, veins of which often run all over the stone. While these veins often add to the overall beauty of the piece, they can make it difficult to sculpt. If the stone contains too many veins, it is possible the piece will break or crack. Even if I am halfway through bulking out a piece, I will abandon it and find another if it looks like the veins in the stone will harm the integrity and durability of the sculpture.
I learned a long time ago not to try to choose the stone that will become an abstract, an otter or an owl – I let the stone choose me. When I start a new piece, I survey my selection of stone and it is the stone that reveals itself to me as the right one for the piece. Maybe that sounds a bit weird to some of you, but I have an intense respect for the stone I work with and no matter what tools I use or what techniques I try, no stone is ever going to become something it doesn’t want to become. I don’t force the stone to meet my creative demands – I allow the stone to shape my creativity as it sees fit.
There is a hard truth about sculpting stone and that is that it can be a difficult and unforgiving medium to work with. But I enjoy a challenge and I am proud that I am able to turn something so hard, rough and jagged into a smooth, shiny work of art.
With stone, there is always so much more than meets the eye and that’s what keeps this Sculpted Life so interesting.