Before assuming craftsmen have something to teach us, let’s look at how a restoration stonemason approaches her work. We will look in-depth as she attempts to solve problems while creating something in particular. Comments to the right will highlight how she works with qualities to create her piece.The stone carver is experienced in a medium that brings physical limits and opportunities. In this case, this includes a dolly to move her stone, the actual stone, her bankers (workspace), ruler, measuring tape, pencil or chalk to draw design, mallet, chisel, claws for roughing out, pitch for removing large piece of stone, an array of chisels, face mask, and a bag of dollar store reading glasses.
She trained as a stone mason, which is all straight lines and geometric. There is a particular order to how things are done. Heather finds this approach boring so she will change her approach from project to project.
“I’ve always been unmotivated by money, which is a problem for me. Some of my best work is done when I’m avoiding something I don’t want to do. If I was more motivated by money, I might have better attention skills to a particular method, but I understand the consequences of my choices.”
She makes her own rules, informed by methods she has learned, understanding the consequences of her choices in terms of time, materials, and money.
She stands before her stone, preparing it by positioning the side she wishes to cut at an angle that is comfortable for her. She sketches a design on the top side. She neatly arranges her selection of tools in preparation for cutting. She has approximately twenty-five chisels, with many more in her spare drawer. She arranges them by size, from her two-inch chisel to her 1/8-inch chisel. Her pitch, bolster and claws of varying sizes are in the next row.
She physically orients herself toward her work.
Standing before a relatively blank piece of stone, she confronts a problem that is both simple and complex. The stone is a large block. It contains multiple cuts on all sides that generate unexpected angles when chiseled or carved. Her solutions are all unique to her. Another cutter or carver would undoubtedly approach the stone differently. As the problem is being resolved, its form shifts.
She arranges her tools in order of size, or quantitatively.
She stands in between smooth and rough, rules and ambiguity—by choice. “I enjoy a challenge when I take it on. My interest is the defining thing in the carving. I shape it first and then do what detail I need to do. But before I finish I will often do detailing earlier. I need to see if I’m going to like it. That is backward, and not how you are supposed to do it because it is very difficult to go back and do the other work if you don’t like it. This is where my stone masonry skills help me. I understand how to get there, so I understand how to go back. I don’t break the important rules, but I break all the rest.”
Heather’s stance toward her work is driven by the challenge of a project.
Heather must decide what she will carve. It is up to her what issues are important and how to resolve them. All of these decisions are personal to her. The first choice is selecting a stone. Something has to catch her attention. When choosing her stone in a field, she sets it upright, “I’m liking this one. I’m thinking I might be able to get a face there.”
She does not start with pre-defined, measurable goals. Instead, she makes her own qualitative, personally meaningful goals. Some of these goals are clear to her, some are vague, and some emerge as she progresses.She has a loose vision that responds to her improvisation in the medium and is kept on course by her skills. She can rely on method when it reinforces her values: use of good stone, sense of proportion, etc. With the rest, she establishes her own standards.A few of the subjective measures are that is grab attention as a raw material, and also what defines the carving.
“If I did actually have a detailed plan, it would change by the time I touched the stone.” Taking her measuring tape out and dividing the stone in quadrants with her ruler, she makes decisions on proportion for a face, how much of the stone’s length and width to utilize. She puts on her glasses and dust mask and begins cutting. After setting her initial goal with her chalk she uses the nomadic chisel. She carves with the nomadic chisel on top of her lines. She expands to include other elements such as swirling designs and various depths of indentation using multiple chisel sizes.
As she switches from automatic tools to manual carving tools she smooths surfaces, keeps others rough. There are technical visual qualities she is trying to achieve in addition to her more personal goals.In addition to being attention-grabbing, the piece also communicates a sense of permanence with the landscape. It returns to the earth, where it came from, altered by her hand. It has been changed by experiencing her.
“With the hammer and chisel there is a repetitive aspect to it. It’s almost like daydreaming. My hands know what to do, like when you’re driving. I’m not able to think when I’m carving. It’s almost like a meditation.” The vision she has is coming through her hands. “When I get into a rhythm, I’m not there.”
Here, Heather shares the translation of vision to execution. Most craftsmen refer to this as a meditation. There is an increased awareness and presence as they go about their work. References to deep concentration are often followed by contradictory references of being absent in thought or actually not mentally present.
A successful carving includes certain qualities. She brushes off the dust from her chiseling before starting on some of the manual carving. Heather reflects as she chooses her carving tools. “No one teaches you to carve, you teach yourself to carve.” She continues, “And it’s just so permanent. I’ll make this piece today. It may end up in someone’s garden. That person may move on and it may get covered up by bushes. The face carving might get knocked off or broken into smaller pieces--but it never goes away. It’s always in the form of stone.”
Smooth surfaces, stone that appears “soft”, she’s creating concave surfaces that catch water which reflects light. Other pieces might be put in a garden to train the growth of vines.
She has direction and momentum as she progresses from taking the stone from the field, to organizing her materials, to cutting and lastly to carving. Her experience is rooted in her medium—stone—which comes with its own constraints and possibilities.
Heather understands the idiosyncrasies of her medium and uses that knowledge to create the qualities she wants.Knowing how her chisels will work or not with a particular size indentation, she can predict what will happen on the stone and respond automatically to adjust created qualities as they occur.Heather understands that action, control, and lack of control exist simultaneously.
“With stone,” says Heather, “you cannot force a carving. The stone either wants to be altered or “it will fight you.” There is no opportunity to place a chiseled piece of stone back to the main piece, she has to work with areas where she over chiseled, or where the stone is remaining unforgiving. Because of all the sizes she has to choose from each chisel has a unique impact on the stone. Without control over her own body (the pressure she administers on the nomadic tools) and hand tools (the power with which she strikes her pitches and chisels of varying sizes) she won’t get the design she is hoping for. On the other hand, a lot of what she can do is determined by the stone itself. It does, as she mentions, have a will of its own. Therefore, it takes a lot of control to transform an inert, rough, sometimes unforgiving surface into a smooth one.Her attention remains on her chisel as it follows her sketched pattern.She knows she is done with a project when she’s tired of it. “When I’ve gotten out of it what I needed to get out of it—I’m done. I can stop. I can accept that this is the best I can do at this time.”
“About one out of every 20 pieces I make, I have a hard time letting go. A lot of times I make things and I’m not sure why I’m making it. I’m working something out and not sure what it is. When I first took ill, I was making the pea pods, but I didn’t know it. There’s just a huge amount of self-searching in that stone. It has nothing to do with the piece, but everything to do with where I was mentally at the time. To let that piece go, I’m just not ready. But I will have realizations about why I’m making certain kinds of pieces, like I understand why what I’ve been working on is all ‘closed in.’ It’s a way to figure things out for me. They’re like markers of time period.”
Here, Heather shares how she bonds with her work, how she uses it as a form of mental markers and emotional expression. The fact that her emotional work is done is the prize in completion. When she reflects on her work, or sees pieces she did in her past, she will see the errors and opportunities improvement. And, she understands when she has completed a piece and can accept that as her best work for that project, on that day, with the skills she had at that time.
“In general, I don’t like living with my work around the house. I only have one piece of mine at home. That face I carved, I don’t want her in the house. She lives in the gallery. Then I see the flaws in her—what I consider flaws. But that’s just skill development. You always have to see where you can improve.”
Heather self-edits her work critically. She is in constant evaluation of her skills.
Rather than use her action to follow pre-established goals, Heather’s actions allow her to generate her outcomes. She reasons with her sensory experience rather than abstract theories. She acts without hesitating with what she knows while inviting possibilities and being open to possibilities from the stone she is working with. She utilizes a combination of her immediate experience while summoning her past experience to predict and then revise her immediate action in the moment. To perform with mastery, committed practitioners must rely on both measurement (objectivity) and evaluation (subjectivity) in their work.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.