STONE project.

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7 Material

The material world is where everything happens.  For the sculptor in particular it is the container in which ideas play out their potential.   The different levels of resistance inherent in the material will affect almost every sculptural action. Each kind of material cuts, folds, chips or bursts according to the rules of its type. How cleanly a material can be cut might depend on its hardness or structure; how it is split will depend on an invisible grain. A stone will split along a grain in preference to any other direction.   



Threecastles limestone quarry, IrelandOkazaki granite quarry, Japan

The world of substances teaches through resistance and collaboration, but also through ambiguity. Ambiguity does not disappear even when the material is well known. Material has the dominant voice.  It is not unusual for craftsmen to talk as if the material itself chooses arbitrarily whether to refuse or to cooperate. It often seems mysterious how the material can sometimes transform itself with only the slightest nudge from the sculptor as if it has become complicit with the carving. The opposite is just as likely: the stone can suddenly be resistant beyond any expectation. Material has the potential to destabilise those who confront it. Brute force is not really helpful. The slightest whiff of coercion or over confidence messes things up. Respect makes the spirit of the material come alive. Material becomes the co-author of every achievement.  Empathy gives life to the substance and in reply the material responds almost as if it were an extra part of the body.  Craftsmen sometimes say that they can ‘think the way the material thinks.’  The decision is inside the stone.

"It is by carving stone that we discover the spirit of matter.  The hand thinks and follows the thought of matter."

— Constantin Brancusi

Sculpture and impatience are not comfortable partners. Carving is a process of adaptation, and sometimes waiting. Sculpture teaches how to sustain an idea. Patience is mandatory.  This is often the only way it can work. Sculpture, as multiple positioning, takes time. Material has its own timing. When taken together, they are slow enough that developing insights have enough time to manifest.

Some people interpret carving as the imposition of will onto an accepting material. Sometimes it seems to be the opposite. Almost always it is the sculptor who adapts to the stone, not the other way around. Decisions that come from inside the material are as much received as they are made. For the carver the process erases the illusion that there is a choice.  In the largest sense possible, there is no choice at all.  Only some things are ever possible, and the direction is clear. As the Buddhists so beautifully put it, you cannot push the river.


Drillers reducing a large block of marble to manageable dimensions.  YA AN Long Dou Gou Tou, East White Mine, Sichuan, ChinaRock of Ages quarry, Vermont, USA


Carving is unthinkable without an acceptance of loss. The theme of loss is first introduced in the quarry, and passed further on to the carving. Working backwards it is possible to see the quarry as a huge carving, and quarried blocks as giant scattering chips. After receiving one of these large chips from the quarry the sculptor maintains a pattern of loss by reducing the block still further with ever-smaller chips. Between quarry and carving there is a continuous activity, differing only in degree or scale.  

An understanding of loss informs all reductive approaches, but it is a far more nuanced understanding of loss than might first be supposed. Carving is not a singular activity but an accumulation of small individual judgments. No single chip can make a sculpture but as tiny actions accumulate and reinforce each other the entire field of action has been separated into the preserved as matter and what is preserved as emptiness.  Loss fills the intervals and balances the end result.

Loss here is the ground on which everything is built, and it is felt as reassuring, even generative. It is both the central foundation and the construction itself.  In the ecology of a carving loss couldn’t be more central, yet carving is not defined by what is lost. The carver’s understanding of loss is not sentimental. Sentimentality is a parasite.  Carving is defined by what we save, because what is saved is what comes into existence. 

"… You work on that material. You touch it, you cut it, you hit it in every direction and in the end what you remain with is something that was never touched …you touch everything that you take out....Everything that you have touched, that you destroyed or violated, is gone… you remain with…stone … that is actually hundreds of millions of years old… the original stone."

— Saint Clair Cemin, STONE Project interview

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