I recently finished a commission to carve a marble memorial stone for the historic Magnolia Cemetery here in Charleston, SC. The carving was in Colorado Yule marble – a beautiful, white marble with subtle grey and brown veins and it carves wonderfully. If you ever have a chance, you must go visit a town in Colorado called “Marble” that is at the end of a very long, meandering and scenic road, and follows along a twisting mountain river. As you get closer to Marble, strange things begin to appear along the edges of the river – massive square blocks of white marble – just sitting there. On the other side of Marble, there is a huge marble quarry and cave in the side of the mountain. For a stone carver it is an absolute dream world. And for the non-stone carver, it’s equally fascinating. We discovered that the large stones along the side of the river had fallen off rafts years ago as they tried to get the stone moved to lower ground. They do things the easy way now – trucks.
It’s been several years since I carved stone and this project was a pleasant change of pace from my regular woodcarving. One thing I notice as I am carving stone – because of the slow, methodic pace of carving, I find it easier to discover shapes. Often with woodcarving, it is easy to become impatient and remove too much wood and thus lose the “flow” of the shape. The simple nature of stone carving – removing minute particles of stone with each chip – causes the shapes to develop and mature naturally, albeit more slowly. There is something almost hypnotic with gently chipping away with a rhythmic tapping. I’m not sure if I would want to carve stone daily, but it was an absolute pleasure to get dusty and chip, chip, chip – losing myself in this staccato rhythm.
Here is a Youtube video of carving part of the ribbon.
My client, a local Charlestonian, asked me last spring (2016) if I could carve a memorial stone for her late husband who passed away in November, 2015. At the time I was so busy with teaching and finishing writing my book on acanthus leaves that I told her I would be happy to help, but I probably wouldn’t be able to get started until the fall or winter of 2016. She and her family were planning a memorial at Christmas, 2016, and wanted to be able to present the stone at that time. In my optimistic (and somewhat delusional) look, I told her “Sure, that would not be a problem”.
As it happened, the book writing process turned out to be a much more intensive process than I thought and we didn’t actually order the stone until October. It was delivered to my workshop December 8. That gave me roughly 2 weeks to complete the entire carving which included lettering, a laurel wreath with a ribbon, and the cross. I apologized to my client and explained that this was not something that should be rushed, and I did not want to promise anything (but I sincerely hoped to get this completed in time for the family’s memorial). I told her I would do my best.
Then, out of the blue, I get a call from a friend of mine, John Paul Huguley, who works with graduates of the American College of the Building Arts, a local college specializing in teaching the traditional building crafts. John Paul often helps graduates of the school find work in their field of study. He asked me if I had any work for Sam, a recent graduate of the stone carving program. I have known John Paul for over 10 years, and he has never asked me if I had any stone carving work before. What amazing timing! So I took Sam on as my assistant, and I’m so glad I did.
For the next 2 weeks, we chiseled, chipped, sanded and routed to create shapes and letters in a beautiful, white marble. Even though Sam had never carved marble before, he was trained as an skilled stone mason. He understood how to create contours and shapes and the basic nature of stone and caught on quickly to the nuances of marble carving.
Three of the days it rained and the temperatures were in the 40’s. For Charleston, that is COLD! Sam is from Wisconsin, so he was somewhat used to this. I also grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it has been way too long for my blood to remember or appreciate that kind of cold. We set up a tent so we could stay dry, but the chill in the air definitely confirmed I had become a real wimp.
On Wednesday, December 21, we put the final polishing on the carving (sanded through my gloves and I have no fingerprints left). December 22 McCarthy Monuments came to very gently pick the stone up from my workshop. On the morning of December 23 we gathered at Magnolia Cemetery to watch them install the stone (and also put our opinions in). They were so gracious to work with us on such a tight deadline, and it all worked out amazingly.
This was not only creating art that I love, but it was also a real honor to help a family celebrate the life of a loved one. I am so pleased we were able to complete this on time.