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The Urban Community Magazine | Fall 2010
Feature Stories
In Conversation with Stone
by Kate Randall, Art Department Chair

Every spring, 14 students venture out onto the deck behind Urban's art studios to pull the wooden worktables out of winter storage. This simple act begins the step-by-step process of connecting a rigorous art practice to an appreciation of history and craft, as well as what we at Urban hope is our students' lifelong commitment to meet the challenges of learning something new.

Welcome to Stone Carving, a class we have offered for many years. The student artists at Urban are connected to a long lineage of carvers reaching back to my days at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and The Carving Studio in Rutland, VT, all the way to Michelangelo's Carrara, Italy, and my teacher Bernadette D’Amore who studied in Pietrasanta - and who first inspired me to work in stone. To pick up a hammer and chisel and begin to carve stone is to connect to a long line of artists, world history, multiple cultures and more literally, the bedrock of earth.

"Stone carving operates in a very systematic way and I like that. But I learned that this process takes patience. I need to pace myself and stop and look at my rock more. I need to work with its natural creases, curves, flat areas to ultimately shape what I want. I need to look at what I have and work with it and not against it." Evan ('12)

It feels like a reach that first day to tell a group of teenagers that they will be starting a long conversation with an inanimate object. The conversation begins with maquettes in clay, then soap. Sometimes they start with a literal form—a frog, a hand, a foot, or bird. Over time it changes to more of a round thing, a wide curved thing, something with a hole that moves through at an angle. The conversation continues as we travel by bus across the Bay to Renaissance Stone, and head out into the yard where the stones are arranged in piles of alabaster, soapstone and marble. Each student chooses the stone he or she will be carving for the next 11 weeks. They roll each stone over, looking for cracks, seeking the right fit.

At first, everyone can't wait to tackle (and, in some cases, conquer) their stone. For many, it seems that brute force may be necessary in order to make any headway. In the first few days it’s mayhem on the deck, with stone bits flying everywhere as everyone roughs out their sculpture by hand. After the inevitable first few whacks on the thumb, they are inspired to be more precise and careful with the tools.

"Excited and daunted at the same time, because although it seemed like something fun and new and creative, I didn’t know where to start. I approached my stone cautiously, afraid of mistakes. As time went on, I went through times of low motivation and times where all I wanted to do was just get the thing done with and hack it all away." Hannah ('13)

Very quickly the dialogue in class becomes one about sensitivity with materials and tools, tuning into the sensory information of touch, learning how to perceive form with your hands even more than seeing it. The vulnerability of the stone becomes apparent as soon as someone knocks off more than they meant to. And slowly, the idea of conversing with a stone starts to make more sense as each student learns how to "listen" to the stone. Some students are surprised to learn that stone can be bruised or fractured. Some are so afraid of making a mistake or breaking it that they hover for quite some time before taking any stone off. I encourage them to sit and look, and listen.

Stone Carving is often a metaphor for their life as students. Carving stone takes patience, endurance and integrity. It can be slow and tedious. It takes practice. It can be maddening. You work on the same stone for the whole class. There is a lot of repetition and there is always the possibility of failure. While sometimes maddening, it is also magical to watch something emerge. Success lies in organizing around the same simple work each day and giving it the best attention possible. And little by little, the fulfillment that comes with hard work and accomplishment makes itself apparent, both in the stone and in the student.

Last year Urban was the recipient of a very generous donation of stone tools and equipment from the family of local stone artist Gail Van Dyke who carved many large-scale pieces before she died of cancer. It has brought great pleasure to her family to know that her tools are in the hands of enthusiastic young people, carving up a storm every spring. We extend our deepest gratitude to them for such a generous gift.

"There is always stone to carve, but never stone to retrieve and put back. Once actions are committed, they cannot be taken back. The difficulty is to work with what one has, not to ponder about what one lost, regardless of the magnitude... Each of our stones is a metaphor for life, and Stone Carving is a class that teaches life lessons." Jordan ('11)

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