Mark Saxe

Special Contributor (mouse over photos for more info)

Returning student Antoine Leriche worked from a model for his 2012 project. The Sax Stonecarving workshop works to fill a void left by the collapse of a vibrant apprenticeship system once common among stonecarvers and stonemasons.  (Photo by John T. Denne)Why go to all the trouble– Why bother?” You may have heard this question hundreds of times in your life.        

“Why bother to vote? Why bother using your turn signals? Why bother growing your own tomatoes?” The answer to each of these questions may be obvious. But when a photo-journalist from the local newspaper came by to do a story about our annual stonecarving workshop and asked, “Why do you go to all this trouble?” – I was suddenly caught off guard. It was like asking an athlete why he trains in the off-season.  

After I thought about what he really was asking, I understood that contained in his question were the following:

  1. Isn’t stone carving an anachronistic endeavor in the 21st century, when machines can do what you are doing?
  2. Why would anyone work so hard, voluntarily, with a hammer and chisel, getting dirty, sweaty and tired?
  3. Is there actually a demand for this kind of work?
  4. Why do these people seem so enthusiastic?

Guest instructor Fred X. Brownstein. Fred lived and worked in Italy for many years, and this photo shows him wearing the traditional stonecarver’s newspaper cap.There were a couple of simple answers and a number of more complicated answers to his query.

Returning student Jacques Cloutier carving the flowing lines and wrinkles of a dried New Mexico chile pepper. (Photo by John T. Denne)The most obvious answer was the same that an athlete – or an artist or a chef – might give:  “I love what I do.”  Stonecarving is my profession. It is what I do for a living. I’ve been doing it for 38 years, and I really enjoy teaching and sharing this passion with others.  

It’s a way of giving back, and there is nothing I would rather be doing (except maybe going on a romantic date with my wife, or taking walks in the mountains with our dogs).  It’s no bother at all! It’s a privilege.

Anthony Lazarro, another returning workshop student, also uses traditional tools to reveal the fish swimming in his limestone block. (Photo by John T. Denne)The more complex answers involve the persistence of craft, tradition, the value of working with your hands, creativity, beauty, utility, independence, and the simple beauty of the material itself.

I wondered how long this journalist was willing to spend with me, and I even wondered why I would “bother” to explain my choices.  But there are things you are passionate about in life, and you want to be able to articulate that passion.  

The journalist probably had no interest in carving himself. He was just trying to cover an event in the local community. I did get the sense, however, that he was becoming intrigued by our endeavor. 

I warned him that I never get tired of talking about stone, be it quarrying, cutting, lettering, fabricating, rigging, or carving. If it has to do with stone, count me in. I said, “Relevance is contained in the doing, and the doing has much to do with keeping this tradition alive.”

I told the journalist that I had just finished reading a book called Rome by Robert Hughes, in which he expounded on the observation that we are no longer capable of creating works of art comparable to those that were created in the past (14th – 18th centuries). We no longer have a system of teaching in place similar to that which existed then.  

The passing on of knowledge and techniques from master to apprentice has become a romantic memory. Hughes concluded that there are secrets in the way these great works were realized – secrets that we will never know.  

Shocking to read, but I had to agree. It is the reason why we must try to keep passing knowledge on – so we do not become accomplices in a trend that embraces the quick and easy at the expense of the slow and difficult. I would prefer to see the trend reversed so that we may actually rediscover some of the ways things were done in the past. 

As an extreme example of what I mean by keeping traditions alive, I told the journalist of an incident at last year’s workshop.  I had heard of a very old technique of splitting stone used by Japanese stone quarries that I was interested in learning.  

I emailed my good friend, stone sculptor, Kazutaka Uchida, in Tokyo, and asked if he would demonstrate the technique at our 2012 summer workshop. What I had thought was a simple request became an odyssey of sorts.  

Unable to find a ready supply of the wedges, Uchida set about trying to find a toolmaker with experience fabricating the special steel wedges and chisels necessary to do the splitting. After he found the blacksmith who still made these tools, he then drove out to the quarry where he had been told that they still employed this otherwise forgotten technique.  

The quarrymen gave him a demonstration of the use of tobi-ya (literally “flying arrow”) wedges. When Uchida came to our workshop later that summer, he eagerly demonstrated the technique to the entire class.  

Now there are 25 more people who know about a technique that was almost on the verge of extinction. That was a great moment! It encapsulated what these workshops are about.

We are trying to fill the void left by the collapse of a vibrant apprenticeship system. The fact of the matter is that we no longer have the support of powerful and wealthy patrons such as the church or the government, which in times past created the demand for stonecarving.  

For the most part, stonecarvers and sculptors today are studio carvers who specialize in commemorative works, fine art, sculpture, architectural restoration, and reproduction. The monumental Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, as well as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial are examples of increasingly rare, large-scale stonecarving commissions. Stone is still the material of choice when the budget allows.  

Now it is a matter of making sure that future generations are taught the necessary basic skills. Just as a musician must learn scales, and a chef must learn how to put ingredients together, once you have the basics mastered, then you can begin making work. It is often quoted that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to master a subject. Stonecarving is no different.  

As long as good quality stonecarving is being done, there will be clients willing to pay for it. There are certainly many examples of great stonecarvings and sculptures in most museums throughout the world, available for everyone to admire and learn from.