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Of Snickers, Space, Sloths and Sculpture - Jan/Feb 2009

Viewed as a sculpture, the chipped rounded rock that fit so comfortably into my hand was no more remarkable than any stone used as freeway fill. And yet, like seeing Michelangelo’s David for the first time, everyone that touched this little piece of chert at the archeological exhibit was silenced in awe. Hardly falling into the category of beautiful art, this treasure was recently unearthed at a 20,000 year old campsite in France. Up until now, I had always appreciated sculpture for its intrinsic beauty or creativity. For me, this ancient flint scrapper put an entirely new perspective on sculpture as a time capsule able to reach out to other people long after the life of the maker by creating a personal connection that makes us so aware of our common humanity.  It has been said that if you go back only seven generations, you are related to everyone. So, going back 20,000 years, it is very likely that we are all related to the person who banged two stones together one day so long ago to make that tool. Did a man make this hide scrapper for his wife, perhaps a very distant grandmother of ours? Was it used for years to get the substantial wear on the edges? Was it used to make buckskin clothes for their children? Was it made around a campfire while telling stories with his friends one evening or perhaps alone on a sunny hillside? This one little piece of chipped flint was somehow strangely able to connect me with not only the past, but also, with all of humanity.

 

Of course we are all familiar with history, but sometimes it’s only when you see a child’s bracelet on a shelf in an excavated ruin in Pompeii that you are able to lift the abstract concepts of time and masses of ancient peoples and become aware of how much we really have in common with our ancestors. Unfortunately, only the barest glimpses that identify individuals from ancient times remain, and so often, they are made out of stone.

 

Perhaps, I had never seen sculpture as a stone-age sort of “message in a bottle” before because you don’t really begin to acquire a true perspective of time until you approach the age of 40 and start to realize your own sense of mortality. A friend once shared his humbling epiphany regarding a sense of time in the form of a dream that I think really captures the essence of mortality. In this dream, he was dying and realized that the world and everything in it would continue merrily along someday without him. He could accept that the mountains, forests and oceans would continue to exist in their grandeur, but when the list of things streaming through his mind that night ended up that night on the ordinary Snickers candy bar, he awoke in a cold sweat. It is one thing to be outlived by large grand timeless creations of natural beauty, but it was entirely unacceptable – almost threatening - to realize that even something as insignificant as a snickers bar would likely outlive us all. It puts a harsh perspective on the value of your life when you realize that someday you will die and all the people you touched in your lifetime will die and yet the lowly Snicker’s bar will still be thriving.

 

While I’m not one to think that everyone needs to be immortalized for posterity by donating money to put their name on a large hospital, it does strike me that fate is tweaking the collective noses of humanity by weighing everything we do on this earth during our lifetimes as having less of a long term impact than a simple candy bar. Wondering how that hand-sized flint scraper had escaped this fate for 20,000 years together with my newfound perspective on time led me to my broader and more meaningful understanding of the value of sculpture.

 

Stone sculpture, I believe, is not just a way to have fun, create beauty, make a living or stimulate emotions for people alive today, but also, a unique way and perhaps the only way to bond humanity on an individual basis over very long periods of time. While the name of the sculptor will likely be lost over the millenniums, the fact that one person had used their personality to create the sculpture creates the best opportunity for a special intimate connection both now and far into the future until the stone crumbles into dust. Of course bricks and even the pyramids will also survive great lengths of time, but by their very nature, all traces of their individualism have been erased. It’s the one-to-one connections that evoke the strongest responses in mankind and the more individual to sculpture, the stronger the relationship. In a way, sculpture is a personal mobile time capsule that we set in motion during our lifetimes and whose journey continues long after our deaths (and ideally even after the demise of Snickers!).

 

It was interesting when NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft to leave our solar system and communicate with intelligent life outside our solar system, that of all the things they could have used, they sent out a gold plaque engraved with Leonardo Da Vinci’s two-dimensional “sculpture” of man. I now see our sculpture as launching our own little “time craft” like Galileo, but instead of crossing millions of miles of space, your sculpture might someday cross hundreds, thousands or perhaps even millions of years of time. What will happen to our works in the future?

 

When I see Sabah’s beautiful female forms, I imagine that they will someday be in museums as a tribute to a time when people were still able to carve stone with tools before the EPA required only computer controlled robots to carve in hermetically sealed rooms. But, perhaps they will suffer the fate of so many Greek and Roman statues earlier last century, that were used for target practice by the enemy soldiers, in another future war hundreds of years from now.

 

Will your torso or head be in a private collector’s “primitive” art collections thousands of years from now or end up on a dusty shelf in your great-granddaughter’s root cellar next to the marmalade jars slowly weathering to grotesque proportions until all it is good for is scaring small children away from the jam?

 

There exists a single number that represents the number of people that will photograph themselves in front of Michael Jacobsen’s huge wings before they someday weather into gritty sand.  Is that number 1,000, 10,000 or 1,585,328,434?

 

Will Dennis’s basalt snake be unearthed a million years from now and be used by some extraterrestrial snake-like creatures lured to earth by the Galileo spacecraft to prove that snakes once had a rightful claim to the earth and now have a right to convert the planet into one large golf course for their intergalactic recreation?

 

I hope one sunny day fifty million years from now long after the next meteor blasts away most traces of humankind (including the last hard drive!) and three-toed sloths with their slower metabolisms have finally taken over the world as the dominate species, that down by a stream poking out of a bank will be one of Elaine’s brilliantly polished basalt spires that evokes such a strongly positive passionate response, even across another species, that it is carefully clawed out and carried back to the tree nest to create a sense of wonder among the sloth family of what creature could have carved this stone – perhaps one sunny day at a sculpture symposium fifty million years ago with her friends telling stories around a campfire at night.

 

What message does your sculpture send? How many people will connect with it? What will its journey be and where will it ultimately fade away? Most of our sculpture, even made from the hardest stones, probably won’t outlive the mountains, but with any luck, it will outlive a mundane candy bar. But, just in case, you can hedge you bets and help me sleep better at night by adding to my personal little letter campaign to the EPA about a certain brown candy bar covered with chocolate that can be as lethal to your sense of well being as many pesticides and certainly should be banned in our lifetimes!

Sculpture Northwest

Sculpture NorthWest Quarterly is the journal/newsletter of the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association, and is co-edited by Penelope Crittenden and Lane Tompkins. Its purpose is to provide a published showcase for the art of stone sculpting. To achieve this, it customarily contains interviews and photographs of our members and their sculptures as well as articles on the many varieties of stone and the tools required to shape it. Reviews of stone related books and perspectives on significant sculptors of the present and past are often included. Sculpture NorthWest is distributed as digital or paper copies to about 250 artists, both regional and national, art schools, art commissions and galleries in the Northwest and beyond.

The Quarterly is written by our members for our members and we encourage you to send us articles, ideas for articles, and of course, we always want to print photos of your work.

The Quarterly Co-Editors

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Lane Tompkins
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Penelope Crittenden  
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