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Artist Spotlight: Oliver Harwood

Oliver HarwoodAs an art student I was influenced by two accomplished sculptors who followed their passion in very different ways. I explored figurative sculpture inspired by John Fisher while working at his Italian studio, and conceptual sculpture under John Greer, my art college professor. Both these artists have taken their careers to a very high place, a lifelong pursuit and though they may not know it, I owe a lot to them. I regret not diving deeper into both figurative and conceptual art while I had the opportunity to work with them. There is something innately beautiful doing figurative work as well as satisfying bringing a theoretical concept into the three-dimensional world.

But being a head-strong young artist, I moved away from both figurative and conceptual art and started my own exploration of metaphorical art. As I got interested in a subject, I would explore the topic through several sculptures that often spanned years.

“Zephyr”. Limestone. 1994 20”x20”x20” by Oliver Harwood
One of my first stone sculptures – "Zephyr" – God of the Wind.

“Formation” (detail), marble, 1995 by Oliver Harwood

"Formation" Art college days, the dance between the material and the artist.

“Inner View”, marble, 2001, 104” X 42” X 10’ I removed the surface and changed the structure of stone from crystal to muscle.  This was part of a series that went on for a few years trying to get beneath the surface of things… “Inner View” Marble. 2001 104”x42”x10’
I removed the surface and changed the structure of stone from crystal to muscle. This was part of a series that went on for a few years trying to get beneath the surface of things… 

For me, what I call metaphorical art is sculpture that brings two or more unusual elements or representations together in a new way to suggest a meaning. For instance, the 
“Shifting Culture” series combined the idea of ship hulls with iconic ancient civilization architecture. The ship hull is a fascinating manufactured object, made of a rib cage and skin, but instead of containing water, like us, it displaces it. A ship is in a precarious balance between weight and displacement, always trying to remain buoyant. My fascination with ancient cultures came from my first degree in history and anthropology. The “shifting culture” series developed from my concern over the loss of value placed on history. The great civilizations of the past have become commodities, bought and sold in markets around the world. I created a series of boat hulls transporting our displaced and commercialized history.“Lost City”, limestone, 2008, 26” X 10” X 8”

Staying with the boat hull, but moving away from archeology, my next series looked at the divergence between reason (the mind) and nature (the body). In “Symbiosis,” we are the rational “tokens” transported by the organic world almost against our will through the timescale of life. My question… What happens to an organism that chooses mind over body, that prefers an artificial constructed environment more than the biosphere that sustains it?

“Symbiosis”, (detail) tufa & slate, 2010, 23” X 8” X 6” by Oliver Harwood

This series ended with the carving of a coelacanth (my interpretation) which is known as a living fossil. Definitely one of the strangest carvings I have ever done.

For these sculptures I found some wonderful boulders of tufa that were completely organic looking – filled with random holes, deposits and micro crystals. “Coelacanth”, tufa, 2012, 52” X 20” X 12” by Oliver Harwood

Tufa is formed when carbonate minerals precipitate out of a solution, like how stalactites form in a wet cave. The only difference with travertine is that travertine is precipitated from a hot (geothermal) solution usually making it a bit denser and harder.

I have carved stone for 20 years and seldom get tired of it. I have recently been exploring other materials either for large scale or to express things that can’t be captured in stone.

Some of my greatest memories came from the early years. I loved Art College, but there was a strong bias that “good art” was purely conceptual. I have often joked with my friends that it took years to recover as an artist from art school! For me, art in all its forms is expression; words are expression, movement is expression, even silence and stillness is expression! Everything has a context, every object is part of a space, every story echoes against a wall of history. As artists, I believe we are the interpreters, whether consciously or subconsciously, we fashion form, colour, texture, sounds, patterns, movement into new identities.

Beginning “Song of the Deep” in Saint John, NB. Summer 2018It was a great experience to attend the Saint John International Sculpture Symposium this past summer for six weeks. Working alongside seven other sculptors to cut through tons of granite, each creating our own vision for a public art piece.

The sculpture I did is called “Song of the Deep” and it invites people to listen to the voices of nature in a new way and hear the life around us. It asks the viewer to consider the music of the ocean … a whole orchestra of sounds and songs we don’t hear. I created an audio graph of a particular Humpback whale song; the visual pattern of the resonance. The Humpback whale in particular is known to compose intricate and beautiful songs up to a half hour in length that transmit up to a mile through the ocean. The songs overlap in depth and volume beneath the waves.

I am intrigued by wave forms … not the ocean wave forms but sounds waves and patterns. They are beautiful and alive in their invisible world. Full of energy and direction until they dissipate into stillness. Song of the Deep (detail) by Oliver Harwood

For this sculpture I was inspired by the Bay of Fundy with its massive tides that create their own resonance and rhythm, forming macro and micro ripples through the biosphere. These wave patterns merge with sound waves and songs to create intricate and complex overlapping harmonies. The whales are the largest voices in the natural ocean and come to the Bay of Fundy in the summer as their primary feeding ground. We had a wonderful trip to Saint Andrews one day to go out and see them in their habitat.

The sculpture I made has three main elements, the visualization of the whale song supported by granite blocks that have been split, like the song is splitting the earth and stone and reaching into the sky. The side stones form the outer shape, some say it appears as the jaw of a whale, and the resonance patterns extend into these stone, creating new sound patterns.

Song of the Deep at Sunset “Song of the Deep” 2018. 13’tall x 8.5’ x 4’

Part of this project is also interactive, viewers can listen to the whale song depicted in the sculpture on their own phone. The link is:

It was a great opportunity to share knowledge with artists from Europe and Turkey. It seems a lot of the European artists use nine inch flush mounted blades on extra powerful grinders. I think grinders in Europe are rated differently than here as they get much higher wattage for the same size tool. We had 7” grinders with 7” flush blades. One of the biggest lessons in a symposium is not having the luxury of slowly working your stone down, one has to cut straight to your finish surface. You just take a deep breath and go for it! We would often burn through one 7” sintered diamond blade a day – and that was with water. The symposium was well organized and provided everything we needed to stay focused on our task. The evenings were full of laughter and stories and a few invented games that corresponded to the amount of alcohol consumed … but we all hit the pillow by 10pm exhausted from a heavy day’s work. We worked hard six days a week for six straight weeks, often the whole day with a gas powered saw. "Song of the Deep: By Oliver Harwood

The stone we had, came from a quarry that used dynamite, so there were lots of fractures in it and it would not split in a straight line! This was one of the biggest challenges for me; I needed to split through several large boulders at exact right angles, so I ended up drilling all the way through, with holes 5” apart! It meant one full week of holding on for dear life to a big quarry rock drill that shakes you to the core. Fortunately, after being shaken silly, all the rocks split perfectly.

It was a great experience, setting out to do this sculpture, working through all kinds of hurdles and getting it all together on the 2nd to the last day! There were a few sleepless nights along the way but it all came together in the end. The best part of the symposium of course was the camaraderie with the other sculptors and interns and organizers, there was seldom a dull moment.

The last few years I have been consumed with an art related business so have had very little time for my own artwork. Spending six weeks carving granite really drove home the importance to create regularly … to focus on developing one’s voice and ideas at least some time every week. I have set a few new art goals and am looking forward to next year’s Pilgrim Firs already.

:) Oliver

Artist Spotlight: Dale Blankenship

Camera Man, Alaskan nephrite jade 2014, 12" h. Dale BlankenshipThese 73-year-old hands have been carving jade for nearly forty of those years. Nary a penny earned for the effort. Several reasons for that. Mainly the ample financial rewards earned by these hands working on telecommunication electronics and main frame computers dissuaded any thoughts of pursuing a life of starving artist. The attached ten digits remain busy in these twelve years of retirement but as yet still monetarily uncompensated. Though a price was incurred in those forty years. Fortunately that matter was resolved satisfactorily the past year by carpal tunnel release surgery on both wrists.

Lacking formal art instruction and without mentored guidance in the ways of lapidary these hands underwent a hit and miss sort of education in glyptic sculpture. That would be with emphasis on the 'miss'. Somehow, eventually, the corresponding two feet managed to secure a solid footing on this business and forward momentum was achieved.

Blue Octopus Afghanistan lapis lazuli Chatoyant Tiger's-Eye 1984 4"w.  3" h. Dale BlankenshipIn the early years there was experimentation with any number of gemstone materials. Mostly of the cryptocrystalline quartz varieties. But one day these eyes set upon this unfamiliar green block of stone called jade. Things have never been the same since. Partly owing to acquired skills but appreciably owing to a stone obligingly compliant to often unreasonable expectations this chap in a younger shop apron was catapulted from beginner carver to awarded master in record time. So began a decades long love affair with jade.

For benefit of the readership it must be pointed out that there are two stones chemically and mineralogically different that legitimately are referred to as 'jade'. It is a bit of unfortunate circumstances going back some two hundred fifty years why this is so. A mineralogist in 1866 realized the duplicity and attempted to correct the matter by calling one jadeite and the other nephrite. Helpful as the distinction was the subsequent one hundred fifty years have failed to eliminate the confusion factor for the general public. Two stones continue as one name. It is nephrite exclusively that enter and leave this carver's workshop. Saturday Morning Cartoons "Saturday Morning Cartoons" Both children - British Columbia nephrite jade Antenna base - Wyoming nephrite jade Television cabinet - Wyoming nephrite jade Television speaker cover - Australian nephrite jade Television screen - Siberian nephrite jade 2017 TV 4.5" h.

What makes nephrite jade such an ideal medium for the gemstone carver is its physical structure. Nephrite is a rock made up of a variable but somewhat consistent conglomeration of minerals of a specific mineralogical group. The primary mineral constituents initially were fibrous and parallel. During the subterranean metamorphic process of heat and pressure the fibers became distorted, compressed and cohesive. Mineralogists refer to this interlocking distortion as 'felting'. The result after baking in earth's oven and left to cool on the window sill is an especially tough substance that resists deformation. Nephrite, but with one minor exception, is in fact the toughest natural material on this planet. Jadeite comes in second at about half toughness and for a different structural reason. The Mohs hardness of nephrite ranges from 6 to 6 ½. But nephrite is many, many, many times tougher than diamond with its hardness of 10. For the carver this toughness lends to jade's ability to hold up to especially fine and intricate details.

GRIEF Arkansas Crystal Quartz 1984 5" h. Dale BlankenshipThe carvings Grief and Blue Octopus were a temporary hiatus from jade during an early interval of depleted personal jade inventory. Grief was carved from a single Arkansas quartz crystal. Although a good carving material in its own right its appeal did not surpass that of nephrite. The entire carving is of a frosted surface but for the two polished tears streaming down the woman's cheeks. The intent of the carving was to project to the viewer raw emotion. Although that effect seems to have been achieved well enough, the subject is a bit macabre. No other attempt along such a theme has been made since.

It so happened during the hiatus that a nearly forty pound available piece of especially fine and highly desirable Wyoming jade was brought to this jade nut's attention. At any other time the purchase of such a superb homogenous colored rock would not have just severely impacted the family budget but would have outright destroyed it. But at that time my particular telecommunication skills were in high demand. The overtime was brutal. The resultant paychecks were obscenely swollen. The jade acquisition became a done deal. Had my personal clairvoyant-on-retainer not been out sick on that day there would have been a second mortgage taken on the house to buy more chunks from the original 860 pound boulder. Opportunities for Wyoming "apple green" are increasingly rarer with an inversely proportional increasing price. Current four figure prices per pound not including the decimal are outright scary. The carvings Just a Trim and Mother's Board Meeting were made from the purchased piece.JUST A TRIM Wyoming nephrite jade 2012 6" h.Dale Blankenship

An early path was set toward carving thematic nursery rhymes and fables. But it was learned that such a theme artistically tends toward banality. Perhaps not in jade but certainly in other mediums. The pursuit of avant-garde artistic uniqueness is an elusive one. Whatever one does almost invariably someone else somewhere has done it before. Nonetheless there are artists seeking the less repetitious who wander about on less trodden paths. The path most often chosen by this artist is that of narrative sculpture. Captures of moments in time of otherwise unremarkable pedestrian events. The attempt always is to portray verbs as opposed to nouns. For some yet undiagnosed reason the artistry portion of this brain's dopamine receptors fail at abstract and organic forms.
Mothers Board Meeting Wyoming nephrite jade 2007 5" h.
Because of nephrite's toughness but not so much its hardness the usual stone sculpting methods are ineffectual. Single-mindedly beat on a chunk of nephrite with mallet and chisel and one will miss every call to lunch and dinner for the next decade. Nephrite's toughness is why aboriginal cultures used the stone for hammers, adzes and anvils. But it is tractable to abrasion. The jade cultures of yore used the much harder quartz, emery and corundum sands to fashion implements and amulets. Today, of course, manufactured diamond grits are the preferred choice for cutting and shaping.

This carver's workshop is fairly well equipped with a myriad assortment of tools. Most of which are motorized. Many of which are self-made. There are several saws with diamond impregnated rims ranging from 8" diameter to 18". The saws are the heavy hitters early on in a carving project. Grinding is such a slow tedious chore that one wants to cut off as much waste material as possible. The word 'waste' used rather liberally as most trimmed pieces become candidates for later smaller projects. The saw cuts may be performed on a lapidary trim saw or for larger projects a pivoting drop saw. An arbor mounted diamond grinding wheel comes into play following the saw work. Smaller diamond grinding wheels are used next if appropriate. Then comes the detailed grinding. Small diamond burrs mounted on some variation of a bench arbor might perform much of the shaping. Or else a motor-driven flexible shaft with hand piece and small burrs will consume a significant proportion of the project interval. Lastly comes the tedious sanding. Jade carvers learn and relearn the inevitable fact that once the piece has attained the desirable shape the work is only halfway done. The sanding goes on seemingly endlessly. The coarser sanding may be done by hand with shaped pieces from grindstone blocks. Later stages of sanding most often are done with diamond impregnated pastes applied with a motor-driven rotating tool which may be nothing more than a hardwood or bamboo dowel.Wild Ride Wyoming nephrite jade 2018 5" l. 3" h.

To emphasize the tedium of sanding consider the carving Cameraman. The carving's shape rather much looked at eight months into the project like it is seen now in the photograph. But it took yet another seven months of several stages of sanding to achieve the final desired finish. It can be disheartening at times to realize that the intended shape has been obtained but as much interval again is required to complete the sculpture.

Tippy Toes Alaskan nephrite jade 2014 6" w. 4" h.The Cameraman carving was a particularly challenging subject. A 1:1 model was crafted of wood and clay. Initial cuts were made with a saw then came the grinding. And more grinding. What turned out to be a constant dilemma was creating the tripod legs. Not only are there angles within each tripod leg that must match the others but that all three tripod legs required the same angles to arrive at the same corresponding platform position. No small number of templates were created from phenolic sheet (electronic insulative material) to act as guides. It was a painstaking process of grind, measure, compare, grind, measure, compare.

The dioramic Saturday Morning Cartoons was one of the less tedious and more fun projects. Except maybe for making those little vacuum tubes, transformer and speaker and such inside the close quarters of the cabinet. As sculptors know, achieving proportion with human figures can be challenging. And faces can be exasperating to get right. When the entire head is smaller than a walnut the detail work is quite protracted. Achieving eye and ear symmetry can take hours.

Scooter Ride Siberian nephrite jade 2005 4.75" w. 5" h.It had been the intention this year to begin depleting the years of accumulated jade scraps to use in smaller short interval projects such as amulets and jewelry items. For some reason these 73 year old hands could not resist embarking on yet another months long project. And only recently yet another jade candidate for a larger project somehow found its way into the shop inventory. Oh, but if there only were another forty years of opportunity.
CHICKEN DINNER Siberian nephrite jade 2004 4.25" w. 4.5" h.

Artist Spotlight - Larry Lawlor

“Hands”, alabaster, 2015, 6” X 16” X 6” by Larry LawlorLooking for something to do, I found the world of stone at Marenakos’ StoneFest 2011. I have done other artistic endeavors in my life but not sculpture and never stone as a medium. John Fisher was the carving instructor that year and those of you who know him can understand that I was hooked by the end of that week.Larry Lawlor

Now after seven years of carving, I have settled on a set of preferences that guide me. I like the feel of hand tools much more than machine tools. Because of this preference I stay in the softer stones, limestone, alabaster, chlorite, marble. I am the most challenged by working in the figurative mode. It is the best of times for me when a piece of stone begins to tell a story, that moment when carving a hand or face is actually in proportion and becomes alive. It’s not just a surface but the muscle and bone underneath. I must admit that abstract doesn’t pull me in the same way.

“Sleeping Dog”, limestone, 2011, 24” X 7” X 9” This is one of my earliest carvings, my first attempt at a horizontal three dimensional piece. It is based on a typical pose of our Dalmatian, Batia.Early on I stepped into relief carving as a way to talk about a story or recognizable moment. Themes of mother and child in either animal or human form and interesting people, moments or relationships, draw me the most. I have come to love the challenge of perspective, shadow and light, strong undercut edges, texture, movement, composition, all in a shallow carving with a frontal view.

I have a background in drawing, rendering and some painting, which probably explains the draw toward relief carving. It’s all about light which is the strongest element of all in sculpture. Controlling how light reflects on the surfaces, gives you your highlights, middle values and darks.

I also work in a more three dimensional way, though, I still am carving in the figurative with front and back points of view. At first I stayed with limestone but hanging out with the NWSSA artists has broadened my understanding of different stones with their different characteristics. It’s been
“Garden Spirit” limestone, 2017, 12” X 12” X 10”  Larry Lawlor wonderful to become aware of the translucent quality of alabaster, the deep blacks and grays of chlorite or high polish of marble.“Mother Spirit”, limestone, 2013, 9” X 16” X 8”     She also watches over the garden.

I enjoy gardening and have produced a number of pieces for the garden. I carved a sculpture with two pieces in it that represent Nurturing and Protection which speaks to my own sense of my relationship to the garden. I owned two pieces of limestone that were three sided and 18 and 22 inches tall. I decided to put one face forward for Nurturing and two faces forward for Protection. I’m pleased with the results and they have been watching over my garden for the past three years. There are also some cheerful stone entities and motherly spirits that watch over the garden.

Another area of carving that I’ve become aware of is that of “Free Carving” verses “Modeling.” My preference is free carving where one has an idea in mind or has a stone that says what you might find inside and you start removing stone. The finished piece might not be what you first envisioned but the trip along the way has been open, immediate and creative at every step, but not safe. You could end up with a pile of chips as a finished product.

In modeling you do your exploration usually in clay to find the finished product. Starting with a strong idea of what you want, you can add, remove, smooth and draw in the clay until you have found the sculpture you are after. You can work in a smaller scale as well. The carving process then becomes a copying and enlarging of your model into stone. Each method is not easier or harder than the other, just different in experience. In both cases you still have to pay attention to the needs of the stone. In free carving, you are free to explore and find the finished piece and in modeling you are challenged to reproduce your model faithfully.
 Marquette for “Child’s World”, modelling clay   . “Child’s World”, limestone, 2016, 14” X 20” X 18’      The child has found a frog.

I have used modeling or a “maquette” for three sculptures so far and I would like to describe the one which was my major exploration for the modeling process. I had previously purchased a 400 lb. equal-sided block of limestone. It came to me that a child squatting looking for something in the grass would fit into this stone. I attended a summer class in clay figure modeling which got me started in handling clay; took pictures of a neighbors’ child; did a bunch of drawings; found a picture of a child bending over in overalls on line that I really liked; bought 10 pounds of modeling clay; made an armature from copper wire and, after some days of fiddling, I produced a model I liked in a half scale to the possible finished piece. I also fitted a wire frame around the model that gave me the outer edges of the block. I could then measure the model itself and from the outer edges of the block to the model - times two. After a few months of carving, changing a few things as I went along, I had a stone carving that was very close to the clay model. I look at this piece now, a few years later, and wonder if it was worth it to create a lawn figure. The object the child is looking at in the grass is a frog.

Over the last few years, I have had a number of commissions and all have turned out well. It is a new learning experience and a challenge to carve for someone else. It is one thing to carve for yourself with all the general fears one carries about a successful carving, but to add the idea of satisfying someone else as well can be unnerving. I have found that letting go of outcome and just carving, works for me. I had the happy experience to be paid more than the asking price for one of my commission pieces.

I have also had the novel experience of selling some of my already carved sculptures. The first time was at Camp Brotherhood a few years back. Someone wants to buy one of my pieces?? – WOW! I sold two that day and was later told they got really good prices!
“Laughing Wind”, alabaster, 18” X 14” X 16”
Most recently I sold a sculpture at this spring’s Flower & Garden Show. It was a large piece of white alabaster titled “Laughing Wind.” The piece is a woman’s face with open mouth laughing while holding back her billowing hair. It went through three manifestations, first a baby in a basket, then a woman blowing over her hands and finally, “Laughing Wind.” I was volunteering the last day of the show when I watched this couple standing in front of the piece, the lady with her hand on it for a long time. They asked if I would take less for the piece. When I said no, they seemed happy to pay full price. My last view of “Laughing Wind” was of it covered in the woman’s coat, riding in a flimsy garden cart they purchased there, with them pushing/pulling it down through the crowded isle of the show. I’m a very lucky guy!

My last two carvings seem to be following the times. With all the energy right now for women striving to achieve their rightful place, I wanted to add my expression of it.

The first is from a piece of chlorite. I call it “Proud” and it depicts a young African woman looking over her shoulder conveying her pride in who, what and how she is.
Photo: 24. Pride

The last piece is from white marble I finished this January. I have been struck lately by sculptures some of the famous cemetery in Staglieno, Italy. More specifically by Sammartino’s “The Veiled Christ” and Strazza’s ”The Veiled Virgin,” The work of these two 18th and 19th century Italian sculptors, clearly show the human features that lie beneath a veil yet show the features with a strong emotional impact. I wanted to try my hand at it. Also, I wanted to get more negative space into my work and wanted to make a statement to reinforce current women’s struggles. Drawing a sense of my collective idea on each face of the block, off I went into free carving mode, finishing with “Lifting the Veil.” I decided somewhere along the line to leave the veil material coarser than the sculptures from my research, I think, to suggest more aliveness to the piece.
Photos: 27. Lifting the Veil

Right now I’m in a two-month slump and need more stone. I have a persistent feeling that I’m just a beginner in this whole business and in many ways that is true. I suspect that for all of you carvers that are reaching into the unknown, at any level, feel a similar way. I feel gratitude for finding stone carving at this time of my life and comradeship with the many fine carvers I have found these last few years.

Artist Spotlight: Senden Blackwood

What is your life history as it relates to being an artist? 'anoia' - carved at the Te Kupenga stone sculpture symposium in New Plymouth, New Zealand, January 2016.'anoia' - carved at the Te Kupenga stone sculpture symposium in New Plymouth, New Zealand, January 2016.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in an artistic and architectural family, though I didn't really show much in the way of artistic aptitude until the end of high school (or grade 12), when I 'Tasmanian devilled' my way into my mum's jewellery studio. It was in a tiny room in our house and was a nook filled with interesting rustic tools and all manner of things like blowtorches and weird shaped hammers. I loved it, in all its chaos. After school, I studied Jewellery and Object design in Sydney and became obsessed with abstract objects. I also broadened my fascination with tools. Really I'm still a kid at heart, playing with his toys.
‘aeon’ - 2013, basalt, 16 x 30.5 x 25.5cm‘aeon’- 2013, basalt, 16 x 30.5 x 25.5cm

How has NWSSA influenced your work as an artist?

My first Camp B symposium in 2006 was a pivotal point in my journey as a sculptor. Anyone who has attended one of these symposiums knows just how powerful they can be, not to mention educational, inspiring and connective. Without NWSSA's influence I wouldn't be making what I am now, I know that for sure. So I have a lot of gratitude and warm fuzzies for the association. I learned more technical skills in my first symposium (2006) than I had in three years of teaching myself. More than anything though, I value the wonderful connections I've made with members and I can't wait to attend again. It's difficult when I live on the other side of the planet, but it will always be somewhere I'll feel drawn back to. ‘duo’ process photo 2015 ‘duo’ process photo 2015

Describe your art in your own terms – focusing on your stone carving.

I make abstract forms and look to find a balance between simplicity and interest. A sphere is a beautiful thing, but to me it's not really all that interesting - yet there are parts of that simplicity that I honour and look to tap into. Simplicity is also really hard to achieve, and it takes dedication to remove all the lumps and bumps, especially in hard stone, which I prefer, although sometimes I wish I didn't. I've been through periods of unhealthy perfectionism, where I've been left stagnant by the fear of "not being able to make it good enough". But thankfully I've made amends with this and now am happy to just do the best I can, which opens up room for play. I don't really feel like an "artist", although I guess I am.

Have you been influenced by any particular artists?

‘milieu’ (2016) basalt, Cor-ten, stainless steel, 120 x 200 x 100cm. Photo taken by Sculpture by the Sea Inc.‘milieu’ (2016) basalt, Cor-ten, stainless steel, 120 x 200 x 100cm. Photo taken by Sculpture by the Sea Inc.Clement Meadmore was an early hero, and you can see that influence in the square elements of my work. I like the way his style is geometric yet it also has some beautiful curves, and even though he made hundreds of similar forms based on a principle, they didn't really ever get boring, at least not to me. Keizo Ushio's work was a big early influence, mostly because I couldn't comprehend how on earth stone could be carved with such honour. Until recently I tried hard to not be influenced by other artists; I wanted to be original and therefore I avoided looking at other work wherever possible. I don't really care about that so much anymore, but I think it helped to form my own style. My subconscious does most of my designing for me now, which might sound strange but it's the truth. I've released a lot of the need to control. Sometimes it feels like I have a library of lines and planes in my head, which I keep adding to with things I see around me - often natural elements (shells, leaves, rocks, pods). Occasionally a form or gesture pops into my conscious mind and I've found this to be the most genuine way of coming up with new work.

What scale or size do you work in, and do you have a favourite scale?

Until now, most of my work has been small to medium in scale, however monumental work has always been my goal and most of the sculpture I've been affected, and inspired by, has been monumental in size. If I'm intimidated by the size of a new boulder or block, then I know I'm on the right track. All the doubts run through my head but I just love the process of problem-solving new ways to carve in bigger and bigger scales. Even after 15 years of carving stone, I really feel like I've only just started in the direction I want to head. A 23 tonne block of black granite is waiting, untouched, in my studio. I'm eager to start working on it, but I'm also savouring this time before it all begins. The sheer volume of stubborn material to remove in 23 tonnes of granite has forced me to re-evaluate my approach, and I've started making a purpose built wire-saw in the hope that I can work "smarter not harder". I'll still be carving it, but I'm looking to make the process of removing the initial gross off-cuts more efficient.

What do you think people will experience from looking at your sculpture? What would you like them to experience?

To be honest, I don't really care, or rather I'm trying to learn not to care. I've realised that if I place importance on what others think of my work, then I lose sovereignty over my creativity. I used to get caught up in what others thought and it really affected me. Early on if someone walked past my work at a show and didn't really look at it, I took it personally, like it wasn't good enough to grab their attention. I've grown past that now and I'm enjoying the purity of making what I feel drawn to make, without wondering how it'll be received, without tying my self-worth up in someone else's opinion, or perceived opinion. Art is so subjective. I know my work doesn't appeal to everyone and I'm happy when it does, but I try hard to weigh positive and negative feedback the same.

I do however enjoy seeing people being drawn to touch my sculptures, and I don't mean just a passing gesture, like someone testing a garment's material in a shop, I mean actually exploring the surface. Touch is a sense I use so much in the carving process, particularly when honing and polishing a surface, so I like to see people exploring a finished surface in the same way that I've addressed it while "ironing out the kinks". I can feel bumps and irregularities much better than I can see them, so I use touch a lot. Maybe this is why some people feel drawn to touch, or maybe it has to do with the presence of stone itself.

What mainly influences your artistic approach to your work?

I follow my gut and my passion. If I don't feel like working, I don't work - I go off and do other things (generally, unless I have a crazy deadline). I've found that if I work when I'm passionate and energised, I make much better progress and I stay psyched on the process. Carving stone can be pretty grueling, so if I force myself to work when I don't feel like it, I get tired easily and start to second guess myself. I start thinking something is "good enough", when it clearly isn't. I'm often amazed at how much pain, discomfort and physical exhaustion I can ignore when I'm "in the groove", so to speak, and how little I tolerate when I'm not. It's taken me a long time to learn that play and light-heartedness is the most important part of the process. It feeds creativity and experimentation, which I guess is at the heart of art.

Music is ever present in my process. It feeds and nourishes me. I listen to lots of stuff that most people would hate, but it sometimes makes me feel invincible. Other times it distracts me from the pain and exhaustion that is sometimes the game of carving stone.

What is your dream sculpture project?

There are many! The dream project is always the next biggest one. Scale is an interesting motivator for me. Constantly I'm looking at small maquettes and wondering what they'd be like in a huge scale. I'm hoping that the ultimate dream project is beyond anything I can even dream up at the moment. Each large piece provides the challenges to learn how to go bigger, and shows me that my limits are self-imposed. Monumental scale has always been my goal. Seeing Keizo Ushio's work at 'Sculpture by the Sea' in Sydney really made me want to work big, like really big.

Anything else you'd like to add...

I feel pretty fortunate and grateful to be able to be doing this for a living, to be supported by a society and country where we can chase our dreams, however left-field they may be.

Remembering Elaine MacKay Artist Spotlight (2000)

Elaine MacKayOn January 28, Elaine MacKay died of emphysema at her home in The Dalles, Oregon. Sculpt Proud, ElaineSculpture Northwest 2000 cover, Elaine MacKay

We hope that taking another look at her May/June, 2000 Artist in the Spotlight will allow us all to recall her quick wit and down-to-earth ways. This past interview by Arliss Newcomb is vintage Elaine.

Artist Spotlight - Elaine MacKay

This is an interview conducted by e-mail and phone with Elaine MacKay. She has been a member of
NWSSA since 1996. Where she lives says a lot about her character and also the type of stone she uses for many of her pieces of sculpture. Twenty-five miles southwest of the Columbia River and in the small town of The Dalles, OR, Elaine and her partner, Pat, live on 40 acres of land on the lower slopes of Mt. Hood, with National Forest land on one side and wheat fields for miles on the other, and lots of beautiful basalt in all sizes and shapes for the taking. They have built their own home, using native stone for much of the structure’s interior. Self-reliance and hard work are very much a part of living in a remote area.

AN: Who are you and what is your history as an artist?"Last Stone Standing" by Elaine MacKay
EM: The question, “Who am I as an artist?” might more correctly be titled, “The Road Not Taken” and begins back in 1968. I had transferred to a small liberal arts college at Mt. Angel, OR. This was my first exposure to art. Coming from a red-necked background in farming in a small Eastern Oregon community, WE DID NOT DO ART! At Mt. Angel I had to pick a major. I really wanted to go into art because I worked with my hands all my life, but the ageold question at the time was “what are you going to do with a degree in art” and having a very fragile ego, I picked English instead. But every free moment I could find I spent out in the Art Dept. I made handbuilt pots, fired in the Raku method, in a kiln we all built in the side of the hill. We spent long hours collecting clay from the river banks and mixing our own glazes, then firing late into the early morning hours, flames soaring over our heads. A very mystical experience and one I’d never forget through the intervening years when I involved myself in homesteading and various pursuits aimed at earning a buck. I did not actively engage in art again until 1996

AN: How did you get back into art?

EM: Just a very lucky chance! Vic Picou came to visit a friend and neighbor of mine here on the Ridge. Although I didn’t meet him at that time, my friend Jim told me he was a stone sculptor. I nearly went bonkers! I have always loved stone, hauled em’ up from hell at times. I stacked ‘em and placed them and ruined many a good one because I didn’t know what I was doing, but I never did any pure art. To make a long story short, I phoned Vic, he mentioned Camp Brotherhood, and it sounded like a wonderful opportunity and Vic assured me that I would be welcomed. I was! I call it the summer of my rebirth. Here I was, surrounded by all these wonderful people, a little intimidating, yes; BFA’s, MFA’s and more A’s than you could shake a stick at, but folks would come over and ask me what I was doing and say “Cool.” Like pouring water on a plant dying in the desert. Wow, what a wow! What a group of people! This event coincided with an article I had just read entitled “The Long Sleep” from a book by David Quammen. It dealt with the extinction of a species, in this case the Dodo bird. Being alone, having no one else of her kind, being rare and through a complicated synergy of links is pushed into extinction by death. It was how I felt before Camp Brotherhood ’96. Then I discovered NWSSA and I knew to the depths of my soul I had found my life link. So I went back the following year and began my pursuit of knowledge of manipulating stone.

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Artist Spotlight: Ben Mefford

Ben Mefford photo by Adam DabrowskiWho are you?
I consider myself an emerging artist. I have apprenticed or assisted three sculptors over seven years on video projects, site-specific mixed media installations, gallery stone sculptures, and large scale granite sculptures for public commissions. I have a bachelor’s degree in studio art and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies (research writing). I created my first large sculpture in October of 2016.  I became a father in 2015, and it has been chaos ever since, and yet I finally feel like an adult. I am pushing hard to make art the central focus of my life. I am also interested in arts administration, and have a dream of inventing a new kind of art museum by the time I am forty.  I believe in what we do as artists, that there is an inherent value to it.  I spent too much of my youth sitting around, directionless, waiting for something exciting to happen on its own. I am tired of thinking things are impossible just because I don’t know how to accomplish them, and I am not afraid of failure anymore.  

Discovery 2016, Soapstone by Ben MeffordWhat is your life history as it relates to being an artist?
Little things that I did as a child are core to my art-making, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Building with Lego’s, making pictures with a typewriter, playing with magnets on opposite sides of a glass table – in a word, experimenting. I used to think that art had to be a certain way, like paintings from the renaissance, and I couldn’t draw like that so I felt discouraged and came to art late. I finally took photography classes in my mid-twenties and it quickly got to the point that I started skipping work to walk around Seattle photographing. By chance I got to carve soapstone on a trip to Alaska in 2008 and was instantly addicted. I moved from Seattle to Portland for a fresh start and eventually found my way to Portland Community College where I started exclusively taking studio art classes. From there, I started to accept this direction of my life, and haven’t looked back.
Why did you become an artist?When I first experienced the process of making art as an adult, it felt right at a time when nothing else did. The more I embraced it, the happier and more productive I became in every aspect of my life.

Ra 2016, granite by Ben MeffordWhat key life experiences affected your direction in art?
I had a great early childhood, and grew up with a big back yard, near a beautiful wooded park, and we went hiking in the mountains a lot through the year.  My parents were both mountain climbers before they had children, so we had lots of experiences together in nature and it is where I feel at home. I like to explore and go off the path, see what I can find that maybe no one has seen before. I am subconsciously always trying to capture that. So, my artwork at its best incorporates elements of exploration and organized chaos, or an asymmetrical balance, and these things remind me of nature. Art is also psychological therapy for me. For example, I can be indecisive at times, and stone carving forces decisions, so I have noticed that I gravitate toward mediums that balance out my weaknesses.

Why is art important to you?
It is how I connect to myself and connect to the world around me. Art making is the only way I have found that offers the freedom to really say what I want to say, without even consciously knowing what I want to say beforehand.  

Stories 2016, by Ben MeffordHow does your art reflect your philosophy?
Making art is the most direct way that I can find of accessing my subconscious. I have come to trust my intuition implicitly. I believe that a cycle exists where persisting in art makes me a better person, and that being a better person will make my artwork more valuable. Uchida sensei has said something like this, that if all people should live as if they are a cell of a single body, the world would be in harmony.  

What is the source of inspiration of your forms, language, or imagery?alabaster maquette
I believe it all comes up from the subconscious grabbing onto various ideas and knotting them together. Usually I don’t have an explanation for something until after it is done. It is a lot like dreaming, getting into a state where experiences are synthesized into a story that rewrites history yet reaches a deeper truth.

What are you trying to express?
Myself! I do want to prove that I am capable of accomplishing technically challenging things, and I also just have an odd sense of humor and think differently than most. I think lots of things are amusing by themselves, just by existing. So, things I don’t express every day because I think they are odd, can find a quiet voice in my artwork.

How do you develop them (by direct carving, drawing, modeling, etc.)?basalt column chain early rough stage
Visualizing, sometimes writing, occasionally drawing and modeling.  Mostly I just think about a form or a relationship in my mind until I have to start making it tangible to find out what the rest of it looks like.

basalt column chain, Ben MeffordWhat have been your satisfactions in your life as an artist?
This last year has been very satisfying. Last summer I made my first paid artwork by working on a very small commission for a memorial stone. I then got an opportunity grant from to create my first large sculpture (“Know Time”) which has since been on public display at Marenakos in Fall City, Washington. I was awarded a professional development grant to visit Japan for three weeks in March-April 2017 and work with Kazutaka Uchida at his studio (which was a life-changing opportunity, and has many stories to go with it). I got my first public art commission for my current project for the city of Lake Oswego, OR, due to be finished by August 2017.  I have also been awarded a paper-making residency and show that start in September 2017. Each of these things are rewarding by themselves, but they have also felt like recognition that, yes, I am an artist, and yes, I can do this.  

What scale or size do you work in, and do you have a favorite scale?
I spent so much time working for Brian Goldbloom on massive granite sculptures that I actually have the most experience working at this scale now, even though I do not have a studio or enough tools to be able to easily tackle things like this on my own. Verena Schwippert has helped me a couple of times, first letting me use her studio in October 2016, and currently with my first public commission (which started as about six tons of basalt).  

How do you get your ideas?
Dreams have given me some great ideas. Physics and geometry are areas of particular interest for me. I spend a lot of time trying to visualize the structure of the universe or how mass is composed of energy, so that we are all just a bunch of swirling waves of energy (literally). That ties into my feelings about nature as well. I also think a lot about physical health. Injuries that I have sustained, anxiety, sleep apnea, all have me reflecting a lot about the body and about what it means to live well.

Describe your art in your own terms – focusing on your stone carving.basalt column chain Ben Mefford
I jump around to different mediums, but at this point, I look at all of them through the spatial and reductive lens of stone sculpting. Photography, painting, sculpture, etc., I approach it all the same way mentally. Somehow this allows consistent themes to emerge across mediums, in spite of using different techniques. I am basically always looking to create organized chaos.  In practice, this means experimenting, discovering something, developing a process or pattern, becoming aware that I am getting repetitive, and then I change something – throw off the balance to create a new element of uncertainty and experiment some more. I don’t really know why I do this, but it is always the same and always different, and the more I am able to let go of control in this process, the happier I am with the final result.