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Stone Queries - May/June 2003


This issue’s column is of a somewhat different character, more overtly philosophical, or opinionated, depending on your viewpoint. Having been trained and employed as a minerals exploration geologist for nearly four decades I tend to become defensive when I encounter, even among stone sculptors, the attitude that mining is an unworthy or unnecessary activity.

Recently I was asked to contribute comments to a university panel discussion on environmentalism and the materials used by the design professions: architecture, landscaping, and fine arts. One specific question was whether I lost any sleep knowing that I carved irreplaceable marble extracted from the mountains of Italy. This was my response. No activity, whether building, landscaping, producing art, or breathing, is without environmental consequences. Some consequences are local, some are truly global. Atmospheric effects are global but products and services are now sourced globally as well. Satisfaction or outrage become matters of judgment and opinion, informed or otherwise, and (as in real estate) a matter of location, location, location. Perceiving some practices as environmentally enlightened may be a case of ignoring the necessary nasty bits that take place somewhere else.

Building a structure with coated glass for higher lighting, heating, and cooling efficiencies is admirable but it’s no particular cause for claiming the high moral ground (which is usually overcrowded with remarkably divergent opinions). Behind that double pane window are mines producing silica sand, soda ash, and limestone for the glass itself as well as tin to float it, other metals to coat it, and a cryogenic gas separation plant producing argon to fill it; plus all of the additional resources required for processing and transportation. How high is the price? We are now beginning to recognize the concept of total life cycle costs - in electronic devices, for example. Without such information it is difficult to quantify the actual costs of most of our activities, assuming of course that we can even agree on what is a pertinent cost.

We can reduce the more egregious insults to the environment, but no human society can exist on any level without extractive industries. We can minimize the insults but somewhere there must be a hole dug or a plant felled. This is, literally, a fact of life. I dislike the hypocrisy of not admitting we extract to be able to live, even to be able to protest extraction. I am not unaware that my Italian sculptural stone is nonrenewable, but I lose no more sleep over that fact than I do over the concrete or asphalt pavement in Interstate 5, the mineral fillers in my compact disks, the titanium dioxide whitener in my toothpaste, or the kaolin clay in the paper of this page you are reading.

Life would be different without them, but not necessarily simpler or more environmentally friendly. I can smugly argue that sculptural material is less than 5% of the total marble produced from the Carrara district so I’m not responsible for its rapid depletion. But I also must admit that I couldn’t afford to carve Italian marble without the subsidy provided by the production of the other 95% as architectural stone.

Stone sculptors should be aware more than most that their chosen medium comes from a mine. Some of us quarry it ourselves. Mining and processing are required for our most basic tools, hammer and point, and even more so for our angle grinders and diamond disks. Each of us has to weigh the benefits versus the costs of our carving, as indeed we should for all of our activities. Like all of us, I rationalize.


Wiki-Up Wanderings: How to Make a Wiki-Up - May/June 2003

People always come by my worksite at Camp Brotherhood and admire my Wiki-Up, so I thought I would share the construction guidelines. I would really enjoy seeing more creative work sites, so don’t be shy about trying this!

You need a sense of humor, a tarp that is 9 to10 ft. wide and up to 12 ft. long, some rope and tie-down nails, a small ax, and a conveniently located alder stand. Knowing knots helps, but is not necessary.

Find yourself some trees that meet the specifications below. You will need a total of 9 poles. Cut each to length and trim off extra branches. 

A: 2 at 14.5 feet with a crotch at one end. (Do NOT trim the crotch branch off!)

B: 2 at 13.5 feet

C: 2 at 10.25 feet

D: 3 at 13 feet for the cross beams that hold the tarp.

Bind together the B and C poles about 2 feet from the top of the C pole. These form the cross pieces that hold the peak of the roof and the center D pole. Place these two “X’s” so their feet are 10 ft. apart. Put a D pole across the top after you have raised them. Tie down one end of a rope to the ground about 4 ft. away from the X. Throw the line over one end of the X at the top, string it along the cross beam (D pole), through the other X, and down to the ground on the other side.

Pin that end down, too, and hang a bit of pink or orange tape on it so no one runs into it.

Take an A pole, put its back foot next to B’s back foot and tie it to C at about chest height, with the crotch facing up. Repeat with the other side.

Center the shorter width of the tarp on the remaining cross beams (D poles), and secure in three or four places along the length of the D poles .  Now place one cross beam, D pole, in the A crotches, fling the tarp over the top beam, and let it down the back side of the X’s. Tie the back beam, D pole, to B pole at the height you prefer.

There you go–you are now ready to decorate your Wiki-Up. Warning: the first year I had the Wiki-Up at Camp Brotherhood, I “had” to buy a 200 pound stone to hold the front end down when the wind blew hard. Bring extra bits of line to tie whatever flaps in the wind. I recommend you set this up at home first, so you look like you know what you are doing when you get to camp. I have used the same trees for three years. It seems that if you store them in a dry spot out of the wind, they don’t deteriorate too much.


Carrara - Jan/Feb 2003


An article, “Come Back, Michelangelo, the Marble Needs You,” was published in the New York Times on August 28, 2002. It pointed out that, whereas there are still vast amounts of marble in the mountains above Carrara and local artisans and residents are very fond of it, the city is almost as well known for its lard, a Tuscan delicacy made from pig fat that is salted, spiced and aged.

“When contemporary art came in, it basically blew marble off the map,” said Francesca Bernardini, a local sculptor who still insists on using it. In an attempt to counter this trend, local officials have spent the last five years trying to persuade contemporary sculptors to give Carrara marble a try.  Giuliano Gori, an art curator and collector from Pistoria, near Florence, has become something of a patron of Carrara, and he says, “Like Muslims go to Mecca and Christians go to the Vatican, sculptors must come to Carrara.”

In July, Carrara formally opened a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibit to display new works, which it hopes will signal a renaissance for marble. An American sculptor, Sol LeWitt, drew up plans for an S-shaped wall – called “Curved Wall” – and requested that the marble for its construction be as indistinguishable as possible from concrete, his preferred medium. “As long as they were fairly anonymous blocks of stone, it was O.K. with me,” he said because, “nouveau rich houses always have a lot of marble in them.”

Today, 90 different companies mine 80 active quarries above Carrara. Most of the marble is used by builders for exterior and interior flourishes. But Carlo Musetti, a geologist who works in the quarries, points out that other mountains have marble, too, and if China or India began developing quarries, the cheaper labor there might mean that they could undercut Carrara’s world markets.

So Carrara is turning to its past to forge its future, in which artists and tourists flock to Carrara because marble once