Monday, May 31, 2021

A Question of Attitude



Monday, May 31. 

A Question of Attitude

On display at Whittier Art Gallery


(Tuesday, 5/25) 

I was getting near the end of the session, Monday, but something wasn't sitting right with me. I was shaping in the upper part of the stone, trying to get all the curves to feel right, but somehow it felt like I was working against myself. Something felt wrong, but I couldn't tell what it was. Sometimes you can get so focused in on something that you can't see it. So I stepped back, put the tools down, re-heated some stale nasty coffee from the morning, and took a break. Two bowls later the lights came on.

I need to make an attitude adjustment, but not in me; my attitude at the moment was just all kinds of great. 

The attitude of the stone was the issue. It comes back to free association. The composition consists of two rough spheres. That's always going to translate into body and head. The attitude (position) of the 'head' is going to determine the overall attitude (mood) of the piece as a whole. I was shaping the upper spheroid to a soft point angling up at about  sixty degrees, and leaning to one side. This gives the impression of a lifted chin, something looking toward the heavens.   The curls in the upper figure would undulate back from the point, suggesting swimming, or flight.


But, no. Just no.  Too corny. Not where I'm at. Not where the shape wants to go. This thing is rolling in on itself. It wants one, unbroken fluid curl. No frills, or flounces. It is quiet, and self-contained. If it has a mood to it, the mood is not expansive, and joyful, but rather contemplative, maybe even withdrawn.

So I'm changing direction again. The 'chin' is gone from the upper figure.



And yet, there was still something bugging me. Here it was: Days ago, I drew the pencil line for the top edge of the 'shell' of the lower figure, but when I went to cut it I gave myself a good two-finger  margin above the line. This left a lot of stone, but you can always remove extra stuff later. Once it's gone it's gone. But what happened is that I changed the line, and then committed to it. Now it was way too high, and needed to come down. Even so, I was really reluctant to change it. The "new" line had become the plan. So I asked Mary to have a look. I grabbed a pencil, and said, "See, I think this curve ought to be dropped to here..."

And then something happened that just doesn't happen. Usually drawing the cut lines is a battle: draw, re-draw, higher, lower, in more, out more... 

But I drew that new line in one smooth, effortless stroke all around the globe. This went down like the guardian angels were guiding my hand. So I traced it over a couple times (OK, it wasn't totally perfect). Even so, it has to sit overnight, just to be sure. 



Holy cow, it's Friday morning. I've been slack about sitting each day and writing.  Just like the picture taking, I get to the end of a session, and I'm dirty, and tired, and I put off taking the pic until the morning. So I'm a little behind. Wednesday afternoon I drew the line. Thursday I made the commitment, and cut it, and cleaned up the cuts. It was the right decision.


I finished off the week by bringing the bottom part into shape, 'lifting' the curves from the base line:

 Tough stuff coming up next. Got some sittin' & starin' to do.

In the mean time, I'm going to talk about  "The Carp" for a while. We, all of us deal with The Carp in some form or other, but once you start playing at being an artist, that nasty little bastard cuts loose on you without even pretending to fake mercy.

Wait. What are you talking about? 

The Carp is sort of like the evil twin of The Voice. The Voice is insight, intuition, inspiration. It speaks seldom and softly, a nudge from your guardian angels.

The Carp is that inner heckler. Doing anything creative takes a lot of concentration. But paradoxically enough, once the mind locks in on  task you go into a sort of auto-pilot. You change tools, move from working one section to another without thinking about it. You just do it. Meanwhile your mind steps away the from the task, free to wander through all it's its inner archives. You can walk into things that happened thirty years ago, as easily as reaching for a file. The Carp lurks in there. It whispers that you're a fuckup, and have always been one to some degree or other. And then The Carp dredges up an encyclopedia  of examples starting from sometime around when you were in the third grade to prove the point. The Carp reminds you that no matter how hard you work, you're never gonna' be one of the real guys. Not only that, you can't tell jokes. Sound familiar?

I submitted my last piece for the June show at the Whittier Art Association. After a year of artists having too much time at home, the gallery was swamped with entries. My stone took first place. But The Carp was right there to remind me that my piece was really pretty mediocre, and I only got first cuz' the other stuff there was worse than mine. I told The Carp to piss off.

Like I said, there is hard stuff coming up this week. I'll be moving slowly.


Monday, May 24, 2021

Digging in the snow

 (Tuesday, 5/18)


So here's where we are after Monday's session. This is the part of the project where it starts getting exciting. Now it's no longer a chunk of rock, it's a figure taking form, and coming into being. Too, the farther along, the faster the progress. Now we're starting to move. Bit by bit the stone is beginning to look like... uh, wait a minute, here. Beginning to look like...


Maybe a penis? A fish? Darth Vader? An elephant? a bird? I never set out to make something look like something else. Nonetheless, my stones always seem to turn into three dimensional Rorschach tests. Everyone seems to see something in them that I never intended to put there. It's really pretty cool.

Except when it's embarrassing. As I've mentioned before, I have no formal training in the arts. Even so, I've learned stuff as I've worked along. One thing I've learned about crafting a surrealistic figure, is that you have to be wary of free association. Not to get all Freudian here, but anything remotely cylindrical is gonna' be a phallus. An ellipse will suggest a vagina, and anything rounded turns into a head or an ass. A circle becomes an eye. Two circles and a line will always suggest a face. If a form bears the remotest likeness to a life-form, it becomes that form in the mind of the viewer.

As a side note,  I recall attending a show at a fine art gallery in Pasadena some years back. This was a professional show, not a local art association. There is a famous illustration by Da Vinci, depicting a nude male body, arms outstretched and standing in the circumference of a circle. A sculptor decided to do that illustration as a relief carving in Carrera marble, the pure white stuff. He had the male figure emerging from the stone disc like it was pressed against a membrane. It was beautifully done, and it looked for all the world like a guy flopping in a giant condom. 

(Wed. 5/19) 

I've mentioned several time that I haven't ever studied art.  I don't draw well. Painting doesn't interest me. Neither do I have any desire to create images of people, flowers, or animals.

The whole business started with me doodling in class when I was in high school. I never took any notes in class; I'd just sit with the ball point, and draw these weird surrealistic things. Sometimes other kids would ask me for the drawings. I had one teacher who just let me grab the chalk and fill up a chalk board with this stuff. 

The same thing happened in the one and only office job that I had. My co-workers had my psychedelic doodles pinned to the walls of their cubicles.

And then there was college. More of the same. So I bought some Bristol board, a set of rapidograph pens, and a box of colored pencils. I started taking the doodling seriously. 

As I began a teaching career in the late 1980's the time spent drawing took on a new aspect. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the teaching job. It was an inner-city pressure cooker. I'd get home in the evening, and since I never had a TV, I'd sit and draw for hours. I found the intense concentration I poured into drawing served to metabolize that anger, and frustration. I could turn it all into something of grace and beauty.

The pressure cooker blew in 1997. I cracked. Everything that I had worked for went to hell in a flash. I had three years of lawyers, and hired gun "doctors" to deal  with. 

But enough. This isn't a biography. Point is, drawing, and later carving provided me with a way to process    the very bad vibes that dwell in my head. From 1997 until the burn went out in about '02, I had bad vibes by the acre and ton.

Now, thanks to the end of the world as we knew it, the bad vibes are back. I realize that "bad vibes" is  inarticulate hippie vintage slang, but I can't come up with a better term for the toxic pall hanging over everything these days. Having the burn back is a blessing.

(Thursday, 5/20)

I had been ending each day's session with taking photos. But I got lazy, and decided to take the pictures in the morning. Now I'm photographing what I did yesterday, but does that mean I should put yesterday's date on today's post? I get myself confused with this kind of stuff. 

Anyway, here we are, mid week with the stone:

Up until now the focus has been on the lower half of the figure, but now it's time to move upstairs. Truth to tell, I am not entirely sure what I'm going to do with the "head", but whatever it is it will be done to display the translucence in the stone to its best effect.

(Friday, 5/20)

It was a slow day, yesterday. Morning was lost to a couple of errands, and then waiting on the the grounds guy to finish the lawn. Too, I had to put up early to fire the Barbecue. But I got one very important task accomplished, and I did a darn good job of it. I had to drill through the 'head'. Problem was, the hole had to curve. Trying to line it up in one shot would be really tricky, and I didn't want to risk screwing it up. So I did it the hard way. I sunk one hole pointing downward to the right, and the other pointing up to the left. And I scored a hit; drilled one hole right into the other so they met in the middle. I got the holes reamed into a tunnel. The next part is going to be a big challenge.

(Monday, 5/24)

I've reached a point where I'm not altogether sure how to manage the upper half of this thing. I know where I want to go with it. Or I think I do. But I'm not getting there. Wait, yes I am, it's fine. No it's not...

So this week's work begins with a return to the sit-n'-stare phase of construction. That means quiet time. Coffee (lots). Maybe a bowl or two...

Anyway here's where we are getting close to six weeks in:


Monday, May 17, 2021

Slammin' on the Brakes

 Slammin' on the Brakes

  (Sunday May 16)

A day away from the rock. People unfamiliar with So Cal think of this place as always being sunny and warm. Mostly they're right, but they do not know about our Sisters of Spring, May Gray, and June Gloom. Most locals dislike the sullen twins. The two of them move in just when it's about to be summer, and they hang around until sometime early in July. They're my babes, my sweethearts, my pin-up girls, and they are gentle on my dour disposition. This is my favorite time of the year.

These Spring days stretch out long under a soft cool blanket of cloud. Pewter mornings become late silver afternoons with little perceptible difference in temperature or light. It's neither warm, nor cold. Nothing casts a shadow, and everything seems quiet. Somehow you feel like you should speak in an indoor voice.

Here in the quiet of the back yard, I am aware only of the part of the earth called California rolling slowly into summer. I can feel the cool, and hear the birds, and smell the orange blossoms. The dragon fruit is flowering, and the San Pedro is getting ready to throw out almost two dozen torches. The lophophora, replanted two weeks ago, are greening up. One has produced a pup, and two are going to flower. The Bridgesii show no signs of flowering yet. Cactus take their time. 


I shut out the world, and the madness here, or I try to, anyway. But the quiet itself is a deathly reminder. My house is less than a block away from the elementary school. As long as I've lived here, a feature of the back yard, just like the birds, and the weather, has been the periodic school bells, and the shouts and screams of kids on the playground. I was night janitor at that school for almost ten years. I retired in '17.

The school is open again. But the playground is silent. Most of the faculty I knew is gone. There are fewer teachers, fewer kids. No "Activities". Teachers, staff, and kids are masked up all the time, and the hallways are marked up with tape X's so that no child may be within touching distance of another. It's a goddamn horror movie come to life. But so it is everywhere. 

I could hear a drizzling rain outside the widow this morning. There wasn't enough rain to matter,  but it wasn't cycling weather, either. I haven't been getting much exercise lately, so I decided to just go walk. I took the alleyway between the elementary school and nursery. The nursery parking lot backs up against the school grounds right where the kids eat lunch. You can see the old upper campus, and the tree-lined grass area  where the kids meet for outdoor assemblies. I remember, fifteen years ago standing in this same spot. The burn was dead. I couldn't force myself to get back to the stone. I thought about maybe just going back to work. Get a part time gig. I could think of worse things than pushing broom at a little campus like this one...

Then came a most excellent adventure in the cardiac ward. Our phony ass insurance paid nothing. Luckily, the doctor and the hospital settled for what I had in my savings account. Alive but broke. Not the worst of fates by a long shot, but getting a job was no longer an idle consideration. As it turned out, I ended up as the night man right here at this same school.

I worked hard here. It was good. Now I'm back outside on this cold windy afternoon. Lots of memory. I thought of Littlecat, and the heartbreak washed over me again. Three years, and I'm still sad over that tiny beast. And now everything's just...

So I burned a bowl, and just walked on. There was no escaping it. Hardly anyone was on the streets, yet more than half of the people I saw were slouching along alone in those filthy masks. God, I hate the sight. I went down by the railroad tracks, and burned another couple of bowls...

Anyway. It was a productive week. Here's how the the rock rolled:

(Mon. May 10)

 Saturday the eighth of May was The So Cal RatRod Ride, founded in March of 2012, by my wife and me. The monthly gathering is in its tenth year, and the club we founded has become family. The day was cool and clear. Cruising the the Huntington Beach bike path with the gang was a good break from the solitude, and brain wrestling in the back yard.

Getting into a carving like this is a lot like taking a trip. It starts with planning things out in your head. You make a rough outline: see these cities, visit these national parks, leave time for an unexpected side trip, or two. But it often happens that synchronicity will step right into the middle of all your plans, and change the trip into something completely unexpected.

That's how I got into stone work in the first place. It started back in the summer of 1990. I was teaching school then, and I had summers off. I was sitting in the dining room of my old apartment one August afternoon, drinking beers with my buddy Jeff. I drank a boatload of beers that summer.

Both Jeff and I had owned motorcycles back in the early seventies. We were drinking Millers, and bullshitting about bikes, and I suddenly said, "Hey, let's go up to Rosemead, and look at Harleys."

So we drove up to the Harley shop in Rosemead, and looked at bikes. I quit drinking on my 38th birthday later that month. Took delivery on a brand new 1991 FXSTS Springer Softail later on in September. June of '91 I  packed my stuff on the rear fender, Easy Rider style, and headed out Interstate 40, Eastbound.

I made it to Virginia Beach, VA a few weeks later. I started the return trip with a sojourn through the back roads of West Virginia. 

Late afternoon found me cruising very slowly through a small town called Elkins. I passed the entrance to Davis and Elkins University. A couple blocks later I passed a small motel, and The Voice  spoke loud in my head, "Stay here." It was so distinct it startled me. It almost seemed audible, when it spoke again, "JUST STAY HERE!"

A gap appeared in traffic; I made a U-turn, and got the last room they had at the motel. I had stumbled into town for the first day of Bluegrass week at the Augusta Heritage Arts festival at Davis and Elkins college. That night I walked up to the college, and heard live Bluegrass for the first time. I made Elkins a stop on my travels in '92, and did so again, in 1993. I didn't plan it this way, but in '93 I happened into town on a Sunday afternoon, just in time for registration day for Irish week. I thought, "What the hell, see if there's an opening for something that isn't song and dance." There was a stone carving class, but it was full. I was disappointed; it sounded like fun, but Oh, well... 

I was on my way out the door, when the clerk I had spoken with came running up to me. There was a cancellation. Was I still interested in Stone Carving?

I stayed the week, and had a blast. Most fun I ever had.

But back to the present.

I've been having the devil's own time trying to incorporate the snout on the narrow end of the stone into the figure that I'm shaping.  

This is a really fine piece of stone. But there is stuff that works well in this material, and stuff that doesn't. One problem with a translucent stone is that surface details do not show up well, because the stone doesn't cast a shadow on itself. Fine lines just disappear. I need broad open planes to catch and hold the light. The lower half of the form has been shaping up like a ponderous  blob. I can't incorporate that wonderfully contorted "nose" into the form without it looking like an appendage. I wanted  two figures locked together to form that ellipse in the center, but doing it means passing one through the other, and then leaving room in the middle for the central figure to pass through both. (Don't worry if this doesn't make anything like sense. I'm way down the rabbit hole of my own imagination, here.)

I've been wrestling with this for days, now. It's like trying to divide one prime by another, and make it come out even. It's becoming a Gordian knot. But this is what having the burn is like. Wrestling. Stressing. Waking up in the middle of the night thinking on it. Allowing a the tail end of a chunk of rock to occupy center stage in my imagination. Believing, without question, that this is serious. Important.

Time to slam on the brakes, and put the tools up. I had planned on just relaxing Sunday, but right after breakfast I was looking at the stone...

(Go do something else...)

But wait, do I really need this here? What if I...

And that damnable snout...

So I spent all day Sunday, all day Monday, and all day Tuesday re-thinking the plan, drawing new lines on the rock, until:


So here is the old plan. 

And the nose on the bottom left?

The nose goes. The snout is out. The tail is a fail. Just like the Gordian knot, this thing is getting cut.

And the revised version:

Uh, it doesn't look like much...

Just wait. 

(Thursday, 5/13) 

It has been one month since I started this project. The stone started out at 115 pounds. After cutting the base, the project weight was 97 pounds. It weighed in at 80 pounds even at the end of today's session. This was a lot of hard work. Notice the arc drawn on the left side of the stone, and the cut lines along the upper left. Everything to the left of the arc gets removed. I made a series of cuts along the entire arc, and broke the excess off in chunks. This is a simple operation, but stone is absolutely unforgiving. Small errors can have huge consequences. 

Imagine a disc laid out like a clock face. The minute hand traces a circle with a ten inch diameter. The hour hand traces a circle with an eight inch diameter. You want to shave down that ten inch diameter disc to eight inches. It will take all day trying to file down the edge. So you make cuts along the radii at one o'clock, two o'clock, and so on. Then you can just cut the wedges out, and you're there at the eight inch diameter circle. All well and good, unless one of the cuts strays a hair inside that eight inch diameter line. Once that happens, the eight inch circle is impossible, and the whole plan must change to accommodate a smaller disc. So it was along the whole arc on the left edge.

One cut went almost a quarter inch too deep. Luckily, it was still outside the line, but not by much. I was sweating whether I'd have to re-shape the whole arc  to accommodate a couple of stray bites with a hacksaw.

With this arc established I began shaping in the back end of the figure.

The form that dwells in my head is perfect. All the curves flow together. It's all symmetry, harmony, and elegance.

But the stone is irregular. It leans to one side. There are concave planes where I want convex. It's got dimples, wide spots, narrow spots. These are not negotiable. The stone won't grow to fit the image in my head, so I have to make the image in my head fit inside the stone. 

I was doing the "sit & stare" part after excavating all that material Thursday afternoon, when a tiny bit of wisdom went up like a skyrocket: "If you try to make it perfect you'll ruin it. It doesn't need to be perfect; it needs to be right."

(Saturday, May 15)

Lots of work, and lots of progress. I busted my butt this week, and I need to take a break. So here's where a week's worth of of work got us:

I was going to take the bike out, or go walking, but...

I worked instead.

So here's where we are on the stone. Challenges ahead:




Sunday, May 9, 2021

Bustin' Some Rock


(Fri 4/30)

 Time to get to the real work. 

The tool kit:

The rifler files on the top row are hand-made pieces from the Milani tool company in Italy.
It is a pleasure to work with  well-crafted tools. The second row tools are jewelers files, and the ones in the green case are diamond files, all made in China, but quality stuff nonetheless. Take a look at the bottom row, down at the far right. These are some interesting pieces. The four small tools with wood knobs are  actually hand forged wood engravers. I bought them for a workshop class back in the '90's. They're used to cut fine line images in end grain hardwood for block printing. Engraving, and block printing weren't my thing, but the tools are great for fine detail work. 

To the left of the engravers is an ancient surgeon's tool, a bone saw. The blade is incredibly hard. It's very handy for making fine cuts in tight places. I have no idea where the thing with the red handle came from. It's a hard three-sided blade, either a reaming tool of some sort, or a crude weapon. And finally, on the far right, there's an item that looks like a rusty, upside-down "T". Recognize it? It's a slice of railroad track that I found alongside the easement. It balances very nicely in the hand, and the rounded end makes a great mallet for chisel work. Notice, however, that there are only two chisels in the tool kit. Alabaster is soft, and often full of fine cracks. The cracks do not usually cause any problems, but it can happen that a small tap busts out a big chunk. So I use the chisels cautiously in combination with the drill, or the saw, for excavating large areas.  I do most of the shaping with rasps and riflers. I use the angle grinder only to rough out the raw stone. Of course I have a heavy power drill also, but that's not in the picture.

Before I go any farther with this narrative I want to re-emphasize a point I made in the first, or second installation. I am an amateur at this. 

In 1993, I took a four-day workshop class in relief carving. Other than that, I have no training in sculpture, and no "art education" at all. After the class I took in '93, I found a source for stone and tools, and just jumped in. Until the start of this project, I worked in a vacuum. I didn't have the internet and, except for the guy I bought my stone from, I had no idea what other sculptors did with stone, or how they did it. I just made stuff up as I went along. I had a ferocious burn to work in the late 1990's, and I produced somewhere around thirty pieces in about a five-year period. (pics to come soon) So, my methods of doing things are probably unconventional, possibly wrong, and, no doubt, would have a more experienced sculptor rolling his eyes, and shaking his head. 

Point is, I am not pretending to be an expert, or even knowledgeable about  art in general, or sculpture in specific. I am a feral creator. My work is my work; my taste is my taste; and my opinions are no more than my opinions. But neither am I "humble-boasting", doing the aww, shucks, it ain't nothin'  bit I think I make some cool stuff. I've displayed in salons, and invitational shows, taken home a ribbon or two, and had galleries request my stuff. A couple of people even bought some. Like Popeye says, "Iyam  what Iyam." ya' know? 

Anyway, this is it. It took seventeen days of hard work to get here, but today I started  undercutting the basic form of the carving, lifting it away from the base. The actual sculpting is finally underway. Hooray.

(Wed. 5/5/21) 

I let the stone sit over the weekend. I've been putting in long days, burning with the enthusiasm of beginning a new project. But I've also been burning too hard, and I needed to get away, and take a breather. I took some time to get out and ride the bike. The Cyclone Coaster antique and classic ride meets the first Sunday of the month. Almost everyone from my bicycle club was there. It was good to socialize a little; nice to get out and cruise an old Schwinn. Our gig, The So Cal RatRod Ride, follows Cyclone Coaster on the second Saturday of each month. That will be coming up this weekend, on the 8th.

As soon as I achieved consciousness on Monday morning I was back to work. It almost feels like having a job (in a good way). I spent Monday and Tuesday roughing out what's going to be sort of a big globe at the front end of the carving. By Tuesday afternoon  it looked like this:

 Notice on the side view pictures, the low spots in the globe. To get rid of them you have to shrink the whole globe down until the lowest spot in the lowest depression is even with the rest of the surface. It's not a worry, in this case. These will work themselves out as I shape the lower part of the figure.

(Thu, 5/6)

It won't do to shape the bottom of the figure, and leave the rest of the rock to catch up at some later date. I want to get the overall shape, and the flat planes established as well, so everything takes shape together. That means drilling holes, and making cuts with the saw.

The drilling can be tricky as hell. I have a big, heavy, 500 rpm power drill, and a twelve inch long, 1/4" masonry bit to do the job. The hard part is aiming the bit through a very irregular stone, and having it come out in the right place. Get it wrong, and you chow away a whole bunch of rock that was supposed to be part of the figure. It took most of the morning to set up the drill. I had to power through about eight inches of material right in the middle of the rock. I set up a makeshift guide, measured, checked, and double checked, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.  

Is the suspense just killin' you now?

 It came out OK. I give the job a B-. I missed the target on the exit by a little. The drill bit was supposed to exit in the middle of the curved triangle. Instead, it came out just to the left of the line.

(entry- middle of the curved triangle)


Fortunately, the material I drilled through will be excavated anyway, so no harm done. I worked the hole into a tunnel, and finally into a slot.

The next task is to establish the planes that will arch diagonally across the figure. A line becomes a scratch, becomes a cut.  And so on.

By Friday, May 7, I got this far. 

Tune in for more stony adventures!