Carved in Stone

The Appeal of a Hard Challenge

The perception that stone carving is difficult is what first attracted me to this medium. The fact that it is difficult and one has to learn so many techniques, acquire the skills, and meet so many of the challenges made it even much more appealing. I discovered through stone carving that even if my career were to last 100 years, I’d always find new challenges in this craft.
 
Prior to my apprenticeship in stonemasonry at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1989, I attempted a carving to see if this was something I wanted to get involved in, especially since I had no art background at all. The piece was over-ambitious. I carved a reclining nude--a very obese woman--like one of Botero's women.  I did this not for aesthetic reasons, but because I wanted the most fragile parts to be thicker and stronger.  Unfortunately, I had started with such a small chunk of alabaster, and I broke an arm off.  It was discouraging, but the experience confirmed that I wanted to pursue the apprenticeship job.  There, I was presented with much more realistic projects for a beginner.  In fact it was almost two years of training before I was expected to make any kind of sculpture at all--even a leaf!  

My involvement with the cathedral came early in life. I sang in the choir, and as I stood in the cathedral for hours after hours, many times a week, I looked around at the space I was in, and was inspired by it. Gradually, I felt very much at home, and I became so used to it that I no longer paid much attention to it.  Much later, though, when I actually began to get involved with stone, the work on the cathedral became an unapproachable standard.  Nothing I would do ever seemed as "real" as the old work on the cathedral (or any other old stone building, for that matter).  Over the years, that mind-set is fading.  It also may be that I am moving away from the mentality of feeling that I have to prove myself by comparing my work to any standard other than itself.
 
I went to elementary school at the Cathedral School, and by the time I was in the seventh grade, Dean Morton decided to re-start the cathedral’s construction, which had stopped when World War II began.  An apprenticeship program was created in stone masonry--the branch of stone craft that is dedicated to shaping blocks of stone for building things. It is very precise work and can involve complicated geometry.  At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this program since I was still a kid. However after high school and college, and not finding any subjects that grabbed me, I took a job in the construction industry, renovating apartments. I discovered, happily, that I loved working with tools and materials.  Remembering the program at the cathedral, I asked for a chance to try it.  Thanks to persistence, luck, and connections, I got the job.  
 
I stayed in the program for two years-- first I was an apprentice stone mason, making blocks for Gothic architecture. Shortly after I went out on my own, as a self-employed stone carver, then the stone yard closed down and I returned to the cathedral. I eventually became an artist-in-residence, which is where I am to this day--nineteen years later, working on commissioned pieces, including portraits, figures, inscriptions, cemetery monuments, fireplace mantels, fountains and other various types of architectural ornaments.  
 
As I progressed, so did my process—although as a rule there really isn’t a single set method to my work.  It depends entirely on the project. For instance, if I am working on a commission, I go through numerous designs. These include drawings and submitting them for approval, and incorporating whatever feedback the client has provides.  If the piece is just for my own pleasure, I have more flexibility. Here I dedicate time to sketching preliminary drawings and sometimes even clay models before embarking on the actual piece.  
 
When it comes to stone carving there are two schools of thought: One view holds that it is best to be absolutely certain of the shape you are trying to create before you pick up any tool to break any stone. This is achieved by putting all your creativity into modeling a sculpture in clay. When you have the clay model that you feel perfectly happy with, you can cast it in plaster and use very precise measuring devices to guide you in duplicating it exactly in stone. When this method is used, much skill and technique is needed for carving the stone, but the stone carving process is reduced to a purely technical, non-creative task. The opposite view is that’s preferable is to begin to shape the stone with far less preparation. This practice is named "direct carving" because the sculptor goes directly to work on the stone without first working the idea out in any other medium.
 
It has been my mission to become familiar with both these ways of working and to discover when one method is preferable to the other rather than slavishly keeping loyal to one method and ignoring the other. There is lots of room in the middle in which work can be done using a blend of both extremes.
 
For more information about Chris Pellettieri and his stone carving, please visit www.stonecarving.us.

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