Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lost An Ear, But Doing Fine

Left Bisou under my spouse's supervision and went down to my studio to carve some slate.

When I say "went down to my studio," it's because, instead of going up into some light-filled space, I descend into our dark basement. I make my way past the piles of wood that my spouse keeps in case the need to build a small house should arise. I open a door and walk into a cement-walled cell, dark except for a tiny window near the ceiling.

A couple of artist and sculptor friends have visited my studio, and backed away in horror. "How can you work in a place like this?" they ask. They don't realize that, once I shut the door and turn on the lights above my carving table, the stone is all I see. Mallet and chisel in hand, enveloped in a cloud of dust, I barely remember to blink.

I have never carved slate before. I'm attracted to it because it is everywhere around here, and thus allows me to "carve local." Slate cannot be carved in the round, because it is too flaky, so I am having to learn to carve in bas relief.

I have begun a bas relief of a woman reclining on her side, her head on her folded arms, and a cat curled up on the crest of her hip. To make a bas relief, you have to figure out what is behind what, and start with whatever is furthest back. So I carved out the background behind the woman and the cat, feeling my way with the chisel on the slate, which behaves like no other stone I've ever worked. If you tap in just the right place, you can lift off a big chip with a single blow, which makes the work go faster. By the same token, if you tap in the wrong place, you can lose a major body part.

Having taken a good quarter inch off the background, I started work on the cat--his abdomen was the furthest back, so I carved that out. Then came his head and leg. The tail, which was curled around him, would be in front of everything. But the entire cat would need to be farther back than the woman's hip on which he was resting. I was thinking about all this, using my wee chisel and giving little taps when, in the twinkling of an eye, one of the cat's ears flew off. It was an itty bitty triangle, you see, so even a tiny tap with my lightest mallet was enough to do it in.

Did I panic? Did I curse and throw my tools? Not at all. In sculpture, it's easy to lose projecting body parts (think of ancient Greek statues--which parts are usually missing?). But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw the whole thing away. It just means that you have to carve away from where the projecting piece was, until you have a new projection. (Often that is tantamount to starting all over again.)

In the case of my cat's ear, I just carved away some of the head behind it, and I soon had the beginnings of another ear...kind of like a salamander growing a new limb where the old one was cut off. Then I continued working very carefully.

This is what I love about sculpture: it is so slow, and yet so risky. One impatient move and bad things happen. I also love the sense that I'm feeling my way in the dark: the work goes so slowly that it's hard to keep in mind the image I want to carve. Plus, the dust accumulates and obscures the surface, and the chisel marks change the color of the stone and further disorient the eye. So it is a kind of miracle each time when something like what I had in mind begins to emerge.

I never know at what point that will happen. It is always a surprise. That's why I never look up when I'm carving.

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