Sculpting Details in Marble

I have mixed emotions when I look at stone. The excitement of imagining how my vision will look once released is dampened by the doubt in my ability to avoid making any lasting mistakes while carving.  As I start any new project, or new section on an existing work, there is always the lurking fear of failure. I have to constantly encourage myself to just keep at it. Step by step. Take my time. I work alone at my studio, and I often wonder what a passer-by would say on seeing me crawl around my marble, musing to myself.

These contradictions quickly vanish once I’m in the groove and the confidence returns. Stone is unforgiving, in that there is no doubt. However, your eye is very precise, and we instinctively know what looks right, and what needs to go.

From the blank featureless space, I pencil in where Mary’s eyes nose and mouth should go. Then I slowly push the stone back, millimeters at a time, working the entire face. As I only have modest amount of natural talent, I don’t attempt to carve the face to its natural depth straightaway. A little fear is a good thing. And as stone is unforgiving, if I go ahead and carve too deep or slightly off center, there is no going back.

Viewing the statue from all angles and continuing to hatch out stone that needs to go, I continue to carve down until I’m about 90 percent complete. As Mary’s face is nestled within the Statue, it’s important not to finish her completely. First I will need to complete Jesus’ heel and her shoulder to ensure a good fit.

Everything is interconnected. Hands are supported by feet, that position the thigh, that align the back, that angle the shoulder, which anchors the face, and cradles the thigh while centering the face that nestles the soul…. that’s why I work in the round.

The hands and feet are next, and once again there is the excess stone that needs to be slowly worked back. Using kids plastecine as quick models to keep the angles right, I continue to chip, chisel and grind my way around the statue.

The modeling clay really can be helpful when dealing with a limited area of stone. I was doing my best to maximize the overall size of my Pieta while working within a confined amount of stone. In both Mary’s forearm and Jesus’ elbow I really could have used an additional centimeter or two. Hopefully no one will notice.

One problem I have to always keep an open eye on is my tendency to distort perspective. When I carve, my face is typically no more than a foot or two away from the chisel or grinder.  I’m really too close to appreciate the varying proportions of hands vs. faces vs. feet.  Again, this is why I only carve to 90 percent complete. It’s always nice to have a little wiggle room…  Once the work is done, I can always go back and try for a 95.

Pieta Spero is nearly complete. Now all that is left is final details and lots of polishing. I’m satisfied, though I would like the ability to go back in time and redo areas that I know are less than perfect. The act of sculpting stone is a very humbling experience. The artist is forced to confront two very different states of being. The courage to deliver our finest results with the serenity to accept the limits of our human abilities. For me, my best is good enough, I’ll leave perfection to God.

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