Thoughts on Stone Carving and Slowing Down

Shoulders back, elbows tucked in, fingers relaxed, I take one deep breath. Then, I start to carve. 

Tap, tap, tap, clink. Tap, tap, tap, clink. The steady thud of hammer on chisel and the delicate chink of marble shrapnel hitting the floor becomes my own symphony as I find my rhythm within the rock. Time slows down and nothing else in the world matters at this moment except finding this perfect curve. It is a maddening but ethereal devotion to the stone, shifting between clearing chunks and shaving milliliters of dust. The professor pulls me out of my trance as class ends, but my fingers itch towards the chisel and hammer. Within this cube is a dome and curve hook garland that is my mission to find and reveal. 

At first sight, the 90lb slab of marble loomed menacingly as an obstacle to conquer, a battle to be won, and I approached with the fear and caution only found in new recruits. My body felt awkward, arms at weird angles, and my grip on the hammer so tight that my nails left angry, red crescents in my palms. Around me was the whirring of the stone dust collector and the periodic sounds of progress from my three classmates who were already finding the straight planes within their design. Meanwhile, my stone glared back at me in triumph, still mostly whole with a few chipped edges. Stone is unforgiving. There is no coming back from going too far. 

My professor then told me a story. When his own teacher was learning to carve Michaelangelo’s David from experts in Italy, he approached the marble with extreme caution, careful not to go past the tip of David’s nose which is the furthest point in the sculpture. However, all around him, these old Italian men immediately began hammering away at the surface with the unfettered confidence of skilled hands. The knowledge collected and passed down from centuries of experience allowed these expert stone carvers to know one key point in starting out--the tip of David’s nose is still in there.

The sun had set and there I was in front of the door to the studio. Turn on lights, turn on stone dust collection, tie hair back, put goggles on, pick out the largest point chisel, stand up on my workbox, and stare right at the rock and the hard place I was in between. I just took a deep breath and told myself to find the tip of David’s nose deep within the marble and began hacking away. 

As time passed, my body settled into place and everything clicked. My awareness of my surroundings and my body melted away as I focused purely on the stone and the feeling of satisfaction as chunks melted away like butter. I blinked for the first time and there it was--the gentle, sloping curve of my dome emerging from the crass rockface around it. I did it; I dove in headfirst and emerged with the tip of David’s nose. 

In the beginning of this class, my professor called it a slow studio. Unlike the world around us that is whirring with the fastest speeds, sending information and solving problems in the matter of seconds, our process of carving marble is archaic in every way. We start with 80-90lb blocks of marble and the same tools of the first stone carvers, a hammer and a set of chisels, and then we hack away for an entire semester. Every move I make, every mistake or achievement, has been experienced a thousand times before in the exact same way that I am experiencing it now. In many ways, when I step into the studio, I feel transported in time. I don’t listen to music, just the steady taps of my classmates carving their own stones and the rhythm of construction. I focus solely on the chisel, the hammer, and the rock and nothing else matters. I can work so hard my palms start to blister, but still have only shaved off a few millimeters. Sometimes I can go in to work for two hours and my chunk of rock looks exactly as it did before I came. It is a beautifully frustrating process, this slow studio. But it is oddly meditative as well. Our attention has become so divided and difficult to capture, sometimes we can’t even focus on a video longer than five minutes. But the stone demands to be given full attention and when you pick up a chisel, you get sucked in. Hours pass by and I feel as though it has been mere minutes. The only sign of time passing is the light of day and the sore ache in your arms. It feels good to be completely in one place at one time, existing for only one thing. Life feels so much more simple. So when I find myself bogged down by the headlines that show up in my inbox every hour or by the assignments, essays, applications for internships and programs, and zoom meetings, I escape to the sculpture studio and I carve. I spend a few hours just with my body and a chisel, a hammer, and a stone, reliving the life of someone hundreds of thousands of years past, and feeling the steadfastness of marble under my fingertips.