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Six Strategies For Collecting Canadian Stone Sculpture

Buying original stone sculpture can sometimes be an uncertain process for collectors. This article will help you navigate this exciting but sometimes confusing field of collecting.  As a sculptor myself, I wanted to share some of my insights from an artist’s viewpoint about what to look for and how to purchase original work. This is a ten minute read (or less), so if you are short on time, just skip to the section that interests you most.

  1. Originality
  2. Creation Process
  3. Stone
  4. The Artist
  5. Budget
  6. Gut Reaction 
  1. Originality - There are lots of ways to look at originality.  Generally, any sculpture that an artist does and is their own concept is original.  Some artists concentrate on a few forms that they do many times, others don’t use patterns but may repeat a form, so the results are different each time, and others do something different each time. This work is all “original”.  In the first case, someone else may have a carving that looks exactly like yours, if the artist has used a set pattern for size, shape, and detail.  Great Horned Owl carved from Canadian Soapstone, artist Cindy PresantIn the second, the work may be recognizable as belonging to that artist, but the pose, size, and form are different (See these two Great Horned Owl photos).  In the third case, every piece of work is different.  Great Horned Owl Carving in Canadian Soapstone, artist Cindy PresantThis is actually fairly rare - most artists like to get to know a few subjects really well by studying them closely, and carving or sculpting them over and over again (but often in different ways, and with different poses). Let’s focus in on that idea.  Some artists are known for one type of sculpture (eg. loons), and that is what they do best. Still other artists have a favourite sculptor, and create in a similar style to that artist (much like some painters). Many artists work on a “series”; a number of works that relate to a central theme or idea. 
  2. Creation Process - How was it made?  Sculptors use a range of tools - some use all power tools, some a combination of power and hand tools, and some use only hand tools.  Decide whether that matters to you according to your personal philosophy.  Ask questions about how the piece was created, and where the artist’s inspiration came from.  Some artists sign their work, and some don’t.  Also, be aware that technology has progressed to a point where sculpture can be replicated and carved entirely (perfectly) by computer-driven machinery. If you buy from larger gift stores and you don’t see documentation or signatures of actual artists on the sculpture, you may be purchasing something that is mass-produced.  Make sure that what you are purchasing is actually stone, as well, and not cast concrete, or resin mixed with powdered stone - two methods used by factories to make imitations of original stone sculpture. Seeing photos of works-in-progress can help prove how the carving was created.  The finishing process is another subject.  Some sculptors use spray varnish, or beeswax, or natural drying oils (like Tung oil).  Each has its own qualities; some, like a spray-on varnish, are quick and easy to use.  Others, like drying oils, can actually take weeks. 
  3. Type of stone: Here’s quick guide to four of the more popular types of carving stone used for Canadian sculpture.  Other types of stone are sometimes used, on a more regional basis, depending on availability.  Soapstone - is a dense metamorphic rock. It has a range of colours and veining, and can be soft or fairly hard.  It is mined in Canada, but can also come from Brazil, China, and many other countries.  The principle component of soapstone is talc; the colours depend on other minerals present where the soapstone has been mined.  Soapstone has an ability to absorb and retain heat - it will warm from being placed in the sun, or if it is held in the hands. Soapstone has been carved throughout the world for thousands of years.  Serpentine - also a metamorphic rock, closely related to soapstone, but much harder.  Colouration can be dark green, dark grey, and nearly black. Serpentine is mined in parts of Canada. It is sometimes referred to as “Green Marble”.  This is a stone used extensively by the Inuit for their carvings. Alabaster  - is a sedimentary rock, harder, fine grained and sometimes almost translucent, and comes from many different countries including Canada, It can be white, orange, yellow, other colours, streaked with other colours and veining. Alabaster is a form of Gypsum.  Limestone - a sedimentary rock, is lighter than soapstone in weight.  Its colouration tends to be white, off-white, grey, and tan.  Most of the limestone in Canada is too hard for hand-carving, so limestone sculpture tends to be made from Indiana limestone (from the US), which has a consistent texture and is a bit (not much!) softer than Ontario’s limestone. Sometimes small fossils can be seen in the stone. It can be sanded to a very smooth finish, and can be treated with waxes or other sealants.
  4. The Artist - Do you want to buy directly from the artist, or browse in a gallery? Many artists are on social media, and some sell most of their work that way.  If you do buy directly from the artist, you know that all of the purchase price is directly helping to support their work; whereas work purchased from a gallery will have a commission deducted before the artist is paid. This is not a bad thing - galleries are a preferred method of art shopping for many people, because they can see a curated assortment of good art from many artists in one place.  However you choose to purchase sculpture, you can now do that on-line or in person, depending on your time and location.  When you start to believe in your own ability to choose original sculpture,  look for studio tours, arts collectives, holiday shows, charity auctions, and gallery openings.  You can research an artist before buying their work.  Do you want to buy from an artist who has formal training? Or someone who is self-taught (like me)?  What is their exhibition record?  Have they had any media coverage? Use internet search engines to find out more information about individual artists.
  5. Budget - how much can you spend? You will usually be able to find quite a range in pricing for sculpture.  Price is dependant on many factors: How well known the artist is, how much work they sell, the size and complexity of the sculpture, the cost of the stone, the subject matter, how and where it was made.   When you consider the price, think about what a reasonable hourly wage would be for someone in a skilled profession, and divide the artwork price by that amount.  Even without knowing how long the sculpture took for the artist to complete, you will probably find that it is priced quite fairly.  Most artists can’t charge much above minimum wage for the work they put into a carving, and that isn’t taking into account the price of the stone, which is an additional cost for the artist.  This is why many artists are sometimes reluctant to tell people how long a carving takes to complete, because it doesn’t usually relate to what someone in almost any other profession would make as an hourly wage.  Seen in that light, most original stone sculpture in Canada is a very affordable art form to collect.
  6. Gut Reaction - You should feel that you can’t live without the sculpture that you see, as opposed to simply buying it for its expected investment potential.  Take time to examine a piece of sculpture carefully before purchasing it - look at it from all angles, note the quality of the finish, the originality of the concept.  If you are buying on-line, request additional photos if possible, including the signature, also possibly some initial work-in-process photos or sketches.  This last information shows you that the artist put some time and effort into developing the concept and form. Turtle carving in process, artist Cindy PresantI took about 60 photos of a recent wolf carving as I was creating it, and the purchaser wanted to see every photograph (this was actually after she bought it)!  If you can, see a sculpture in person before making a final commitment to purchase.  It can be difficult with stone to convey the impact of the actual sculpture by photos - it may affect you differently in real life.  Ask if the artist would be willing to arrange a studio visit for you to see the work, without any obligation to purchase on your part.  But above all, trust your gut reaction when you first set eyes on the carving, whether on-line or in real life.  You want to live with this art, and enjoy it for many decades.  You may want to pass it down to family members over the years, so buy something that appeals to you on an emotional, can’t-put-it-into words level. This same approach applies if you are buying sculpture as a gift for someone else.  Try to imagine the piece in their home, considering the above factors. Think about their favourite subjects, and what their approach is to collecting art.    Canadian stone sculpture should reflect something that you feel is important on a personal level - about art, about Canada, about the way art is made, who made the art, and why.  Now you have some tools for deciding what to choose.  Happy hunting!

 Cindy Presant, a Canadian soapstone carver and art blogger, has been carving soapstone since 2005, and has also shown her paintings and drawings in solo and group exhibitions for the past 26 years. Cindy’s soapstone carvings are online and can be viewed on her website: www.longpointartstudio.ca.  The Long Point Art Studio, located on the Long Point Causeway, Is within the Long Point UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, Port Rowan, Ontario. All copyright reserved by Cindy Presant, 2019.

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