Reflections on a Stone Carving Festival
This summer I made the trek to Ottawa, Ontario for the Canadian Stone Carving Festival (CSCF), now in its 10th year. I carved and filed Indiana Limestone for 18 hours along with 39 other carvers, working under canopies on Sparks Street. The brainchild of Smith and Barber Sculpture Atelier Inc., CSCF was designed to show the public how limestone is carved using traditional hand tools. Carvers of all skill levels and walks of life donate their time and skills for the weekend. On the final day, the carvings are auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the Ottawa InnerCity Ministries, to support their arts programming for at-risk youth.
Finding Tools and Limestone
I wanted to participate, but I had only carved soapstone. First, I needed to learn how to use traditional hammers and chisels for stone carving - the same tools that have been used for thousands of years to carve stone. These were different from the tools I had been using for carving soapstone for the past 14 years. Secondly, I needed to find limestone and learn how to carve it. In the summer of 2018, I bought a set of carbon steel carving tools, and began learning how to use them, beginning with some hard soapstone. The tapping of hammer on chisel, on stone, was addictive, and fun. Even though beautiful varieties of limestone are quarried everywhere in Ontario, it tends to be too hard for carving easily with hand tools. Indiana Limestone is used extensively as a carving stone, because it has a very consistent and smooth composition, without much veining or large fossils. After a few other inquiries, I emailed Tim Pick, the Canada sales rep for Polycor (one of the Festival’s sponsors, too, as it turned out). He put me in touch with WJB Custom Stonework, a boutique stone carving firm in Burlington, Ontario. They said they could help. I went to see them and met Jan, who showed me and an artist friend of mine around their fascinating shop. They have the capacity to do large scale custom stonework for government buildings, businesses or individuals who are restoring stone homes or who have gardens with stone features. I was able to get some Indiana Limestone blocks from him to work on. I began by carving an address marker, trying out lettering and low relief work.
The Festival Dates And Theme Are Posted
The CSCF posted Festival dates and an application form on their website in January. The 2019 theme for the Festival carvings was “Comic book heroes, myths and legends of Canada”. Everyone would get a block of Indiana Limestone, 12”x12”x8”, to carve in 18 hours over the three days. There was also soapstone available.
I did some research, and discovered the amazing Quebec legend of Le Loup Garou, a Werewolf that terrorized Kamouraska in 1766. It seemed like a fun subject to depict in stone. I did many sketches, trying to come up with an effective composition. I carved a 2/3rds scale maquette, or model, of my idea, both to work out technical challenges but also to determine timing for the final carving. My first concept was too ambitious for 18 hours. I went back to the drawing board, literally, and came up with a less difficult composition: a near 3-D Wolf’s head in the mountain, a scowling man in the full moon, and Kamouraska and the St. Lawerence below. The full scale seemed doable in 18 hours - the rough maquette took 14 hours.
I arrived in Ottawa the evening before the first day of carving. It was a perfect summer’s evening in that beautiful city - warm golden light, tourists walking peacefully through the Spark’s Street pedestrian mall, cobblestones underfoot, beautiful planters full of flowers. I wandered happily among the glorious old stone buildings, admiring the architecture and decorative stone work.
I got to the Festival registration table early, wanting to get set up and started as soon as possible. Other carvers had already arrived. Some of them have come every year since it started ten years ago, including one woman from Ottawa, who carves a sheep, every year. I found my banker (a sturdy square work table, not a person), and limestone block. Soon after I began blocking in my relief with a point chisel and “dummy” (stone carving hammer), Patrick Imai, one of the experienced carvers, came over with some advice, and tools. He had a large squarish chisel in one hand, and a mallet in the other. He showed me how to “pitch” - to remove large amounts of unneeded stone along a line (although he commented that my line should be straighter!). I appreciated his help. It sped up my blocking in, or roughing in, stage. This was a good illustration of one Festival goal: to promote a sharing of skills and knowledge among stone carvers.
I met other carvers who (like me) were self-taught, but there were also people there with professional stone masonry experience; others had formal training in carving. At least two artists in our tent had been to Italy to take courses in carving marble. One of them showed me special carving tools a craftsman in Italy had made for him - metal tools coated with diamond grit. Some of participants had worked, or were still working, on restoring decorative stonework on the historic Parliament buildings nearby. Others were fairly new to carving stone, but had taken classes through Smith and Barber, either from Danny Barber himself, or fellow carver Patrick Imai (my pitching helper).
It was a very hot weekend, with numerous heat warnings (humidex 40C, stay in the shade, don’t exert yourself, etc.) The canopy offered protection from the sun, and cheerful volunteers brought ice-cold water to us throughout the day. There were heat warnings for the second day, as well. Carvers are made of stern stuff: we carried on, stone chips flying, the pounding of hammers on chisels ringing through the air. It helped that we went to a pub at the end of each day - sweaty, dusty, and thirsty, united by our common charitable purpose. At the end of the second day, I felt confident about getting my carving completed in time. Sunday was a short carving day, because the auction was taking place in the afternoon. In the morning, Patrick told us to put away our maquettes, models, and sketches, and just get finished. Shortly before 1pm, all the bankers were moved out into the summer sun in a line, and all the carvings were placed on them for public viewing and initial bids. Two carvers had done lettering and relief design on slate; three carvers had used soapstone for their carvings, and the rest of us had carved limestone. There were many beautiful pieces.
At 2pm, the live auction began, and every piece was sold. Over $10,000 was raised for Ottawa InnerCity Ministries, for youth arts programming. I’ll probably be back next year, just like the carver who has been there for the past ten years, carving a sheep (she was great). Or Patrick, who (legend has it) always carves a bear. He said the Festival is his favourite event of the year. I can certainly see why.
Cindy Presant, https://longpointartstudio.ca
For more information about the Festival, check out https://canadianstonecarvingfestival.com