Salamander in Stone
I t isn't always clear what a piece of soapstone will become, and that was certainly the case for a recent Mole Salamander carving I completed. I usually spend a lot of time looking at a piece of stone before deciding what initial form to sketch onto it. Sometimes I draw the shape of the stone onto a piece of paper, then try sketching various creatures within that space, first. This was a good-sized chunk of Brazilian soapstone, mostly mottled browns and greens. I dampened the stone with a wet sponge to see what colours and veining were in the stone, to help give me any ideas about what it was going to be. I tried standing it on edge, but it seemed to want to stay flat. I did a bit of trial shaping of sides, and then I began to see that it was going to be a Salamander.
The beginning roughing-in stage of a carving is fun - you have an idea, you begin shaping the stone, you take out major material. It’s usually just past this point that you hit your first roadblock. With a “reductive” medium like stone carving (as opposed to clay, where you can add forever), once you remove material, it is gone. If it helps your design, great, but you can ruin your form if you carve away stone you needed. It’s easier if you have carved the form before - you already have a partial roadmap: I do this, then this, and so on.
If you haven’t carved the form before, or have but from an entirely different position and size, and soapstone colour (all of which are usually the case for my carvings), it can be more of a challenge. This is why I work on 4-5 carvings at the same time, all at different stages. When I hit “road blocks” on one carving, I don’t have an artist tantrum or leave the studio: I move on to another unfinished carving. This allows me to keep working at a relatively consistent pace. This is also why I pause when people ask me how long a carving has taken, because it isn't a straight timeline for me. If a small carving took x number of hours, for example, that could be over a period of weeks. A larger carving, like this one, would take many more hours and developed over a period of months. There are still times in every original carving where you have to take a leap of faith and simply push through your mental resistance, move forward without knowing if what you are doing is going to work or not. A lot of the work of creating means dealing with uncertainty, and each completed artwork gives you more confidence and makes you stronger, whether it works out for you or not. Some carvings, like this one, change their proportions and their aspect (expression or positioning) in unusual ways as you carve them. Although I could see the basic form throughout the carving process, the head position changed a few times, as did the legs. I debated for a long time before carving toes, which were a difficult detail. I don’t try to replicate nature in my animal carvings - my work is an interpretation of the creature, combined with an emotional reaction to the soapstone itself, which guides my carving process.
However, I was glad to have done some research about Mole Salamanders (genus Ambystoma), because they have four toes on the front feet, and five toes on the hind feet. In the end, I want the viewer to be able to recognize the form, using their imagination to bridge the reality barrier, but not to try to compare it to a photograph or the living creature. We have enough mechanical devices that can instantly show us a perfect representation of anything. Art allows us to explore different dimensions of experience, emotion, and creativity. The final carving should have an existence that is uniquely its own. The toes, as it turned out, were a necessary detail - it was at that point that the Salamander really started to come to life for me. They were tiny - hard to carve, sand, and oil. The second detail that I added were eyelids. Finally, after many hours of sanding, it was ready for oiling. I do a time-consuming, multi-stage oiling process, using pure Tung oil in microscopically-thin layers over a period of 2-3 weeks. My process brings out the natural colours and veining in the stone, and give it a lovely hand-rubbed patina.
This is how it looked after 4 coats of oil. It's hard to know how many coats are needed - soapstone varies in hardness and the way the oil dries on each piece. I'm guessing that 6 more coats might be enough to give it the patina I will be happy with. This carving makes its debut at next week's Shop The Shore, November 9-10 right here at my home gallery (1028 Hwy 59, Port Rowan, on the Long Point Causeway). I'll be here 9am-5pm; come out and say hi. Cindy Presant, November, 2019