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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Stone Carving

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington D.C.
A little over three years ago, August 22. 2011, a new stone monument opened to the public next to the tidal basin, in Washington, D.C. Though often referred to as being on the National Mall, its actual location, halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and that dedicated to Thomas Jefferson would barely be considered so. The monument is a thirty-foot-tall granite representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled The Stone of Hope. It stands between two cleft Mountains of Despair. The $120-million memorial represents twenty years in the planning, fundraising, and construction. It's the first memorial on the Mall not dedicated to a war, a president, or a white man. And though it has generally been well-received by he public, the memorial has not been without controversy.

Chinese stone carver Lei YiXin works on full-scale clay model of his sculpture.
The most controversial aspect was the choice of Lei Yixin, a 57-year-old master stone sculptor from Changsha in Hunan province, China, to carry out the work. Critics cried, "Couldn't they find a black sculptor to do the work, or at least an American?" Others complained the figure "looked Asian" whatever that means. Stoneworkers in Vermont complained about the use of Chinese granite. However, King's son, Martin Luther King III, said it best: "I've seen probably 50 sculptures of my dad, and I would say 47 of them are not good reflections — that's not to disparage an artist. This particular artist — he's done a good job." However the most telling comment may have come from Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the project, “Not only did we need an artist, we needed someone with the means and methods of putting those large stones together. We don’t do this in America. We don’t handle stones of this size.”

Despite the shipping cost, Lei YiXin was seen as doing it cheaper and better.

Although there were some who begged to differ, therein lies a major new development in the world of art, and specifically monumental sculpture. Few such artist live and work in the United States of America; and (apparently) none were deemed by the selection committee to be "up to" such a "monumental" undertaking. Despite the protests, the truth is, there's no money to be made in the now all-but-forgotten lost art of carving Mt. Rushmore or Stone Mountain type sculptures. (The descendants of Korczak Ziolkowski are otherwise occupied with Crazy Horse and his mountain. The U.S. still has artists who carve stone, but much of what they create is more apt to end up on a coffee table than the National Mall. Moreover, what they carve tends to be a fairly simplistic modernism, or, in fact, Abstract Expressionism. Not that such work is bad, but it's hardly appropriate for a memorial celebrating an iconic civil rights leader.

Walter Arnold, Chicago, Illinois,
Gate, Roger Hopkins
Walter Arnold (above) is typical. Born in the 1950s, he started carving at the age of twelve. Having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, as a young man, he sought and got classical training in the cradle of Renaissance stone carving, Pietrasanta, Italy, (west coast, north of Livorno) from whence Michelangelo got his marble. His background is classical. He's versatile, his style spanning virtually every art era, backed by some thirty years of experience as a stone carver. Yet he seldom carves anything larger the life. He's especially well-known for his gargoyles. Roger Hopkins and his son of California do work with larger stones, but in a highly abstract style. His Gate (left), typifies his work.

There's no artist or even a title associated with this grouping (Judgment of Paris, perhaps?).
I could find nothing comparable coming from the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

No, they're not plaster, they're sitting in water, in fact.
Made in America, abstract stone sculpture.
Having sampled a little of what American stone sculptors are doing, now take a look at what the Chinese (usually un-named artists) routinely create in what amounts to, in effect, sculpture factories (above). China is also blessed with large quantities of the nearly flawless white marble such work demands. These pieces contrast sharply with the abstract sculpture American carvers (and buyers) tend to prefer (right). Both are quite beautiful--intriguing in their own way. However, if you go back a century and a half, you'll see how far carved marble has spiraled downward. Take a look at the work of the Italian master, Giovanni Strazza (1818-1875) and his Veiled Virgin from before 1856, or his Ismael Abandoned in the Desert from 1845. I'm not sure, but I doubt there's a single stone carver working anywhere in the world today who could manage to carve a veiled face. Strangely though, despite Strazza's amazing aptitude with a mallet and chisel, he's virtually unknown today.

Two views of The Veiled Virgin, before 1856, Giovanni Strazza
Ishmael Abandoned in the Desert, 1845, Giovanni Strazza


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