The Slow Language of Sculpture, the Fast Language of Words

April 17, 2013 | 9 12 min read

My husband is a sculptor and he worships stone. Travertine, granite, marble, onyx—these are the interlopers in our bed, the other women in my married life, and I cannot compete with their charms. The love my husband professes for me exists in the shadow of the love he has for his work, the pieces he fashions from the great slabs of rock which appear with regularity at the top of our rural driveway. They are his constant, devoted companions and they feed his passion in a way that no person can ever do. I don’t begrudge him the objects of his obsession, but I do get twinges over the easy partnership he has with his material, so unlike my own relationship with words. A writer can learn a lot from a stone carver, and I’ve been watching him a long time.

Our accounts differ as to when we got together, which is another story from the wholly empirical slept together. That was three years after we graduated from college, or about seven years after first laying eyes on him in Geology 201. He was a big, muscular man with a kind face that was often obscured behind facial hair, the kind that betrayed an unconscious lack of grooming, like a shipwreck survivor, rather than stylistic affect. I was enrolled in Rocks for Jocks to fulfill a science requirement and compensate for my left-brain shortcomings. I assumed he was taking the course for the same reasons. He was a rugby player, the center of the scrum, the place where brawny gentlemen dig their feet into the grass and push heavy objects – other giants – with their shoulders. It was more fun than football, which he had played in high school, and the guys were smarter. After hours, he could be seen running around campus drunk and mostly nude with his teammates – nudity, apparently, gives the sport its British old-boy bona fides – singing bar songs. He did not appear to be capable of splitting atoms, like other people in our class apparently were doing elsewhere on campus, such as the Engineering buildings that seemed as closed and remote as prisons. He was known as a nice guy and I liked him enough, but I never imagined myself his wife.

I had no idea that he spent his free time making pottery in the entrails of the fine arts building. He was soon to be a sculptor, with stone as his medium. It was what he wanted to be since he was nine years old, when he traveled to Italy and saw Michelangelo’s Slaves and a marble carving at the Bargello in Rome of two men fighting. He was struck that such a powerful story could be stuffed into a chunk of stone. Rocks, therefore, were already his obsession because they were in his DNA. His paternal grandmother was born among the artisans of Massa di Carrara in the breast of great marble mountains. His other side was Scottish brute force, descended from the Orkneys, with its coastline battered for eternity by the harsh Atlantic. Earth science, along with art history, was starting to lay a direct intellectual pipeline to the passion that has fueled him through every day of his adult life, a majority of which has now been spent with me.

His life revolves around shipments of stone. It comes from quarries or mountains in northern New York, Minnesota, Turkey or Italy via trucks or container, sometimes in the hundreds of tons. It usually arrives to our property later than scheduled, in an eighteen-wheel rig driven by a trucker who’s been lost for hours since the end of his mandatory, ten-hour union break that morning. The stone (and the driver) is met by my husband with hot coffee and great arm waving, a one-man crew on a supply ship greeting ocean-borne sailors. Then the process begins of loading them onto forklifts in multiple trips to his outdoor studio below. There, they get stroked, admired, stacked up, and finally queued up for the final journey thorough his imagination into sculpture.

I know the lingo now—roughbacks, cores, endcuts—and he inspects these raw chunks of the planet much like a butcher scrutinizes his chops and roasts. But I don’t pretend to understand the fire ignited in him possibly at birth that makes him an artist above all else. On a recent winter day, I stood in the warmth of my kitchen and watched his trips up and down the driveway. He was impervious to the cold, ginger with his payload, which he treated as if it were crystal stemware. I saw his mouth moving and eyebrows lift brightly. I asked him what he was saying. A prayer? No, he said. He was singing. Happily, I noticed, just a tune in his head, while snow and wind pounded the windshield of the forklift, which bore a twenty-ton, ice-cold slice of blue granite. The drill marks were visible. Stone freshly and visibly hewn from the earth excites him, as if it connects him to the ages, his Paleozoic lifeline. On these days, his normal state of high contentment turns giddy.

When he carves a hefty sculpture (and I differentiate here, because some stretches of time he will devote to smaller, more mobile pieces for indoors or the wall) he positions the stone with the forklift onto the center ring of the clearing where he works. This is the area that is equidistant to all the tools and machines and the big covered space: the wet saw that is plugged into one wall, the compressor that when activated, sounds like an idling 767, and resting on a rusting job box, a vulcan’s wet dream of chisels, hammers, rasps, and pickaxes. With one stroke and then another, he confronts that stone with hunger and lust the way some of us might tear into a rare steak. First he lays into it with a jackhammer affixed with a foot-long rock bit. Chunks, some the size of a toaster, drift to the ground. He is sheathed in a one-piece suit, mustard yellow or Santa Claus red, made of dense gauge cloth. His knee-high boots were once black, but they are so caked with dust and water they appear, from a distance, to be pale white. A respirator covers the area from the bridge of his nose to the chin, and safety glasses obscure the rest of his face. A pair of chopper-issue headphones covers his ears with a thick, padded brace. He is oblivious, a study in concentration. If a UFO touched down unleashing a couple of Hooters waitresses, he would not look up. He does not notice me and if I have an urgent message to convey – from our son or his accountant, for example – I have to throw a pebble and aim carefully for his feet to break the spell.

To me, the workshop is not welcoming. It is a precarious festival of blades, edges, and sharp objects. It is bitter cold most of the year as well and rife with the kind of fine-particle dust that not only will ravage your lungs with silicosis but will smear and smudge and release itself in puffs. It is akin to cake flour, and the handprint that ends up on the thigh of my jeans will stay there until the laundry washes it out. When he uses the wet saw, the dust on the ground turns to clay. When I walk down there, I never wear the right shoes.

I seemed to be unusually present the time he carved a 3 ½ ton pillow to perch astride a wealthy person’s swimming pool. I had to interrupt him a lot because of a family crisis that demanded more of us than we had, and he always seemed ecstatic to see me, as if it was a great joy to be pulled back to this planet of decisions and responsibility. I witnessed the rock hammer give way to a slimmer drill bit, and then to hand tools like the chisel. He intervened often with the wet saw, a brutal conglomeration of steel that shreds the granite while spewing water with a screeching metal-on-metal din that makes my teeth ache. The pieces get smaller and smaller as they land on the ground and begin to form a carpet of refuse, all the bits of stone that are in the way of forming this object.

Within a week or so, he begins to hone away the roughness with a grinder affixed with a diamond blade that spins at 3000 rpms. A pillow about 40 inches long by 28 inches wide has emerged from the stone. I can see the crystals and veins – blue, black, teal, specks of gold that will reflect the sun – and he has fashioned a soft, undulating space where a person can drape herself comfortably on the warm rock. In a day he will fire up the acetylene torch and flame the sculpture to make it smooth like velvet. Or, in some places he will use diamond paper to sand and polish to a high gloss if he’s inclined. This end phase can be painstaking and he insists that it is where and when the ordinary becomes transcendent.

When I can no longer stomach something I’ve been writing, I tell him, “I’m done. There’s no more I can do.”

“You have to hone the edges,” he says.

“I’m done honing,” I whine.

“You have to grind and whittle,” he says. “It’s the most important step in any work of art.”

My husband contends that little separates our creative worlds, mine stationary and his physical. After all, don’t I spend the day banging my head against the corner of the desk, trying to make a sentence, just like he bashes his own thoughts into meaning? Maybe so, but I maintain that the comparison ends there. His artistic life consists of the transference of ideas to the tactile world through the medium of mostly igneous rock. Every cut he makes is deliberate and joyous, an action with a purpose: to tame the stone and the edges into an object that exists already, one that—maybe decades ago—took shape in his head. His tools provide him with a sense of measure, balance, and even logic because they guide him to the sculpture’s inevitability. He’s an artist, who offers an object of beauty for people to love or buy, and he needs to justify the space it will take up in the world.

My words live in a swarm of chaos and I have no idea how I’ll lay them down until the deed is done. My need is for concentration while I untangle the knots and wrangle the pieces into a linear thought. When I manage to do this, a couple times a day if I’m really lucky, I’m buoyed by a sense of reward that makes the tortuous act seem close to pleasure.

Sometimes, the differences between our artistic lives are highlighted by circumstances, usually his, which shift more than mine. At the end of the truck delivery day, for example, I’ve written six hundred words and he’s removed 120 tons of granite from seven trucks, and carted it to his stone yard. We uncork a bottle of wine, and I ask him how he’s doing.

“Lotto baby,” he says. “This is the most secure I can feel. I have a couple of hundred tons of stone and I know pretty much what it’s going to look like. Once I have the material, the physical act of making the piece is almost insignificant.”

“That can’t be true,” I say.

“All I need is time,” he says. “The pieces are already in my head.”

It can be hard for me to share in his joy, and not to envy him and the confidence he has in what he calls the “slow language” of stone, as opposed to the fast one of words, the one I live and breathe, the one where I disappoint myself, regularly. That is my world, the purgatory of high expectation and low output. I tend to measure my work in what I haven’t yet done, and in what remains unwritten. For him, productivity is quantifiable, in the dust and shards that fall away.

“If I never had another idea in my life, I still couldn’t execute half my ideas. I’ll always have a 20-year backlog. That’s the beauty and disadvantage of working in a slow language. But the upside is that nothing ever comes out that isn’t severely scrutinized and edited,” he says.

Even though he insists he’s just a “physical writer,” I respectfully disagree. There’s no “delete” function, no cut and paste, no teeth gnashing over a mistake he can’t change, but instead, must integrate into his plan. My writer’s life is not filled with this or any kind of lucidity. In this sense, sometimes togetherness can feel like solitude.

Many people are in awe of his work, especially when they witness (or know about) the brutal setting where he creates it. He never makes me feel like the philistine that I am when I struggle to understand his sculptures, especially the most conceptually obscure ones – hollow torsos and ten-foot high padded granite cells. Maybe those narratives should be clear to me, but they aren’t. But they are beautiful and I do try to impart enthusiasm as best I can, especially knowing the physical price he pays so willingly. His work involves constant exposure to elements and danger that seems to emanate from another century – like the third, B.C. The drills and wet-saws and compressors that are the tools of his trade could slice off a limb or his head, and he shrugs off the anecdotes of constant near misses. I try not to worry about his forklift capsizing under the groaning weight, or getting a hand or himself flattened during an offload. Nicks, lacerations, abrasions, and stitches are every-day occurrences, but he is careful, at least he says so. I choose not to question him, or even to watch him work. It frightens me to see him engaged in his backbreaking daily activity. I wonder if he has no fear out there precisely because he has no doubts. There’s not a man in the world that can do what he does – I’m pretty convinced of that – but nor would they want to. I know a lot of writers who fake it, myself included half the time, in my motionless little space. Such posing would be impossible for a stone carver, a real one at least. Confidence gives him sure footing, and conviction makes the days and years fly by. This happens as a matter of course—with or without money, with or without commissions or gallery shows, and with or without me panicking about his safety or our family’s next meal.

When we first started dating, I was interested in prepped-out bankers with BMWs, or Europeans with no visible means of support, but fully loaded with beach houses and refrigerators stocked with Dom Perignon. Judging from my past of men with money, he was an unlikely match for me. He wasn’t exactly the wild man he had presented at college, but he had summarily dismissed his fancy pedigree and all manner of creature comforts to go carve marble in Carrara. There, he copied classical statuary for wealthy Texans to put in their Fort Worth rose gardens. He was armed with an honors history degree, rudimentary Italian, and nothing more than a feeling that home would be anywhere there was a hammer and chisel. If he had not been so pure about his mission, his drive might have seemed put-on. But it came to him naturally, whether it was the simple exercise of making a woman’s figure out of giallo di Siena while grappling with its pocks and veins, or the adventure of experimenting with patina, textures, and finish. From the beginning, there was something unforgivable about stone that suited this man, who may have been genetically programmed to conquer it.

I was in love with him, but I also loved the idea of him. I believed that an artist so skilled at turning crags into forms so lovely they seemed half alive would be soft as a cub with me and would make my flesh feel worshipped. His hands were chewed up but he was gentle, and the allure of how he spent his days imbued him with mystery that even back then, I didn’t bother to fathom. Our backgrounds were similar, but we were turning out as opposites. I worked at jobs I loved but quickly tired of and he studied history and collected ten-ton art books, carved stone, and made art. I went off every day to an office where I carried out that day’s duties while he met the day elated to go to some dingy, unheated studio. I filled up my desk drawers with first chapters of novels I wanted to write, but I abandoned them for the paycheck I thought I needed. But I still thought myself a writer because I stood apart from my surroundings. He, meanwhile, was determined to change the way we look at things. I saw in him the courage I lacked, and so I tagged along, marrying him and his unbendable spirit, hoping some of it might transfer to me.

I left behind the men with health insurance and suits and ties, as well as any semblance of security or what I then called “normal life.” I didn’t acknowledge how ill-suited I was for adventure, nor could I predict how unpredictable my life with the stone carver would remain. I wasn’t sure of my place on the creative continuum, but even before he started his life as a sculptor, he knew his, and it had little to do with anyone’s – especially his—expectations of success. But I learned how to be an artist, even if his encouragement was a tad too simplistic. “You should be writing, honey!” he’d say pretty much every day, as if it were as easy as changing my shade of lipstick. I was fueled by all the stories living inside my head, but unlike my husband, I couldn’t pound them into being with a pile of tools. The courage would have to come from somewhere else. I would have to will them out, and I began to, with his help.

Before we had children, I was second in line, and once they came, I was third. He’s a good husband and he’s a better father, but best of all, he is an artist. I still envy his indisputable belief in the order of things, his clarity about what he is put on earth to do. I am used to the tenderness he has for the stones he carves so masterfully into pillows and chairs and giant megalithic landscapes and female forms and other shapes we call art. We humor him on the highway when he sees a jutting cliff in the distance, jams on the brakes and marvels at the striations or the crevasses—the absurd lure of the granite. Wherever we are, he pulls over to visit a quarry, to swim in it if possible, to feel the rock with all of his body and read its lines. It is, in a way, how I treat books and language, but it seems easier to quantify passion when you can feel it beneath your feet.

Our children see a man who is devoted to his work and keeps hours as rigorous as any corporate lawyer. Whether or not they know it, his excitement fills up the house. He has imparted to them and me the singular beauty of getting up and doing what you love, and never needing to complain about your job. For him, and by example for me, every day (even a dark one) is a great day at the office. In the evening, sometimes long after dark, he walks back to the house covered in dust, with satisfaction brightening his aura. He believes that what he is doing matters.

But I will always be left out of his creative life, removed from the intersection of man and material. This means that I will always be removed from him, even if he genuinely believes that our work is more than just parallel. Aren’t we both just unraveling stories, wherever they manifest themselves? Yes, but mostly, no. So his single-mindedness comes at a cost, even if it has taught me how uncomplicated– how straightforward – an artist’s creative life can actually be. I admire his certitude, and the psychic effortlessness of his pursuit. He masters the material, whereas words tend to rule me until one of those moments of ecstasy, which fades and tries to make way for the next one.

The question I ask many years later, is would I have chosen differently? It’s because of him that I finally quit my last office job, the kind that made me pine for the life I knew I was missing. And I would rather live with a passionate man than a searching one, even if the object of his obsession will never be me.

Image Credit: Flickr/josefstuefer.

is the New York Times bestselling author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales/Solas House, 2014), a book of essays about where to go in France and why. She is a former television news producer who has worked for Barbara Walters, ABC, CBS, and NBC News. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, More, Tin House, and The New York Times and her travel essays have been widely anthologized, including four consecutive years in Best Woman’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing. She is the recipient of four Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, including Travel Journalist of the Year in 2012 for her essays from Rwanda, Russia, Haiti and France, and two Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.