I’m standing in woodland near Wakefield, mallet in hand, looking at a piece of stone and wondering what on earth I’m supposed to do with it. It’s not your average Saturday: I’m on a stone-carving course at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The briefing notes for this one-day event said that if we had drawings, images or ideas we’d like to explore in our relief sculptures then we should bring them along. I figured that everyone else would do this so I scoured my home for inspiration. I found a postcard of a Henry Moore drawing under my desk and thought it would be a good place to start. There can’t be better inspiration than a Yorkshire-born world-renowned sculptor, right?
Wait, though. Henry Moore was a master of his art. Would it be inappropriate for me, a complete novice, to turn up and expect to replicate the work of one of the finest British sculptors in a generation? An artist whose phenomenal work peppers the park? Perhaps I should take Morph or a tub of Play-Doh instead?
I couldn’t stop worrying. How would I cope having to be creative in a group of strangers? I was nervous that I wouldn’t be any good and had no clue what to expect. I was sure everyone else would be much better than me and I’d fail miserably.
But my worries were unfounded. Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s adult courses are aimed at both those with experience and complete beginners. Our tutor made sure she catered for the lowest common denominator: me.
That’s not to say she allows sloppy work. Marcia Bennett-Male teaches at the British Museum and is used to getting the best from people.
“When my students leave the museum with their work I want the security guards to stop them and check they’re not pinching the art work,” she says.
In our group of ten there were plenty of beginners and people who confessed to not being able to draw. But this wasn’t a sketching course. Part of the beauty of drawing is that you can rub a pencil line out. Part of the peril of carving stone is that you cannot. Once you’ve made a mistake, it’s there. Literally in stone.
We were making low-relief carvings, essentially a drawing on a flat surface, carved out to various depth to create a picture in stone. First, we were introduced to our tools, some with wonderful names like claw, firesharp, riffler and rat’s tail.
After an hour or so of introduction and watching Bennett-Male perform a number of basic techniques, we were set to work, each with an A4-sized piece of ancaster stone. We were encouraged to experiment first on one side, getting a feel for the tools and how much stone is displaced with each blow, before turning over to do our neat work on the other side.
Then our tutor came round to see us all individually and give us pointers and assistance. We weren’t finding it as straightforward as her demonstration.
“She makes it look so easy,” was the common refrain from our group, as we swore our way through the morning session, scratching and scraping at our stones.
At one point Bennett-Male asked me what was salvageable and gave me some advice about how to handle the tools. It was this one-to-one attention and constructive criticism that made the course so worthwhile. We were learning a great deal without really knowing it.
We all started to get the hang of it. And then, after the frustrations of getting going, something unexpected happened. We relaxed.
Standing in the beautiful setting of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, working on old tree stumps, we realised that this was rather special. There was very little noise in the shaded wood, apart from our tiny chisels tapping away at the stone, which soon sounded like birdsong. Engrossed in our work, focused on our stones, many of us entered a state of mindfulness and calm.
Scared of committing to a design I’d later ruin with brute force, I opted to create something infinitely more abstract, inspired by my Henry Moore postcard. The beauty of abstract art is if you get it wrong, nobody knows. If I’d carved something specific or recognisable, I would have had to admit defeat when I lopped off an ear or a hand. Not the case with an abstract creative.
I chatted with a few people over lunch. Each had different reasons for attending. Some were experienced carvers and had already worked with a variety of materials, others were looking for something creative and different to do. A few had received the course as a gift.
It was fascinating to see how everyone responded to the material. Some made simple and careful line drawings in the stone. Others, like me, hammered away, gouging out swathes of rock and creating clouds of dust, partly for fun, partly due to heavy-handedness and partly to make the stone slab as light as possible to carry home.
What we discovered was this: while we’re not necessarily the next Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, we had a lovely time. An unexpected outcome of the day was simply that we enjoyed ourselves.
I’m not going to claim we become best friends, but we did end up sharing our finished work with each other, taking pictures and praising what others had done – although I fear people were being polite about my abstract mess. And ultimately, what was the objective of the day anyway? It’s unrealistic to aim to become a great sculptor in a few hours. It’s much easier to just try something new and enjoying doing it.
Reflecting back on the course a few days later I realised that my forearms still ached from all the hammering. Perhaps my technique wasn’t as good as I thought. And I’d certainly taken away a new understanding of the skill of the sculptor. It took me a whole day to decorate one side of a large brick, badly. Looking at a full-sized sculpture now makes me step back and appreciate what it is to create something in three dimensions, using only metal tools.
Perhaps most importantly, I went home with a smile on my face. If you’re looking to take a day out of your busy life to have a go at something creative, you’d do well to check out the programme of courses at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
I’m not the next Henry Moore but you might be.
By Steve Slack
Photos by Paul Hunter
This summer the Yorkshire Sculpture Park will host to the first major exhibition in the UK by the enigmatic Swiss artist Not Vital. Using indoor and outdoor spaces, it presents Not Vital’s weird and wonderful view on the world, sometimes amusing, sometimes utterly baffling, but always rewarding.