Marble’s Mountain Workshop
By DENISE MOSS
This sidebar is a supplement to Colorado’s Marble Motherlode
Ever since it was established, in 1989, the Marble/marble Symposium (held, not surprisingly, in the town of Marble, Colorado) has grown in national and even international acclaim. Every summer, the event offers three 8-day sessions to sculptors of all interests and skill levels. The sessions, which accommodate 45 participants, include five teachers, an array of support staff, a tool tent, an outdoor kitchen complete with cooks whipping up family-style meals, daily workshops on honing the craft of marble sculpting, and, most importantly, massive crystalline blocks of some of the world’s whitest marble.
The symposium was created by Madeline Weiner, a Colorado artist and, at the time, an aspiring sculptor, after she partnered with three established stone sculptors: Gregory Tonozzi, Scott Owens, and Gerald Balciar. Tonozzi’s long and winding path to becoming a full-time sculptor intersected with Weiner’s, and “I became the nuts and bolts of the symposium due to my knowledge of tools. For the first 15 years, we used whatever marble had been dumped on the ground by the old mill. Since then, the symposium has brought a lot of joy and challenge to people.”
One benefit of holding this symposium here is, of course, the prevalence of all that marble; one of the challenges, however, is working with this particular stone. Called Yule Marble, because of its origins here in Yule Creek Basin, the stone has an uncommonly high concentration of calcite—99.5 percent to be exact. While all that calcite makes Yule Marble almost pure white, it also creates much softer marble than is found elsewhere. The famous mountains of Carrara, Italy, are a classic example. For centuries, they have yielded a hard, fine-grained marble that is known, and prized by many, for its swirls of dark veins. (Strange as it sounds, in order to give marble shoppers a variety of options, Carrara buys quite a bit of Yule Marble.) Carrara marble’s hardness does allow sculptors to carve long arms and legs without fearing their creations will easily break; they can also finish their sculptures with smooth, sharp edges. While Yule Marble is too soft for such vulnerable creations, it is much easier to carve. And its calcite creates a kind of sparkling, bright surface, which can glisten like large snowflakes.
Weiner told me that she started the symposium because “I wanted to carve in the woods with my friends.” She was lucky enough to meet a local family that donated some land to the symposium’s nonprofit organization, The Marble Institute of Colorado. She calls the operation an “art village,” where people come to not only share their art with the world, but also to share how they do it. “Sculptors come with a particular mindset or set of expectations and can’t believe what they are offered once they arrive. But then it’s up to them to make it their own.”
Over the years, Weiner says, she has formed a good relationship with both the town and the quarry, the latter of which donates $60,000 worth of marble to the symposium each year. While the sculptors are welcomed in town, the symposium is its own world—a kind of subculture where the vibe of community and inspiration forms a self-contained sphere.
THINKING IN THE NEGATIVE
Art is an important part of my life, too, but my medium is clay, building outwardly from a mound. Working with clay forces me to think additively, in the positive, but being here makes me realize that marble sculptors have to think in the negative. Carving marble, or any other material for that matter, is about taking away. These artists create by reducing, not expanding.
To learn how marble sculptors negotiate this challenge, I grab a few minutes with Ryoichi Suzuki, who came from Tokyo to the U.S. in 1974. Suzuki began as a student of painting, moved to sculpture some 40 years ago, and is now a professor of sculpture at Utah State University. In an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of art mediums, Suzuki returned to Japan in 2019 for a four-week collaborative project with Takashi Nakazato, a 13th-generation potter. “We spent 24 hours a day together, discussing our designs, working, and sharing meals. Often, he would throw a pot on the wheel and I would alter it.” Suzuki has worked extensively with clay in different forms, and also works in wood. But it’s Yule Marble that has his attention every summer. “The medium determines what characteristics it can give us. I look for nuances and natural shapes in the stone to get my inspiration. I like to read its grains and veins when I set out to carve and can almost predict what I can achieve when I look at it.”
At the symposium, Suzuki focuses on a sweeping curve as I watch him run an electric sanding wheel over his piece of stone. All of the sculptors here use power tools, even for the finer stages of their work. This obviously represents a very different tradition from the one that gave birth to Michelangelo and other great marble sculptors of the past. While many engravers still use chisels for more control, Suzuki readily admits that hand-carving is a skill that is slowly being lost. In his view, however, power tools, like any new technology, enable new techniques. “Hand tools, and power tools too, can create specific and attractive textures which can be unique to a particular piece of stone,” he says. “It’s all about understanding the stone and being able to read its grains.” He points out that the technology advances in carving tools emulate technology advances everywhere in society. “As human beings, we tend to use what’s convenient and faster, including in the art world,” he says. “The stone determines the tools a sculptor chooses, and every sculptor has preferences, like using a pneumatic chisel instead of a sander.”
Around the corner, closer to the river, Al Brown uses a grinder about the size of a dentist’s drill to bring two women’s faces to life. Their crystalline braids and dreadlocks are perfectly executed, the lace collar so precise they’re surreal. As I lean in, holding my breath, I notice miniature skulls peering out from stone lace. Brown’s work makes me realize that no matter what tools a sculptor uses with stone, the possibility of an irreversible mistake—a chip or grind unintentionally going too far—is always just one cut away. My companion asks Brown if he lives in fear of something breaking just as he’s finishing an intricate shape. Brown pauses, smiles. “I don’t really live in fear,” he says. “That’s when you find out how creative you are.”
“COMING TO FORM”
The right preparation obviously helps. When I sit down with Agneta Wettergren (a sculptor who started with hand tools), she’s laughing as she opens her portfolio. “I showed up at my first symposium nine years ago with a chisel, hammer, red lipstick, and my Swedish clogs,” she says. Wettergren is primarily a fiber artist, but we know each other from the local clay studio (the Carbondale Clay Center, about an hour north of Marble), where I watched her form a clay model (known as a maquette) of an abstract, curved woman that she then emulated in marble. As she flips through the portfolio, I see photos from each angle of the maquette overlain with grids. “I’ve developed my own technique so that I feel safe in redacting the stone.” Wettergren calls this approach “coming to form.”
As she launches into a discussion of mass and void, addition and subtraction, she reminds me that all natural forms fall into this basic concept, often seen as growth and decay. Translating this maquette into a much larger stone sculpture, for me, seems daunting, but it obviously isn’t to Wettergren. “I feel it in my body because I have already built it up with clay,” she says. “I am searching for 3D knowledge and improving my intellect by seeing the form from all sides at the same time. What I love about the symposium is that the support they give us brings out individual knowledge. We are not comparing ourselves to others. We are given the space to explore and find how each of us comes to the form.”
While I was talking with one of the symposium’s instructors, Ann Cunningham, she pointed out that most artists these days don’t work in stone. For the few who do, the only opportunities to connect with each other are through workshops like this one, which are held in only a handful of places around the world. (Others that offer residencies, and/or similar experiences, include the Southwest Stone Carving Association in Jemez Springs, New Mexico; Studio Seven in Vermont; and the Indiana Limestone Symposium.) Cunningham, who comes from Golden, Colorado, has been working in stone since she was 15. For 23 years, she taught at the Colorado Center of the Blind, starting with carving in slate to help tell a story. When she invites me to rub the smooth surface of her stone trifecta—a marmot, a fish, and a duck all tucked together in white—I begin to understand what she means when she says her goal is to make her work “tactually accessible.”
“With carving,” Tonozzi tells me, “it’s a process of destruction, then one of construction and creativity.” Tonozzi also likes to see what forms his stone suggests. “Concave shapes gather light and convex shapes reflect light,” he says. For this sculptor, “My air chisel becomes my paintbrush.” The stone’s history in these mountains has gone from structural to artistic, and Tonozzi revels in what that history has given him. “The current Italian mine owners have been very good to me,” he says with a grin, “probably because my last name ends in a vowel.”