Have at It; or Let the Spirit Move through You
What I learned from chipping away at a stone for a few hours
I started a 10-week course in Stonecarving at the beginning of April. It’s something I know very little about but have been intrigued by since I started carving wood. There’s an interesting correlation between how emotionally tender I feel and the hardness of the material I want to carve, it seems.
I find myself feeling antsy before I start any new creative endeavor. Realistically, and I’ve tried to explain this to both myself and others: being “creative” doesn’t mean that you have the Midas Touch in every medium you try. To me, that feels like the equivalent of thinking someone who’s gifted at the guitar will also become a trombone virtuoso with little to no extra work.
And yet. Somehow, those unrealistic expectations (or maybe they’re more like hopes) start flooding my system—as if I’m waiting for an overly simplistic biographical chapter to begin. “And then I tried [X]… and everything just clicked into place.” or “I had always wondered why I could never sit still in class or be content for all of my adult life. It wasn’t until I’d found [X] that it all suddenly made sense!” Envy and disbelief run equally deep when I hear those kinds of anecdotes. And yet. I think I still hold out hope waiting for that day to come. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
I carried this nagging anxiety with me as I arrived at the venue nearly 2 hours before the start of class, nibbling on a super sad hummus wrap I had picked up on the way as my dinner. The whole thing was steeped in that same jittery feeling I sometimes get when I’m waiting to board a flight I don’t want to take.
What followed was something I’m not sure I did or didn’t expect.
The class was taught by a zany older fellow who didn’t tell us his name for the entire class. (Frankly, I hope he never will just to keep things mysterious.) He didn’t have anyone give a brief self-intro, so we latched onto each other’s names in the five seconds he took roll call off of a printed piece of paper. For the first hour of class, we all shivered, sitting on cold metal folding chairs in the repurposed shipping container that would be our classroom, as he regaled us with his personal thoughts on what it meant to work with stone.
He spoke about different approaches to carving. How a lot of modern commercial carving uses machines that execute a pre-determined design or blueprint. He called this process “indirect,” in that the idea goes through another medium before affecting the stone itself. For our purposes, since we’d be using only hammers and chisels, he went on to say that even drawing a sketch on paper could be considered indirect in a way.
Direct, as he would have it, would be going in without a plan and carving relying on feel, moving in a direction solely based on what was unfolding before you. In so few words: “Letting the spirit move through you.”
Spirituality aside, I thought about how this idea seemed so counter to most things you embark on in life. Make an outline before you write. Make a plan before you start a project. Sketch before you work.
From a practical standpoint, it almost seems careless or wasteful to embark without a sound idea of where you’re headed, right? Cost of materials, time, the desire for a well-executed end product. I can’t think of a situation in my adult life where acting this way is allowable or even encouraged.
He loosely summarized a Michaelangelo quote that went something like: “The idea is hidden in the stone. You just have to carve until you find it.” I since looked up the exact quote, but I actually liked his word choice better so I won’t even bother with the real one here. He drove his point home by saying that tying yourself to something right off the bat might prevent you from feeling Flow, similar to how a runner who is too focused on their pace may never access a runner’s high.
After his monologue, I think we all eagerly expected a lesson, but after handing out a variety pack of chisels and an adorably small hammer, he put out a few stones on our workstations and basically said, “Have at it.”
The rest of the class time was spent having at it. I was slightly, if not entirely, mortified at the idea of just going for it with no clear instructions, call, or creed (or really any safety considerations). But after picking a stone I liked, weighing it, and filling out a slip of paper promising to pay for it later, I… had at it.
Certain features of the stone lent themselves to peaks and valleys, so I followed those contours and hacked out a few unsure lines here and there, trying the different chisels to smooth or round the edges. I had no plan, and strangely enough, no expectations. At any given point, I expected a chunk to chip right off and ruin whatever it was I was going for so I kind of stopped myself from being too tied to what I was doing.
When the time came to wrap up, my left hand was grayed from clutching the chisels and my right wrist was a little sore from tapping the tiny hammer. With a paintbrush, we dusted off the rubble, and it truly felt like I was excavating some strange, unknown object.
I wondered if my other classmates were disappointed at all by paying whatever number of dollars it was to attend a class with barely any instruction, but I felt almost emotional over the blank-slate environment the teacher had created, whether intentionally or not.
As I’ve felt many, many times since tugging on this artistic thread: I have no idea where it will lead, but I found myself feeling excited to return the following week and continue chipping away at something that didn’t need to be anything at all.