Our first day! On a hot day in June, 1989, our carving group, comprised of five students all from the US, stood poised before the hunks of stone we’d selected, waiting for us on our sturdy, well-worn, waist-high carving tables.
They had been set up for us in a well-shaded summer courtyard outside of a painting studio at the Scuola del Arte in the beautiful historic city of Lucca. On two sides of the courtyard were small rooms for more students and their work.
As we carved into the next few weeks, our dust accumulated on the glass windows of those rooms. Since our maestro, Roberto, had no English, and I had only touristy Italian at that point, we ‘talked’ by making little dust drawings on those windows — plus wild gesticulation, little scribbles, and a lot of laughter.
On small practice stones, Roberto showed us how to use our tools without power at first, showing us how to angle the chisels correctly against the stone so we didn’t bruise the marble.
See, you’re not slicing off the stone the way you’d slice an apple into thin pieces. Marble is a mash of tiny crystals. It has a strong matrix that holds all the crystals together. When you hit the stone with a chisel at an angle, it’s the vibration of the edge of the chisel that chips off bits of the stone. Kind of like a jack hammer.
You have to be careful if you’re carving a figurative piece — if you hit the stone on one side too hard, the matrix is disrupted, and the nose or eyelid or lip on the other side of the stone can pop right off!
I bet you didn’t know stone can bruise! Even the hardest stone, like granite! Want to try? Just bang it with a hammer — a white, mushy star-shaped bruise will form.
It’s a bear to get bruises out of the stone — they go deep, so you have to dig them out. Once you do that, the stone around the sides of the resultant hole has to be evened out to match the rest of the surface.
You can scratch stone easily with a key or sharp knife, and produce a nasty white steak on the polished surface. Hard to remove, like the bruise.
Then, we learned how to start the actual shaping of our bigger pieces. We started with a single point chisel — a big, fat thing with one point on the end. Like an oversized pencil made out of metal.
When we had roughed out the general shape, we’d start using three-pointy-pronged chisels. We’d remove another layer of stone, getting closer to the surface we wanted to reveal.
Now working down to three and five-pronged flat-ended chisels, and from there to the flat-ended single chisels, and then to big rasps, and finishing the shaping and correcting of curves and lines with smaller rasps and rifflers.
I had never before seen the amazing lined rasps Roberto showed us for taking off enormous amounts of material in one swipe. I learned later they were just like the rasps used by farriers on horse hooves. Instead of little toothy tines, the ‘teeth’ were instead long rows of long, sharp, shallow curved blades. One swipe would take off as much as a regular rasp would in a quarter of the time.
Instead of a making figurative piece, I chose to make an abstract bird-shaped sculpture. When finished, it weighed in at a good 60 pounds. Its main bulk, the body of the ‘bird,’ sat upon a bit of a base, and narrowed out into a long neck with a sharp beak. It was sharp enough that if you bumped into it, it would probably have made a nice bloody ouchy hole in yourself.
Roberto helped me polish it so it was just-right smooth as silk and the just-right shine. I liked the bent-forward form, and from the side, the tension of looking like it was about to fall over made it unusual enough that it didn’t just look like some cutesy Nike swoosh mimicry.
Did you know that if you make stuff in Italy and sign it, when you go through customs on the Italy end, you have to pay a tax for taking art out of the country? I left it unsigned. No tax.
Going home through the Rome airport, I must have looked like a one-person circus, what with carrying the sculpture in my arms like a newborn, my two huge, really heavy work clothes-laden duffle bags, and my precious red dust covered tool box.
I had put a stale bread roll on the tip of my sculpture to keep it from being bumped and broken, then wrapped the whole thing in a small, thick blanket. I lugged it all the way down the long trudge through the airport, when I could at last put it gently on the security check conveyor belt.
I was stopped abruptly at the end of the belt by the security team. It seems they hadn’t liked what they’d seen in the x-ray machine. They thought the sculpture, revealed in all its glory by the x-ray, looked like some odd kind of rifle with its lumpy end and strange fat body. Some kind of weird rifle indeed!
Suddenly, my arm was clenched tightly, and I was man-handled and roughly dragged over to the side.
A cacophony of bells and sirens went off, clanging and screaming at top volume. Everyone and his left brother stopped in their tracks, staring wide-eyed around to see what the emergency was.
Fifteen very zealous, very tough, very big, growling scowling machine gun-toting airport guards scrambled to surround me, my sculpture, tool box and bags.
I about keeled over and had a heart attack! What the hell?!? Even after growing up with three pushy teasing tickling brothers, I’d never, ever been shoved and pulled and tugged around the way these men did.
My vision narrowed darkly. All I could see was a forest of black sticks with holes in the ends, all aimed at me, glowering faces at the other end. Big, strong legs in ready-to-dash-in-and-attack poses, bulky fingers itching to pull sensitive triggers.
Have you ever been in the center of a circle of big rage-faced guards pointing machine guns at you?
When the guards opened my toolbox, they freaked — they just knew that the sandwich baggie of white, powdered polishing compound I had unthinkingly stashed on the top level of my tool box was cocaine!
And of course that the sculpture was some kind of weapon with great destructive capabilities. Yes! Destructive alright — of my back and arm muscles! Yes! A magic marble rifle, able to transform at a moment’s notice into a WMD!
I was sacred out of my wits, enraged, and disgusted at the stupidity. So utterly exhausted from schlepping everything all the way down to Rome by multiple buses, that given the choice, I’d just lie down on the cold floor and conk out.
But no, they continued grilling me like I was some kind of dangerous international spy.
The short fat one very brusquely patted me down. Three of them screamed at me all at the same time. At the top of their voices.
They spoke so fast and so garbled I couldn’t catch what they said, but you know it was some version of “What other weapons do you have? Who else is with you? What’s your plan? Who’s in on it, and what is that white powder….?”
They didn’t get anywhere. My great-for-everyday Italian vocabulary didn’t cover being rudely interrogated. “Where is the taxi stand?” and “how do I get to the restaurant?” and “saluté” didn’t cut it.
And, what I could understand of their questions was so far off the mark I had no intelligent answers. I looked in my language dictionary for “You’re making a huge mistake!” But when I repeated it again and again, the beefy meat-heads acted as if I hadn’t uttered a word. No translator stepped up to help.
I think they must have just gotten bored and annoyed with me after they got zero satisfying answers. It was one of the longest and most nerve-wracking hours of my whole life.
I finally got sick of it all. I knew my plane would take off without me, and then what would I do? The bother of trying to find a place for the night and going through all this again the next day kicked me into allowing myself to screw up my face into a mask of misery and release the tears that had been building up to a volcanic fountain.
They suddenly reared back away, making the typical horrified faces of men who don’t know what to do with a crying woman, and let me go. Just in time for me to hastily gather the whole hideous, disheveled mess they’d made of my belongings, and somehow dash with it all to squeak through my plane’s door at the very last minute.
Not one of them offered to help. I made it by half a hair.
I couldn’t help wondering how they ever thought anyone with a lick of brains would put illegal drugs — or any drugs, for that matter — at the top of their tool box — duh! You know?
And like I was really going to hold up a plane with a 60-pound piece of dead weight I could barely carry around? Gimme a break!
I found my seat, stashed my things away helter-skelter, too tired to take organized care, strapped in and fell sound asleep. Dead to the world for almost the entire flight.
What a send-off after such a beautiful, life-changing journey learning to carve some of the most beautiful stone on the planet.
But I still felt like the winner — now I could carve marble!
text images © Angela Treat Lyon
The Inside Secrets book series: Stories I’ve Never Told Anyone, Volumes I-IV, plus my audio books and a whole slew of free ebooks: https://atlyon.gumroad.com
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