Case Study 10: STONE Project, Edinburgh College of Art

Katherine Forsyth

A photo of a sheep stood on plinth and carved from marble. The sheep's wool is depicted in geometric patterns

Figure 1: Versaillesque Sheep by Gerard Mas, one of the artists involved in the STONE project. © Gerard Mas

STONE project was a three-year project (2007–2011) based at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and funded by the AHRC. It sought to re-appraise the use of stone in art and the contemporary environment and to gather together ‘the many perspectives, attitudes and processes that we have observed in those who work directly, or share a conscious connection, with stone’. Specifically the project sought to document endangered stone working techniques and craft skills in order to conserve them and transfer them to future generations. The project placed particular emphasis on the distinctive modes of thought associated with stone-working, including ‘haptic thought’ (thinking through touching) and ‘reductive’ or ‘subtractive thinking’ (in contrast with the more frequently encountered additive mode of thinking, i.e. modelling up).

The stated aims of STONE project were:

  1. to collect information about stone through the eyes of artists, masons, quarry-workers, anthropologists, and cultural and literary thinkers
  2. to discover differences in how stone is understood and worked throughout the world
  3. to understand both the ‘physical processes’ and the ‘thinking approaches’ when working with stone
  4. to show these modes of understanding in ways that are broadly applicable and transferable

Lead by Jake Harvey, Professor of Sculpture, the project also involved film-maker Professor Noe Mendelle, and the sculptor Joel Fisher, plus research assistant Laura Black and PhD student Jessica Harrison.

Members of the team visited stone-working locations worldwide (including India, China, Japan, USA, Mexico, Brazil and a number of European countries) to document traditional stone-craft skills and attitudes. They interviewed craftsmen and artists and generated a research archive which consists of over 14,000 individual images and 150 hours of film footage. A collection of stone-working tools and samples of stones was created and this is available via the ECA.

In 2009 ten artist-sculptors from around the world participated in a multi-disciplinary colloquy and subsequently in ‘MILESTONE’, a live carving event and exhibition as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Arts Festival. This event/performance enabled carvers to work alongside each other and allowed the public to see, not just the final product, but also the stages of the process. The finished sculptures were subsequently exhibited at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Pier Arts Centre, Kirkwall, Orkney, and the CASS Foundation, Sussex. Another major output was the richly illustrated book about stone and stone-carving by Harvey, Fisher and Harrison, Stone: A Legacy and Inspiration for Art (2011).

Although the focus of the project was solely on contemporary stone-working it nonetheless constitutes a rich resource for those investigating historic carved stones. The traditional nature of many of the practices documented makes it of direct relevance to the study of Scotland’s historic carved stones, especially for material or biographical approaches. The extensive interviews give insight, not only into practical matters and techniques, but also into thought-processes and attitudes, for instance, to carving as religious devotion, a carver’s sense of belonging to a lineage of carvers, the nature of the creative process, and the feeling of intimate connection with a material that can seem almost animate. The theoretical perspectives deriving from contemporary art practice offer engaging and thought-provoking meditations on the fundamentals of human responses to and interactions with stone.

Return to Section 3.2.2: Theoretical perspectives

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