Don't knock the rock;Stone;Discovery series

30th July 1999 at 01:00
People often make the mistake of believing working with stone is outdated; that it is a profession which has become obsolete in the face of modern construction methods and building materials. Not so. Stonemasons are still trained to coax beautiful shapes from lumps of quarried stone for buildings, and people the world over sculpt professionally or merely for pleasure.

the sculptor Jean Parker was an RE teacher until 15 years ago, when she left the profession to take a fine art degree at Coventry University. Straight away she felt what she calls an affinity with stone. She now works on commissions - one is in the Peace Garden in Coventry, others in schools, churches and private homes.

In the entrance hall of Blue Coat School in the city is a small piece consisting of a pair of entwined climbing ropes in a cross-shaped setting. It is a memorial to her son - a former pupil of the school - who was killed, with his wife, in a climbing accident in 1995.

Her love of stone is obvious. She relishes starting with the block of stone from the quarry and then working on it. "There's a logical sequence of roughing out, refining - working inwards all the time," she says.

Much of her stone is from Portland. "Listen," she says as she strikes a piece with her chisel. It rings clear and reassuring as a bell.

She works at an unhurried pace, striking the chisel with the mallet, lifting it from the stone between each blow, and achieving a steady rhythm.

The feeling, she says, is of complete mastery of the material and the process. "If you know your tools and your stone you are in control. You know the stone, you are sensitive to it, feeling it, listening to it." For this reason she never has the fear, imagined by the lay observer, that she might suddently knock off a vital piece of her work.

Although the tools of the stone worker have aggressive, even violent names - "hammer", "chisel", "claw" - you do not treat stone that way. "You are the boss," she says. "But you are not bullying it."

the stonemason Emma Dexter is learning to be a stone carver. She is one of the most recent of many generations of stonemasons who have worked over the centuries on the fabric and carvings of York Minster.

Her current project is a replacement for an elaborate but badly eroded pinnacle from high on the north-west tower. Half complete, it has taken her six months so far.

"It's been a challenge all the way through," she says. "Taking the measurements from the original and the doing the masonry (the basic shaping) before the carving."

Emma has nine months of a four-year apprenticeship left. Her aim is to become a sculptor and she chose the apprenticeship as a way of learning to be entirely confident with the stone.

The work of the carver or mason is, above all, characterised by the time spent on projects. Restoration of the archway over the magnificent Great West Door at York, for example, built in 1320 and eroded to featurelessness, has taken the stoneyard four years. "You need to be able to stand there for hours," says Emma. "But you don't realise the hours are passing and suddenly the day is over."

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