Rock of ages cleft by me

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Mary Cruickshank visits a former quarry in Dorset where art, craft and nature interact to regenerate the landscape.

It's easy to get lost in Tout Quarry, the cliff-top home of the Portland Sculpture Trust in Dorset. Signposting is deliberately kept to a minimum and you scramble over boulders to reach sculptures hidden in gullies. Once found, the mysterious and beautiful works, dramatically exposed to the weather, seem an integral part of the landscape from which they were formed.

The ringing sound of chisel on stone leads to an open air workshop, where students and schoolchildren carve on massive stone blocks. In the sun, the stone is an almost dazzling white.

It's more than 70 years since Tout was actively worked, but quarrymen and masons have been involved with the sculpture project from its start in 1983, sharing tools and skills, and collaborating with artists on some of the major commissions. There are fine examples of stone arches and tunnels and the quarrymen's shelters, hewn from the rock face, are still used today.

Tout is also famous for the rare and beautiful wildflowers and butterflies that have reclaimed the limestone quarry and made it a site of special scientific interest. In contrast to the moon craters of disused quarries that scar much of the rest of the island, Tout shows other ways of working without devastating the landscape.

The interactions of art, craft and nature give Tout its special quality. Anthony Gormley, the Turner Prize winner and first sculptor to work there describes the "unique dialogue that works carved in situ have with their environment". His life-sized figure, "Still Falling", carved into the rock face, seems to plunge through millions of years of geological time. Elsewhere, Valentine Quinn's "Green Man" lurks in an ivy-clad grotto, while the open cliff is the exhilarating setting for Christine Fox's "Serpent Steps" and "Alignment Stones".

For Stephen Marsden, Tout is a place of reflection. His "Fallen Fossil" looks back to the quarry's prehistoric past and forward to its architectural significance as a source of stone for some of London's most famous buildings.

The history of stonecarving that permeates the quarry is one of the reasons it's such an inspiring place to work, says the director of the Trust, Hannah Sofaer, who visited Tout as one of the first sculptors, three years after leaving the Royal College of Art. "It's important to understand the material you're working with. Artists work with stone in its place of origin and have a better understanding of it there than anywhere else."

More than 40 works have been commissioned for the quarry, most recently, Justin Nichol's "Window" stone carving, completed in 1992. But Tout is much more than an open-air exhibition space. "We're not a sculpture park," Sofaer says emphatically.

Her vision for Tout is that it should be a "crucible", where artists, architects, environmentalists and teachers share their different perspectives in order to regenerate the landscape through art.

Education is a vital element in this process, she believes, both in keeping alive the skills and traditions of Portland Stone and developing an understanding of the landscape. "Art for the environment" is her credo. "The quarrymen have been very generous with their expertise. This is a way of giving something back to the island."

Stone carving courses run through the summer and a steady stream of art college students visits the quarry, sometimes with tutors who have already created works on site. Simon Foster Ogg from Camberwell, for example, and Mark Dunhill from the University of the West of England. One week last month, there was a group from Chelsea College with their tutor, Gerard Wilson, artists from home and abroad working with this summer's sculptor-in-residence Peter Smith; and children from a local primary school.

The quarry is licensed from Portland Town Council and receives funding and support from arts bodies, stone firms and from Dorset County Council for its growing schools programme.

The children aged nine to 11 from Thornlow Primary School know Tout well: some of them are from quarrying families and their teacher Anne Cox, is the daughter of George Davey, a retired mason and poet.

They have their favourites: the gargoyles on Jonathan Sell's "Carved Bowl" and the homeliness of Timothy Shutter's "Hearth". They look at the weathering of limestone for a project on water and create their own art inspired by the quarry: beautiful fossil forms, carefully chipped out of stone. "Zen Garden", a work in landscape by Phillip King and students from the Royal College of Art is the setting for a play.

The openess of Tout is one of its greatest assets, but also what makes it vulnerable to less sympathetic visitors. The sculptures aren't passively observed, but constantly shaped and changed by human as well as natural forces.

Dhruva Mistry's "Woman on Rock" has survived being daubed with red paint and is now slowly being encroached by cotoneaster. Timothy Shutter's "Hearth" is blackened from fires. The mantelpiece has lost its clock and the stone cushion has been dislodged from its place. These transformations are part of the vibrant, organic nature of the quarry.

The Portland Sculpture Trust is developing an archive of the stone industry, which includes an interview with "Skylark" Durston, a retired mason famous for his singing voice, who died, aged 86 last month. He remembers the days when "The quarries were a playground and you walked anywhere and no one said anything. There was no barbed wire - 50 years ago, it would have been flattened, it wasn't part of Portland."

Creativity, he says, came from the wonderful sense of freedom of walking round the cliffs and hearing the quarry bells ring. That's an experience that anyone who wanders down the path into Tout Quarry can still discover today.

The Portland Sculpture Trust, 20 Killicks Hill, Portland, Dorset DT5 1JW. Tel 01305 821144

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