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The Stone Carver in an Age of Computer Screens

A reader recently pointed me toward a short video titled “A Continuous Shape.” It profiles Anna Rubincam, a stone carver from South London who works alone out of a utilitarian studio; sliding doors open to a tree-lined patio.

The video follows Rubincam’s efforts over three weeks to produce a stone carving of a young woman’s head. It starts with her taking measurements from a live model. These are then translated into a clay figure, and subsequently engraved, one precise chisel hit after another, into a solid chunk of stone.

The reader who sent me the video titled his message: “Epitome of deep work.” I think he’s on to something.

When you watch Rubincam in action, it’s hard not to feel an intimation of wistfulness. Something about her efforts, in which she stands alone in a minimalist chamber, and hour after hour, with hard-won skill, manifests cognitive abstractions into concrete reality, seems about right.

I think the reason portrayals of physical craft are instinctually compelling is that they present a conception of “work” that closely aligns with our species’ wiring. Part of what separated us from our primate ancestors is our ability to understand the world symbolically; allowing us to make an abstract plan that we then translate into something real. We’re rewarded for this final step with a sense of satisfaction, and punished for its absence with a sense of anxious hollowness.

When contemplating these realities, I can’t help but wonder about the psychic toll of replacing the simplicity of such craft with email, and Zoom, and half-hearted PowerPoint. As I elaborate in Digital Minimalism, a brain forged in the Paleolithic doesn’t fully understand the digital, and is easily overwhelmed by a notion of work defined by constant, unstructured, unceasing electronic pings and dings.

Late in the video, Rubincam looks to camera and explains:

“Once you’ve created something it takes up a physical space in the world and it has a permanence that will hopefully outlast you.”

Here’s to hoping that as the world of work evolves beyond its tactile foundation, we can find a way to extract similar levels of calm human contentment from our daily efforts.

11 thoughts on “The Stone Carver in an Age of Computer Screens”

  1. I enjoyed this video–the sheer dedication and focus required of this profession. She would be a cool chick to have over for coffee—socially distanced, outside, of course. 🙂

  2. A principle I worked for in Hawaii would often lose himself in doing ice sculptures with a chainsaw. He picked up the skill growing up in Montana and now, 15+ years later, he’s back in Montana as the owner of a hardware store where he seems to love having constant access to his own projects as well as hearing about those of his customers. I’m pretty sure being able to walk to work, be in beautiful natural landscapes year round, and having easy access to Yellowstone plays into it as well.

  3. I watched the film and completely agree about the permanence of something like a stone carving in the world – I work in an old cemetery where we have beautiful carvings made 100+ years ago. Despite the myriad of styles – obelisks, angels, chess pieces, scrolls, columns and open books, – you get to recognise a particular Mason’s work. They were all hand carved and I find myself wondering whether the Stonemason used their wife or child’s face for inspiration when they were carving the angels and cherubs. Did the Masons think about how long their work would last when they were installing them? I also know there is a dark side to this kind of work – working with stone can be frustrating and exasperating – brings to mind the saying “Nothing worthwhile comes easy!”

  4. Cal – My Dartmouth ’78 classmate and longtime friend Jack Reeder sent me your cogitation on stone carving. While most of my mates from school went and pursued business careers, I went to Italy not long after leaving Dartmouth, spent 7 years in Pietrasanta carving stone, and have been doing so ever since. It’s kind of like a drug addiction – ask any stone carver, and they will tell you they just want to get to the next piece of stone.
    All of us have been socially isolating in our studios since long before Covid came along – when you make as much mess, noise, and dust as we do, its just part of the deal. In any case, I can confirm that yes, there is a deep satisfaction in the tangible result of ones work as a sculptor, but it is often offset by the magnitude of the difficulty of staying alive, let alone getting ahead, in the art world. Zen only goes so far – that said, I am hugely grateful to have survived with my art work, and you are clearly mining interesting ground – the conundrum of how patience and perserverance will hold up in a digital world where everything is a mouse click away is a complicated creature. You might enjoy a piece I put together on process – in this case, carving a nudibranch scul;pture out of a Persian white onyx.
    It even has a little section where I am polishing the stone (an incredibly tedious and boring process, but a critical part of any sculpture because the surface is what you see) that will likely test your patience ever so slightly as I blather on about sea slugs and what they mean to our marine environment. It always amuses me to see if the average viewer has the patience for 10 minutes of video that covers a creative exercise that took months and required many years of work to aquire the skill neccessary to pull it off.
    Jack sends his regards –
    Carry on –

    • Enjoyed your comment and your video, Gar! Unrelated question – As a content creator myself, I’m puzzled why people put out their work on Vimeo, when the platform doesn’t anywhere near have the reach of YouTube.

      Despite the irony of my vouching for the social media-ish platform YouTube on Cal’s blog, I don’t think anyone wants less of the world to see their work, rather than more, do they? YouTube helps you reach more people. So why Vimeo then?

      Regardless, I enjoyed your video 🙂

  5. The video made me very present. It reminded not only of the importance of deep work, but also to find beauty in everything. We are often so rushed in our lives, that we forget to pause and be present.

  6. It is very similar to an experimental physicist working with their instrument. It is nice to see a parallel in other professions.


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