There are many things in life that, on their surface, seem much simpler, but when its complexity is revealed, it can almost seem downright Machiavellian. I spent a recent Saturday at Sculptor Jyl Bonaguro’s alabaster-stone-carving class toggling between a feeling of elation I only get when I’m truly immersed in something, slight frustration and exhaustion.
Stone carving can appear disarmingly straightforward. You need some stone, a table, a sandbag, sketching paper, a hammer, chisels (point, tooth and flat), a rasp, sandpaper, beeswax and a buffering tool. Oh, and patience.
Jyl first instructed us to sketch the design, just to get a sense of the general shape. My classmates, respectively, drew a mushroom, a teardrop, a set of pyramid stairs, and an abstract spiral form. I chose to make a cloud, as I wanted to try my hand at rounded edges and to end with something a bit whimsical. I also thought, naively, it would make for an easier carving.
We started the stone removal. The slow, arduous process involved a few hours of finding that basic shape we had sketched by roughing the stone with the point chisel. The first thirty minutes were similar to a lot of artistic endeavors for me, including writing. I attempted to figure out the form, not ready to worry about what came next. Then, as if all at once, the class seemed to exhale and realize just how taxing this process would prove to be.
Jyl seemed to read our minds throughout. Most likely, she was picking up on obvious cues of physical exhaustion (a lot of “phews,” fogged-up goggles and beads of sweat collecting on our foreheads).
“This is labor,” she said. “Yes, this is art, but you have to really work for this. It’s not easy on the body.”
A couple hours in, Jyl introduced the tooth chisel, a tool for removing and contouring stone. This was one of my favorite tools, as it lay in the delicate balance between removal and detail. It was the tool that transformed my haphazard blob into a cloud.
After a lunch break in which I took too long procuring an al pastor taco, Jyl introduced the flat chisel. This tool was the bane of my existence, as it tested my sensibility with specificity and hammer coordination. Jyl graciously helped me smooth out some areas. Of course, her flat chisel glided across my little dips and valleys with expert precision. My movements just created more ridges and thus, more work.
“I think you might have been a bit hard on yourself, Nicole,” she offered, as she rounded one edge of my cloud. “You’re almost there.”
My favorite step was rasping. Rasps are ingenious shaping tools, which reminded me of a delicate hand-held cheese grater crafted to remove stone for a smoother surface. Rasping gave my object the texture of a cloud, with its varying depths but with an even finish and edges.
“You all need to decide how perfect you want to make this,” she said, with her wrapped hands clasped together. “Is there more stone removal you need to do? Are you happy with the texture? That is all up to you.”
We received four different grades of sandpaper to further finish our sculptures. This helped the most with the tactile part of the piece.
“What some people forget is that for small-scale sculptures, part of the art is the feeling on your hands.”
The final step was waxing and buffering. Because alabaster is soft and porous, it can be dyed and given shine and other illuminating qualities fairly easily. Jyl demonstrated how to rub a small amount of beeswax into the stone’s faces.
“A little definitely goes a long way,” she cautioned.
The polishing tool was difficult to use on my object since I had several rounded edges and nooks. After a few swipes, though, it metamorphosed into a light-catching cloud.
“I think alabaster gives the most sculptural finish to the piece,” said Jyl. “You can polish it, finish it and sand it versus a stone like limestone, which would give you a surface with no polish. And I think for students, it’s important at the end of the day to have something that they’re proud of that looks like a sculpture. And alabaster is a beautiful stone all on its own. By working through to polishing, they actually get to see the transformation.”
I said to Jyl after the class that all of us students seemed to go through the same emotional stages of the artistic process at the same time.
“I see that a lot,” she said. “When students are blocking, they’re really using a lot of the point chisel. They’re like, oof. It’s hard for them to see this rough block and what the sculpture is going to become, and I intentionally don’t have any finished sculptures around. I don’t want them to have preconceived notions, and I also want them to be pleasantly surprised at the end.”
Jyl’s workshops were initially funded by the Chicago Awesome Foundation, a nonprofit that gives out regular micro-grants for artists to jumpstart or propel their work forward.
Jyl has been working as an artist for over twenty years. Her first plaster-cast exhibit was in 2010, and the first marble and alabaster exhibit was in 2015. Unlike her two-dimensional painting work, carving has answered more and more of the story she wanted to tell. Because of the feeling she gets when people are confronted by her sculptures, she gradually stopped painting, with the exception of sculpture surface inking.
“Coming from painting, it was like moving a giant ship,” Jyl says. “I felt the need to sculpt a form versus just paint a form. And I also had the goal that I sort of envisioned over twenty years ago about carving this figure as big as Michelangelo’s David, the ‘Modern Athena,’ so I just gradually shifted into sculpture.”
Jyl is working on exhibitions for her “Modern Athena” project, the small-scale version. She is also producing a piece for the Chicago Sculpture exhibit using recycled marble aggregate from said project to make a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall feather sculpture. With the right funding, Jyl will stay on schedule to sculpt and eventually exhibit the full-scale, seventeen-foot “Modern Athena” in the next five years.
Jyl is considered a direct carver in the school of Michelangelo. She has never enjoyed making perfect copies.
“The beauty of stone and the beauty of my technique, I think, is each piece is a little different,” she says. “Every time it’s a chance to not reinvent, but refine and make little changes. I need to feel like I’m discovering something. It’s a process and not a predetermined endpoint.”
According to Jyl, no one really teaches stone carving anymore in the Midwest, despite having a plentiful supply of limestone. Her goal with these workshops is to garner more support for carving, leading to future workshops and even college courses, and possibly produce future carvers.
“If you don’t teach something, and you don’t make it available, how do people realize that it’s still an artistic medium?”
Stone carving is an underdog in the art world. It’s labor intensive, heavy, and costly.
“You need the time, the tools, the space, and a certain level of strength if you’re going to do a lot of the work yourself, which is what I do,” she says. “You’re making noise. You’re creating dust. It’s a completely different experience. With oil painting, I used to have home studios. I would work late at night.”
She would love to do for the stone carving world what Chihuly did for glass blowing.
“What was once not a popular art form is now everywhere and you see the work at art fairs, even though glass is so easy to break!”
Jyl laughs and pauses and seems to consider the weight of that goal. Almost ten years on from her first alabaster sculpture exhibition, Jyl is still seeing her way through the carving process.
“As soon as you feel like you know everything, it loses that tentative edge of discovery,” she says. “I don’t try to over-plan anything. I’m searching for that glimmer of life, that sense of where it’s tenuous in some ways, but vibrant. So I think keeping yourself always on that edge keeps you sharp, keeps your adrenaline going. Overconfidence is deadening.”
Jyl’s (@jylbonaguro) alabaster stone carving classes are available throughout 2023. Register here.