It’s the last Monday of July 2021. I am with seven others in the sunny garden of Campo dell’Altissimo Summer School in the tiny village of Azzano in Northern Italy. We are listening intently to the instructions of sculptor and experienced stone-carver, Sven Rünger. We are overlooked on almost every side by the Apuan Alps – the calcareous mountain range which, only yesterday, I tried to photograph from my aeroplane seat on the approach to Pisa.
Our (as yet untouched) marble stones originated up in those mountains somewhere. It has been explained to us that these stones are waste matter, washed down from the quarries which have been active in this region since the reign of Augustus, over 2,000 years ago. Earlier, we were brought to a very dried-out river Serra, further down the mountain, and tasked with finding a stone to carve. It was a strange experience to pick my way through piles of beautiful white stones, looking for one which would stand out to me in some way.
All of these river stones have developed a sort of outer crust; a porous-looking layer which forms a protective skin between the exterior elements and the delicate, crystalline structure of the marble within. Back up at the Campo, the first instructions have been given and we are ready to pick up our tools and tackle the initial stage of removing that tough outer skin. Sven calls it “peeling the stone.”
On the ground, the white, dusty residues from last week’s class surround us like ghostly entities. I am drawn to that dust. My own studio practice often entails the creation of a similar little snowdrift of calcium carbonate. For years I have been drawing in chalk. Chalk and marble share the same chemical formula: CaCO3. Where chalk has a temporary effect on the world, marble suggests permanence. Chalk is cheap, marble is expensive. Chalk is light, marble is heavy.
I quickly discover that peeling a river stone is not like peeling an orange. There’s a violence to the process which reverberates through my body. The steel on steel of hammer against chisel is arrhythmic and jarring. Dangerous shards shoot towards my face and ping off my goggles. “This is the fun part”, says my nearest neighbour and seasoned carver: “Let out all your frustration – it’s a kind of therapy!” I don’t feel any of her glee. I feel beaten, as though I’m absorbing these blows. They stay in my system for days. By the third day, the worst of that feeling has left me. I find that the stone is softer and less resistant underneath its skin and carving something begins to seem like a possibility for the first time.
A crack appears: a slight flaw in the stone which needs to be worked out with more heavy blows. When the fissure is no longer there, my stone is left with a hollow that exactly fits the base of my left palm. Placing my hand into it is calming and feels weirdly familiar. I spend the rest of the week carving the impressions of my palms and fingertips into the stone. The more I am sure of my intentions, the more the marble seems to soften – it feels as though I could scrape it out with a spoon.
The inside of my stone is a slightly dark grey, which accentuates the shadow on the indentations I am making. After a week there’s a presentation of our work to a small gathering of local artists and supporters of the Campo. I speak about my fascination with materials, the unexpected violence of carving, and my response to that. I make it known that touching is allowed, and almost everyone sidles up to try out my piece, to experience a soft way of entering stone, to feel their skin’s compatibility with the marble and to feel the differences between the shapes of my hands and theirs.
Orla O’Byrne is an artist based in Cork who is currently enrolled on the MA in Art & Process at MTU Crawford College of Art & Design (CCAD). O’Byrne’s research trip to the marble-quarrying region of Northern Italy was funded through the Valerie Gleeson Development Bursary 2020.