TUESDAY 22 February 2011

                  STONE CARVING WORKSHOP at D15 Studios
                  Review by Caroline McGee

       Full face, foursquare, eyelevel, carved in stone,
           an ecclesiastic on the low-set lintel
           vested and unavoidable as the one
           I approached head-on the full length of an aisle
           Seamus Heaney, ‘The Pattern’, Human Chain [1]
Boarding trains, buses and cars, on a freezing February morning we sallied forth from our cosy, warm research offices, to deepest, darkest West Dublin (actually to River Road off Junction 6 of the M50) and the D15 studios near Dunsink, where we found the sculpture cooperative workshop of Helen O’Connell, Stephen Burke and Richard Healy. We were there to find out about the practical side of stone carving and sculpture by taking part in a 3-hour beginners’ class.
The large studio is the workplace of several artists working across a variety of media. There to greet us and teach us the basics of stone carving were Helen and Stephen. ‘Dress warmly!’ we were told when making the booking, ‘…and be prepared to get dusty!’ – we did… and what a lot we learned!
Our craft is one of the oldest in the world. Our handiwork is seen everywhere, in town, country and village. The men who have gone before us have left a heritage to be proud of…With hammer, mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders…
Seamus Murphy Stone Mad [2]
These are the words of one of Ireland’s most respected twentieth-century sculptors whose memoir tells of his career as a stonemason following a seven-year apprenticeship in the craft of stone-carving in 1920s Ireland. Murphy studied modeling and carving at night in the Crawford School of Art and then in Paris, after being awarded the Gibson Bequest scholarship. He was later Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Stephen told us how he too first received his training in the Crawford School of Art and Design in Cork. He then headed to the London Art School to specialize in architectural stone carving, and since graduating, has worked on a wide range of prestigious architectural restoration projects in Ireland and the UK, including Russborough House, Wicklow and Charing Cross Station, London.
Helen trained as a sculptor at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre with Seamus Dunbar, Jackie McKenna and Martha Quinn, having first studied History of Art at Trinity College. She has worked extensively in Ireland, Italy and Portugal and exhibited internationally as well as in Ireland. Her work is included in many important private collections world-wide and she also teaches stone-sculpture….and this is where we come in!
Four postgraduate students are we, whose day job is researching diverse aspects of Irish art, architecture and material culture, ranging from early Christian and Insular art, to 19th century domestic and ecclesiastical architecture. The goal of this trip was to enable us to better produce more informed academic research on the medium of stone sculpture, as a result of understanding the process from within, as it were. (Yes, you may raise your eyebrows at this stretching of the concept of ‘fieldwork’ but we refute any allegations that it was simply an excuse to escape from doing any ‘real’ work.)
We had heard about the classes Helen taught at the Trinity Arts Workshop (so inspirational that a classmate who took them abandoned academia to become an apprentice stonemason!) In spite of modern technological advances, the work we saw in the D15 studios showed that the ancient craft of stone-carving still relies, for the most part, on the hammer and chisel with occasional input from diamond discs on electric cutting machines or chisel tips and the odd forklift here and there for moving large blocks of stone.
Before being allowed to strike a blow, we kitted ourselves out with protective glasses and face-masks and took a look at the tools of the trade while we debated the benefits of interaction between academic researchers and art practitioners. All agreed that this would be a mutually beneficial exchange and there’s nothing more effective for understanding a process, than seeing it first-hand or, better still, actually trying it yourself….and so we tried!
Helen and Stephen showed us different types of stone and explained how each type behaved under the coaxing of the sculptor’s hand. We saw beautiful silky, grey Kilkenny limestone, that changes colour to a deep, dark inky-black when carved – a feature that can be exploited with carving techniques and tools, to produce dramatic effects of light, shade and texture regardless of the lighting conditions. Kilkenny limestone is challenging to carve (and not just for beginners!) but not so the beautiful, buttery-yellow Bath stone or pale, putty-coloured Portland stone, that we also saw. Stephen explained the organization of the mason’s ‘shed’, or lodge as it was first known, - the ‘banker’ mason who specializes in carving from a sawn block that also serves as a bench, stone-carvers and cutters who produce the geometric and ornamental work that has enhanced so many buildings down through centuries, and which is considered by some to blur the line between art and craft, and ‘fixer’ masons, who do pretty much what their title suggests – they fix stone in place with lime mortar and grouts.
After some guidance from Helen and Stephen on how to hold the chisel and wield mallets of different materials so that you can control the result of the strike, we were let loose on the blocks to see what we could do...The end result was a beautiful selection of triskeles, lettering and flat-bed carvings.
A break for some tea and Hob-nobs allowed further discussion including a chat about the relative merits of different weather conditions for working in stone. Seamus Murphy’s memoir describes the misery of trying to work in the rain without shelter and the muddy mess that follows as the dust from carving mixes with water and gets stuck to the stone.
Working in lovely sunny Italy might offer the benefits of richer light but a hot climate is not necessarily the best for carving, according to Helen, who pointed out that although heat might seem nicer to the lily-livered Irish historian, cold is actually a better environment (you keep warm while working see?) for stone-carving.
Before finishing up, we went outside the workshop look at some of the beautiful stone that Helen, Stephen and Richard are planning to work on over the coming months: you can see it in our Flickr feed. As well as our own lovely native slate, marble, Carlow and Ballyknockan granite and Killkenny limestone, we saw stunning rich ochre-coloured Iranian travertine as well as limestone and onyx. There was also fantastic Cararra marble and the most delicate pink-veined Portuguese marble, on which Helen is currently working.

Although Helen, Stephen and Richard use mechanical equipment to move large pieces of stone, it is still sometimes necessary to go back to time-honoured methods of shifting material from one place to another – sheer elbow-grease! Stephen and Helen showed us how to move stone pushing a block along on timber rollers -it made us think of the Ancient Egyptian labourers who worked on the pyramids. Entering into the spirit of the class to the fullest, we attempted to lever a block of travertine into an upright position……emphasis on “attempted”!

Thanks to Helen and Stephen, we enjoyed a great morning at the D15 studio and came away filled with enthusiasm for and increased understanding of the medium of stone carving as well as an wish to take more classes ….great for working out any frustrations if the archival research has halted or writer’s block (sorry!) has set in.

Have a look at the photos on our Flickr feed here:

The image at the beginning of the post is of 15th century figural carvings in the cloister of Jerpoint Abbey, Co. Kilkenny. 
More images of medieval architecture can be seen in the latest uploads from the Stalley Collection to the Reconstructions of the Gothic Past image collections  
Reconstructions of the Gothic Past is supported by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS)

Other useful links:
Link to BBC sites omedieval sculpture and the job of the stonemason.

If you would you like to try stone carving for the first time, or are keen to develop your skills, stone sculptors Helen O’Connell,
Stephen Burke and Richard Healy are holding a weekend stone carving course and a six week evening course in D15 Studios, Castleknock, Dublin.

The weekend course takes place on Saturday February 19 and Sunday February 20 from 9.30am 5.00pm  Course cost €200, deposit €50. The evening course takes place on Monday Nights for 6 weeks beginning February 21 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm Course cost €200, deposit €50.

The course is suitable for all levels, including beginners.  Participants will be tutored on a one-to-one basis to support each person in realising their own project. Participants may be able to go away with a finished piece of work or with a sculpture that can be easily finished away from the studio. Non beginners may wish to start a more complex piece to work on over a longer period of time. You may already have an idea of what you wish to carve. If you have no set ideas then that is fine; a suitable project can be set for you. Materials and tools will be provided, the only thing necessary to bring are steel capped safety boots.
For further information and to reserve a place, please contact
Stephen on 086 307 2272, email:

[1]  Heaney, Seamus, Human Chain, London: Faber & Faber, 2010. p.71
[2] Seamus Murphy, Stone Mad (Cork: Collins, 2005).

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