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John Singer Sargent’s Carrara Watercolors

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Carrara, I’m not ashamed to admit, is because James Bond had a car chase there. Switchbacks, stone, and big machines, sign me up. Another reason is Edward Burtynsky’s stunning photos. His book, Quarries, features Carrara on the cover and first convinced me that the landscape would be beautiful. But probably the biggest reason is the series of paintings by my favorite watercolorist, John Singer Sargent. I’ve never seen them in person and I’m not sure how many he actually did, but for years I’ve grabbed them off the internet whenever I’ve seen them. They might not be as important as his paintings of Venice and I’m sure I attach more importance to them than most other people, but it’s the world’s greatest watercolorist painting one of the world’s great cultural landscapes. Fantastic.

Titles and dates for most of them can be found at the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, along with some pencil studies that are interesting to see. As I understand it, he visited the quarries twice, in 1911 and 1913, the era of dynamite and oxen at the quarries, before the workers had the big machines and the wire saws they use today. I love how many of the paintings show workers carrying ropes up the mountain. The weight of the stone is obvious, but I’m fascinated too by how heavy the ropes would have been and how much effort would have been put into just moving them around. Not an easy place to work.

Another dozen more are below. (more…)

Carrara

Originally on my trip I had planned to go to Florence, but, after realizing how crowded it would be, I headed towards the coast. Instead of waiting in a long line and shuffling past Michelangelo’s David, I decided I’d rather ride around on the mountain where they quarried the marble for it. I still want to see David, but I’ve no regrets, Carrara is awesome. It has a sculptural quality equal to any statue. I didn’t quite capture it in the photo above, but the quarries girdling the mountain are creating a two-toned effect, weathered gray rock above a shining marble pedestal. It’s not as dramatic as the Cuernos del Paine, where glaciers created the two-toned effect instead of humans, but it’s the closest I’ve ever seen and an amazing by-product of the quarries.

That’s a beautiful cliff face. Many quarries are ugly scars, but not Carrara. I took a tour with Cave di Marmo, and then cycled around on the roads that are open to the public. It wasn’t quite as exciting as driving an Aston Martin with thugs shooting machine guns at me, but the downhills were fun, and a long unlit tunnel was sort of scary.

There was a ridge or saddle here in the past, and the quarrying is making separate peaks.

The current process in Carrara is to start at the top and work down in benches ten meters deep. They drill three holes — one from the top and two from the sides — that meet at a single point and then they run a cable with diamond-crusted studs through the holes to make a loop. The cable spins very fast and slices the stone, first one side, then the other, and then the bottom. Then with machines they tip the block over onto a bed of rubble and break it down into smaller blocks to haul down the mountain and ship all over the world.

The piles of rubble in the photos are there for practical reasons, to cushion the landing of the blocks as they are pulled away from the cliff, rather than sloppy housekeeping. I posted a movie trailer with footage from Carrara showing the process a few years ago. Since then I’ve seen the full movie, it’s great, highly recommended.

They use water to cool the cable as it cuts, so you see large puddles of milky water everywhere they are actively cutting. They fill the water tanks from springs coming out of the mountain, delicious marble-filtered water I had a chance to taste while I was riding around. I saw a trucker pull over to fill his water bottle at a roadside spring. I asked if it was ‘Buona’ and he said ‘Buonissima!!!’ Like holy water for a mason or something, perhaps my chisel will now carve with greater acuity.

It looks like a slow unhurried process with only a few people working at a time, but then you realize the size of the stone blocks they are pulling off the mountainside.

Marble Quarrying

Beautiful footage of marble quarrying in Italy, a trailer for the film, Il Capo, by Yuri Ancarani. The filmaker spent a year visiting the quarries of Carrara Italy and decided to focus on the delicate choreography between the foreman, the machinery, and the monolithic blocks of stone. I would love to see the full length movie in person on a big screen.

Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories

Lime Hills by Naoya Hatakeyama

In a comment on my last post, James mentioned Edward Burtynsky’s quarry photos which are really striking and highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t seen them. Coincidentally, SF MOMA currently has an exhibit of photos by a Japanese photographer, Naoya Hatakeyama, who works in the same vein as Burtynsky, photographing large scale human impacts on the landscape, including quarries. His Lime Hills (Quarry Series) has images where the quarries are horrible scars, but also ones where they seem quite sculptural and aesthetic.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Lime Hills (Quarry Series)

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird/Blast

Along with the photos, at the museum there is also a very cool video (titled Twenty-Four Blasts) of quarry blasting. If you sit up close to the screen, the explosions fill your vision. The video doesn’t seem to be online, but SF MOMA posted a slideshow of stills from the best sequence.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Still from Twenty-Four Blasts

I went to the exhibit to see the quarry series, but probably the most powerful images — especially in light of the superstorm blasting the east coast right now — are of his hometown in Japan, Rikuzentakata, which was destroyed by last year’s tsunami. It was impressive to see such carefully composed photos, knowing that this was his hometown and that his mother died in the event. He talks about it in a video at Wired.

Naoya Hatakeyama

There was also a slideshow of his photos of the town before the tsunami, and though the exhibitors chose not to present the before and after photos as literal side by side comparisons, there was an eerie similarity to some of the compositions. I tried drawing thumbnails at the speed of the slideshow — twenty seconds per image — and then later colored them at about the same pace. It’s rather off-topic for this blog, but completely current with all of the images of flooding on the east coast, so I included them below the fold. (more…)

STONE Project

Peenya Granite Quarry, India | Stonebreaker from STONE project on Vimeo.

A recent book about stonework, Stone: A Legacy and Inspiration for Art, caught my eye with its focus on the raw material and craft of stonework rather than the finished product that seems to fill most of the stone books out there. Turns out the book has a companion website, STONE Project, with a lot of great content as well, including photos, a stone glossary, and tons of videos, including the rather striking one above showing one of the more un-OSHA-compliant workers I’ve ever seen. Sandals, a sari, and a big sledge, gotta love it. The videos are rather raw and cinema verite, and overall the website is probably more for the serious stone lovers out there, but then personally I’m convinced that everyone in the world is a stone lover, so there you go. Good stuff, definitely worth a look if you’re interested in the process of stonework. From their Introduction page:

STONE Project aims:

to collect information about stone through the eyes of artists, masons, quarry workers, anthropologists, and cultural and literary thinkers.
to discover differences in how stone is understood and worked throughout the world.
to understand both the ‘physical processes’ and the ‘thinking approaches’ when working with stone.
to show these modes of understanding in ways that are broadly applicable and transferable.
At the heart of STONE Project is the shared belief that research on stone can also contribute to a further understanding of:

hands, tools and material –
tactility/senses –
tacit skills –
reductive thinking –

STONE Project’s ultimate aim is to:

… assemble all research and achievements in an archive for the use of current and future generations, a tool which anyone can use.

Hear, hear.

BGS Quarry Photos

Corncockle Quarry, Lochmaben. Dumfriesshire ‘Close-up view of splitting the sandstone by the ‘chisel wedge’ method. Eleven wedges are seen being forced into the stone to separate a block from the main mass of rock. Three quarrymen in typical working clothes are seen, two holding large sledge or striking hammers used for driving in the wedges. A selection of picks rest on the rock behind.’

A couple of photos in STONEZINE led me to the website of the British Geologic Survey which has some great photos from quarries and other sites of geologic interest. These photos here are all 1930’s era, but at some quarries the techniques haven’t changed that much. Pallets of stone still sometimes come marked with the name of the individual who quarried them.

Rubislaw Quarry. Aberdeenshire ‘View at surface, showing dressed and partly dressed building stones. The granite is mainly used for building and monumental work. Two quarrymen prepare a granite block to be split by using the plug and feather method. They are using pneumatic drills to drill short holes around the block into which the plug and feathers are inserted. These are then systematically struck with hammers, causing the block to split. Another quarryman appears to be using a measuring stick against a large block of granite.’

Silver Grey Quarry, Creetown. Kirkcudbrightshire ‘A large granite block being prepared for splitting on the quarry floor by means of ‘plug and feathers’ method. Two quarrymen can be seen inserting the ‘plug and feathers’ into a large granite block. A recently separated block can be seen in the foreground. A series of narrow holes a few inches apart were drilled by a pneumatic drill. Two half cylinders of steel called ‘feathers’ were inserted into all the holes. A steel wedge-shaped ‘plug’ was then inserted. The plugs were then hit in succession with a hammer and a straight split in the granite block would result.’

Silver Grey Quarry, Creetown. Kirkcudbrightshire ‘A large granite block split into two on the quarry floor using the plug and feathers method. Two quarrymen, one wielding a crowbar, displaying recently split large blocks using the ‘plug and feather’ method. A series of narrow holes a few inches apart were drilled by a pneumatic drill. Two half cylinders of steel called ‘feathers’ were inserted into all the holes. A steel wedge-shaped ‘plug’ was then inserted. The plugs were then hit in succession with a hammer and a straight split in the granite block would result.’

Craignair Hill Quarry, Dalbeattie. Kirkcudbrightshire ‘A view of the open kerb-making yard. Two workers can be seen standing at barrels filled with sand on which the stone was dressed. Completed kerbs are seen stacked to the left of the photograph.’

Corsehill Quarry, Annan. Dumfriesshire ‘The masons are shown wielding wooden mallets called ‘mells’ and chisels as they work on the stone. On the left are sawn blocks; some show small holes cut in the faces. These holes are used for gripping and handling the blocks with a dog and chain sling as in the centre foreground.’

Craignair Hill Quarry, Dalbeattie. Kirkcudbrightshire ‘Granite sett-making on the yard floor. A sett-maker wielding a hammer at work in front of his hut. On the left are the rough unprocessed blocks while to the right are carefully stacked finished setts. A ‘sett’ is stone roughly squared for paving.’

Craignair Hill Quarry, Dalbeattie. Kirkcudbrightshire ‘Sett-making on the yard floor. Two workers (and a dog!) are seen. One is working on a sett. Note the chisel faced hammer he is using and the very large pile of completed setts piled carefully behind.’

Locharbriggs Quarry. Dumfriesshire ‘A close-up showing the ‘shot-grove’ and chisel wedge method of splitting stone. Widely spaced holes are drilled and filled with black powder; once blown and the blocks dislodged, chisel wedges are driven in along planes of weakness (usually bedding planes) to further work the stone. Note the quarryman wielding the large crowbar.’

Locharbriggs Quarry. Dumfriesshire ‘A close-up showing the ‘shot-grove’ and chisel wedge method of splitting stone. Widely spaced holes are drilled and filled with black powder; once blown and the blocks dislodged, chisel wedges are driven in along planes of weakness (usually bedding planes) to further work the stone. Note the quarryman wielding the large crowbar.’

Rubislaw Quarry. Aberdeenshire ‘General view of floor and west wall of this granite quarry, showing west-south-westerly running joints and material brought down by blasting. Holes, six metres long were drilled using pneumatic drills, black powder was inserted and then blasted. The natural weakness of the joint planes was used in deciding where to drill and blast.’

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