Carved in stone
Stone. A word that conjures almost immediate images of something cold, inanimate, unmoving, never changing. That is, until you see the work of two Pacific Northwest artists. Wendy Hook and Gretchen Daiber breathe life into stonegranite, soapstone, marble, and others, patiently coaxing bears, fish, fox, even Eskimos to spring forth. Undaunted by the sheer physical work involved in stone carving, Wendy and Gretchen pay homage to the natural environment in their sculptures. Although each arrived at their art by very different paths, both are bound by the same quest to bring forth images from rock.
While working as a medical lab technician at a Wenatchee, Wash. hospital in the 1990s, Wendy found herself increasingly interested in the work her father, Bob Merry, was doing in Alaska: carving naturally shed moose antlers and working in soapstone.
“My interest evolved over time but I really liked the feel of his finished stone pieces. I was drawn to their tactile feel and the richness of colors. So I flew up to spend time with him. I don’t have a background in art but we carved several pieces in those few days together and that’s how I got started. What I didn’t learn from my father, I taught myself,” Wendy says.
Selling at first to doctors and nurses, Wendy soon found her work in greater demand and gradually cut back on her workweek at the hospital. In just six months, she found herself employed as a full-time stone carver.
She continues to work exclusively in soapstone, most of it mined locally in Washington, Idaho, or Montana by Wendy and her husband Eric. Now living in Riggins, Idaho, she feels the Salmon River provides rich inspiration for her carvings, which range from just six inches to large commission pieces nearly three feet long. Seal pups, otters, fish, each reflects its own distinct and often playful personality as Wendy carves them into life. Her figures seem to dance with energy and invite you to touch. Wendy also sculpts Eskimo drummers, and mother and baby duos, again all from soap stone. Some of these pieces include other materials, perhaps a rawhide drum or a face carved from naturally shed antler.
“My work keeps evolving. I like to get it right according to the way my eye sees it. I keep studying wildlifethrough photography, in the wildto get the dimensions right. Big horn sheep for example are challenging and complex because of the shape of the horns.”
Gretchen Daiber shares Wendy’s passion for stone and for nature and like Wendy, grew up in the Northwest. But Gretchen came to carving through a more traditional route, graduating with a degree in art from the University of Washington. Trained as a printmaker and graphic designer, Gretchen found herself looking at the wood engravings she was doing in the 1980s.
“I was doing a lot of wildlife images and I kept finishing the top surface of the boxwood block and wondering what the backside of the animal would look like if I just kept carving. So I went to a fellow artist, Tony Angell, well-known Northwest artist, and asked if I could help him clean his studio. I figured I would watch him work and learn about the tools. We worked togetherand still do sometimesas I was comfortable with small details and sharpening chisels. He encouraged me to use powertools, diamond saws and grindershe gave me ‘chips off the old block’ you might say,” Gretchen adds.
“At the same time, my husband, Michael Heath, and I were doing commercial fishing and by chance, found this wonderful glacial marble boulder on a beach in Yakutat, Alaska. My husband is a geologist so he knew it was marble. For a stone carver, it’s great being married to someone who is always looking at rocks.” Timing couldn’t have been more idealnow Gretchen had enough stone that she had the chance to have the freedom to be creative and loose in her work.
When they sold their Seattle home to move to Leavenworth, Gretchen had to shut down her printmaking studio. “I realized it was real natural to sculpt while we were building our house and I just continued with my wildlife images. I do almost all wildlifewhatever medium I’m working in. I especially love working in granite. Granite is very hard so it might take me a year to get the image out of the rock. When I go back to work on marble, I’m stunned at how quickly the image appears.”
While Gretchen prefers granite, she also works in marble, basalt, limestone, serpentinite and bronze. The rich variations of stone provide a wide palette of color for the artists. “Montana soapstone is a lighter green, a more consistent, solid color. Lake Wenatchee area soapstone is more colorful, with more variations due to the minerals in the stone. Iron will make the stone more of a reddish orange. If you find a piece that’s really red, it’s because the stone has been heated to a very high temperature, perhaps in a forest fire,” Wendy says. Gretchen adds, “The fascinating thing with serpentinite and some granite is that when you sand them down to a high sheen, you get almost a polished surface. And yet if you leave the stone in its natural state, it’s not reflective and has a rough surface.”
Gretchen plays with the dualities of the rock in her work, often choosing to polish the animal while leaving the “base” in its natural state. The end result is that the animal appears to resting, standing or posing on a separate rock base. She creates such involved sculptures by starting out with a sketch of her idea and often sculpts a clay model.
“I like to work in life-size scale if I can,” she says. “Stone carving is a totally subtractive process. I’ll take the clay model with me every day as I work. I can look at it or rotate it around, making sure I’m keeping enough volume in the right areas. Because once you carve it out, you can’t go back and add in with stone. Sometimes you really have to look for the right stone and decide if it can stand, look right or left, or hold something in its hand. I like to get the piece to capture shadow so that it casts different shadows at different times of day.”
Wendy instead often just starts carving: “I like to have a good silhouette of the animal or figure to start with. But I don’t do sketches. I sometimes might draw a rough outline on the side of the stone before I start. I’m very three-dimensional so I usually just start cutting into the stone. I start by trial and error.” Husband Eric also works in Wendy’s business. “Eric built a shed to cover the stone so that it’s laid out so that I can just go in and pick from the stones when I’m ready to start a piece. He developed an overhead hoist system for our studio that moves the stone up to the table when he might cut a chunk the size I need with a chain saw and then moves it into the carving studio for me. He maintains all the tools and handles shipping and pricing.”
Gretchen’s husband also assists with large tasks like getting the stones onto pallets, up the ramp, and in and off the truck. Boulders might weigh anywhere from 200 to 500, even 900, pounds.
“It’s really hard work,” they agree. Tools of the trade sound more like a trip to Home Depot: chain saws, disc sanders, dye grinders, dremel tools, chisels. Yet Wendy and Gretchen wield them easily and with a finesse that brings out intricate detail in the stone. Another hazard of the work is simply the dust, hard on their tools and hard on them. They wear air masks with outside air system, and overalls. Because Gretchen does larger pieces, she works outside and so when it gets below freezing, generally has to cease work because most of the tools require drip water. She is building a two-sided outdoor studio so she can have a longer working season.
Both artists concede stone carving is not for the meek.
Gretchen does some outdoor sculpture shows, particularly in the Leavenworth/Wenatchee area, but the majority of her work is by commissions. Wendy’s work can be viewed at www.douglascreek.com. She markets her work almost exclusively through wholesale shows. She and her sister, Shari Medley, are also building a gallery together near their Idaho homes.