Teaching a Stone to Talk

Tracy Mahaffey contributed a stone carver's point of view to the Museum's recent exhibition Making It in America. In a label discussing Thomas Crawford's 1856 sculpture Morning Star, she described the artist's ability to release the figure from a block of marble using a mallet and chisel — tools that have been employed by sculptors for thousands of years to bring stone to life.

Tracy Mahaffey works in an old wheelwright factory in Foster, Rhode Island. Here once lived a small community of craftspeople, carpenters, and blacksmiths who helped build the wooden wheels used for carts and wagons. Now only Mahaffey works here. Along with a dozen others in Rhode Island, she carries on the craft of stone carving.   

“I love pushing stone,” she says. Mahaffey’s love for the material was first ignited in her teenage years, when a high school art teacher discovered that she could “see dimensionally.” Her formal introduction to the profession began as a chance meeting in Providence’s North Burial ground with two stone carvers there for the annual conference on Gravestone Studies. Mahaffey was visiting Providence on holiday.

Mahaffey works primarily with slate, which she often sources from Vermont, Virginia, and England. The finest slate, she says, is from a quarry in Wales. Often, stone carvers in Rhode Island band together to group-order stone from the best quarries overseas.    

 What Mahaffey calls the “Cadillac” of mallets was specially designed and given to her by the master carver Pieter Boudens, whom she dubs “lettering royalty.” Stone carvers are very fastidious about their mallets, Mahaffey says: they must have a “particular bounce and height.”

Chiseling letters has not come naturally to Mahaffey, whose background is in sculpture. She has been practicing her lettering by copying ancient Roman type on this piece of slate.

Mahaffey is inspired by the natural world: seashells, stones, dried leaves. This scenic view is the mill behind her studio, once used to power the wheelwright factory.

 It takes one year to bring a single headstone to completion. The process of hacking and carving and chiseling is slow and painstaking, requiring patience, skill, and faith to know that the repetition of many small marks will at some point cohere into something greater: a work of art. “You’re always living on the edge,” Mahaffey says, noting that one false move can result in a piece-ruining crack. After such care, the stone itself will eventually return to the elements after it is installed outside. “It’s the most public art form,” she says.

Thomas Crawford, _Morning Star_, 1856. Gift of Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin

Thomas Crawford brought a block of marble to life, beginning with a model made as a map for use throughout the carving process. Dimensions and scale were transferred to the stone using measuring instruments. Then, with masterly blows of mallet to chisel, stone was removed to release the figure inside. Chisels have been the same for hundreds of years: point chisel for form, toothed chisel for shaping, flat chisel and rasp for finishing.
With a conscious play of light and dark, Crawford turned stone into something fluid. The lift of the figure’s fingers and the drapery that surrounds her head and defines her body add to this lightness, as if she were moving.     -Tracy Mahaffey, stone carver