Jun 03

Chicago Marble Carving Studio – Chicago Tribune

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Block Party

Marble Sculptors Of All Abilities Chip In At West Side Studio

September 02, 1993|By Jon Anderson, Tribune Staff Writer.

This is how it works: An old furniture emporium folds. The building sits empty for a while. Artists start looking over the place. Light bulbs go off above several heads. Presto: The space is converted to a studio.

That has been the pattern as artists-acting as a kind of urban Marine Corps-sweep into grungy neighborhoods, spot opportunities for cheap space and settle in to work, an artification process that helped shape Old Town, New Town, Wicker Park and many other Chicago neighborhoods.

This time, the area is just south of Humboldt Park and the revamped building at 3053 W. Grand Ave. is now host to marble carving. Soon the air is filled with sounds of tapping, chipping, whirring and whooshing.

The Homer Brothers store featured three floors of salesrooms and manufacturing facilities for hand-crafted dining room and bedroom furniture. Now it’s the site of the Chicago Marble Carving Studio, the only one of its kind in the city.

The person to see is instructor Karl Geckler.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Geckler said the other day, his hair coated with a thin layer of white dust, a byproduct of marble carving that floated through the air as a dozen students hacked away at blocks of stone at stations around the building’s cavernous 3rd floor.

Geckler’s idea, to start a Chicago school based on an Italian model where artists receive technical assistance while they pursue their vision, took shape this year when a nearby marble company, for which he was working as an estimator, bought the shuttered building and set aside space for the studio on the top floor. It didn’t take long for the stone crowd to find it.

Marble sculpture “appeals to me. It’s tough. It’s physical,” said student Jayne Lilienfeld, who wore a wrist support bandage as she swung a mallet with her right hand against a chisel held in her left.

“These are feelings. I haven’t given it a name yet,” said resident artist Andy Pappas, talking of, and walking around, his latest effort, a square work, the size of a bread box, with protruding feet, breasts and hands. “Sculpting is the ultimate. It lasts forever. A painting degenerates. Stone is permanent.”

Even amateurs can pick up a hammer and pointed chisel and become sculptors. But the chances for error among the untrained are great, as Geckler pointed out during a tour of his 10,000-square-foot main loft, a studio that offers courses for beginners as well as rental space for experienced carvers.

“You need to start by hand to get a feel for the material,” he said, “but after that you need both instruction and a lot of tools.” Those include an array of hand and pneumatic chisels, perhaps two dozen, as well as rasps, sanders and abrasives. An airhammer can cost $400 and, Geckler added, “you can run through $300 in files on a big piece.” So, for the students in the Marble Carving Studio, sharing costs and tools makes sense.

Students pay $700 for three months, a fee that covers studio space, one block of limestone, use of basic tools and eight weeks of instruction in how to plan and create stone sculptures. The first to enroll, six months ago, was a Loop lawyer who still comes to chisel several evenings a week. A dozen other students, who have arrived since then, include architects, artists, students, an archivist and a restaurateur.

“The first thing we look at,” Geckler said, “is, Does your design make sense? Or should we make it out of metal? You learn to look at a block and see your piece inside it.”

Unlike weekend painters, novice sculptors need to develop a sense of their material. “You have to test for soundness,” he went on. That means tapping a block to listen for fissures or holes in the center.

“If it sounds like a bell, it’s good,” he said. “If it sounds dull, or thuddy, there may be a crack running through it.”

Fixing what can be fixed

After offering an overview and background on stone carving, Geckler leads his charges through the nuances of selecting stones, roughing out blocks, creating textures, working out curves and edges, polishing and-when disaster occurs-mending breaks. That can be difficult. Some, notably those with darker layers, can be glued back together. Others can’t.

“Andy broke a piece in two the other day,” Geckler said. “The head came off. He had to throw the rest away-and finish carving the head.”

There are, Geckler explained, two approaches to carving stone. The Inuits of northern Canada sense a form within a block and, as they put it, simply knock away the surplus stone. The other way “is to impose my will totally on the stone,” he said, adding that “I go for the middle range.”

Balancing such contradictions is not easy. “You have to be aggressive. On the other hand, you have to listen to the stone,” he said. “It takes dexterity. Also, you don’t have time to waste. The best way is to arrive at your form quickly. To do that, you have to know your tools.”

Hand chisels leave deep bruises in the stone during the roughing-out procedure. More delicate tooth chisels, and flat chisels, are used as the final form is approached. Files and rasps, like sandpaper, smooth the work, which later is polished with acid.

“Even when you’re using an air-piston chisel, you’ve got to be delicate and careful at all times,” Geckler said, noting that even the best of stone surgeons have busts.

“I was in Italy with a guy who was working on a piece for a year and a half,” Geckler said, wincing at the memory. “A crane was lifting it and it broke in two. I swear he didn’t miss a beat. Didn’t shout. Didn’t change expression. He lifted up the phone and, calmly, ordered another block.”

Where it all began

At the time, Geckler was teaching at the Marble Carving Studio of Pietrasanta, which is in a town of 12,000 people in the foothills of Italy’s Apuane Alps, where five centuries ago Michelangelo searched out blocks of white marble for his works.

It was at nearby Luna, on the coast of the Ligurian Sea, where the Romans discovered marble about 2,000 years ago, hauling slabs south to Rome. Now, in the mountains, quarry workers at 210 sites pull out almost 1.5 million tons a year of the world’s finest marbles.

Sculptors from around the world gather in Pietrasanta, a town whose name translates as holy stone, to meet in its cafes and bars, to carve in dozens of local studios. According to one report, their recent works range from busts, backgammon boards, lamps and ashtrays to a 1954 Cadillac, sculpted in perfect detail from one colossal marble block.

Geckler, who graduated with an architecture degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1985, was drawn to sculpture while studying building forms in Greece. He came to Chicago in 1986 to work as an architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but left architecture for stone in 1988. That led to several sessions at the Pietrasanta Marble Carving Studio, which later hired him as an assistant instructor and translator.

Although there are carving centers in the U.S., notably at Barre, Vt., “as soon as I heard about that place (in Italy), I knew I had to go there,” Geckler said. “Every corner is a studio. Everyone walks around with marble dust in their hair. You feel the masters at work, following Michelangelo.”

It’s a living, but …

Back in Chicago, Geckler got a job last year as an estimator for International Marble & Granite Supply Co. Inc., a contracting firm at 2950 W. Grand Ave. that imports marble in 150 styles and fashions it into home and office counter tops, floors, hot tubs, walls, fireplaces and tiles.

That’s a livelihood, but the company owners also had a dream.

“Business is booming, and it’s good to fabricate counter tops and floors,” explained Kostas Forligas, the company’s buildings manager, joining a visitor on a studio tour. “But everybody who works with marble wants to be a sculptor. When Karl started with us, we said, `Let’s do it.’ We don’t get any money out of this, but it makes us happy.”

What the company sees taking shape, in the old building at 3053 W. Grand, is a development it will call Stone City. Company products, including tombstones, will be displayed on lower floors. On the third floor will be a gallery, to show finished sculptures, and the studio, ever expanding.

“We could take 30 students or more,” Geckler predicted, speaking over the rat-a-tat of air-piston chisels. “I know several dozen people, tucked away in lofts, or basement apartments, trying to work on their own, without access to sophisticated tools.”

For them, he says, “this is perfect. I can see this place as a real hotbed of activity. Sculptors with commissions, helping the newcomers just starting out.” Already, some of that synergy seems to be taking place.

`64 times better’

On a recent afternoon, along with students hacking away at their first blocks, artist Margaret Halkin was shaping cracked marble mosaic around an odd-shaped mirror. Jose Moreno, an established sculptor from Mexico City, was polishing up a black marble nude. Yolanda Bertaud, who helps the students with sculptural finishing, was off in a corner, painting religious icons. A Polish-born marble and metal artist, known only as Thadeusz, was working iron into leaves for curtain rod endings, producing a flying river of sparks.

Later, Andy Pappas broke away from his untitled, 200-pound work-in-progress, drove to Old Town, greeted guests and showed off some of his completed statuary at a party at Un Diamo, his new restaurant, at 1617 N. Wells St. For Pappas, there are no doubts why he likes to toil in marble.

“A painting, you can look at it. But a sculpture, you can walk around it,” he said. “Michelangelo once said that sculpting was 64 times better than painting, since there were 64 angles from which to look at a sculpture. That’s a bit arbitrary. But it’s true.”

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