These 73-year-old hands have been carving jade for nearly forty of those years. Nary a penny earned for the effort. Several reasons for that. Mainly the ample financial rewards earned by these hands working on telecommunication electronics and main frame computers dissuaded any thoughts of pursuing a life of starving artist. The attached ten digits remain busy in these twelve years of retirement but as yet still monetarily uncompensated. Though a price was incurred in those forty years. Fortunately that matter was resolved satisfactorily the past year by carpal tunnel release surgery on both wrists.
Lacking formal art instruction and without mentored guidance in the ways of lapidary these hands underwent a hit and miss sort of education in glyptic sculpture. That would be with emphasis on the 'miss'. Somehow, eventually, the corresponding two feet managed to secure a solid footing on this business and forward momentum was achieved.
In the early years there was experimentation with any number of gemstone materials. Mostly of the cryptocrystalline quartz varieties. But one day these eyes set upon this unfamiliar green block of stone called jade. Things have never been the same since. Partly owing to acquired skills but appreciably owing to a stone obligingly compliant to often unreasonable expectations this chap in a younger shop apron was catapulted from beginner carver to awarded master in record time. So began a decades long love affair with jade.
For benefit of the readership it must be pointed out that there are two stones chemically and mineralogically different that legitimately are referred to as 'jade'. It is a bit of unfortunate circumstances going back some two hundred fifty years why this is so. A mineralogist in 1866 realized the duplicity and attempted to correct the matter by calling one jadeite and the other nephrite. Helpful as the distinction was the subsequent one hundred fifty years have failed to eliminate the confusion factor for the general public. Two stones continue as one name. It is nephrite exclusively that enter and leave this carver's workshop.
What makes nephrite jade such an ideal medium for the gemstone carver is its physical structure. Nephrite is a rock made up of a variable but somewhat consistent conglomeration of minerals of a specific mineralogical group. The primary mineral constituents initially were fibrous and parallel. During the subterranean metamorphic process of heat and pressure the fibers became distorted, compressed and cohesive. Mineralogists refer to this interlocking distortion as 'felting'. The result after baking in earth's oven and left to cool on the window sill is an especially tough substance that resists deformation. Nephrite, but with one minor exception, is in fact the toughest natural material on this planet. Jadeite comes in second at about half toughness and for a different structural reason. The Mohs hardness of nephrite ranges from 6 to 6 ½. But nephrite is many, many, many times tougher than diamond with its hardness of 10. For the carver this toughness lends to jade's ability to hold up to especially fine and intricate details.
The carvings Grief and Blue Octopus were a temporary hiatus from jade during an early interval of depleted personal jade inventory. Grief was carved from a single Arkansas quartz crystal. Although a good carving material in its own right its appeal did not surpass that of nephrite. The entire carving is of a frosted surface but for the two polished tears streaming down the woman's cheeks. The intent of the carving was to project to the viewer raw emotion. Although that effect seems to have been achieved well enough, the subject is a bit macabre. No other attempt along such a theme has been made since.
It so happened during the hiatus that a nearly forty pound available piece of especially fine and highly desirable Wyoming jade was brought to this jade nut's attention. At any other time the purchase of such a superb homogenous colored rock would not have just severely impacted the family budget but would have outright destroyed it. But at that time my particular telecommunication skills were in high demand. The overtime was brutal. The resultant paychecks were obscenely swollen. The jade acquisition became a done deal. Had my personal clairvoyant-on-retainer not been out sick on that day there would have been a second mortgage taken on the house to buy more chunks from the original 860 pound boulder. Opportunities for Wyoming "apple green" are increasingly rarer with an inversely proportional increasing price. Current four figure prices per pound not including the decimal are outright scary. The carvings Just a Trim and Mother's Board Meeting were made from the purchased piece.
An early path was set toward carving thematic nursery rhymes and fables. But it was learned that such a theme artistically tends toward banality. Perhaps not in jade but certainly in other mediums. The pursuit of avant-garde artistic uniqueness is an elusive one. Whatever one does almost invariably someone else somewhere has done it before. Nonetheless there are artists seeking the less repetitious who wander about on less trodden paths. The path most often chosen by this artist is that of narrative sculpture. Captures of moments in time of otherwise unremarkable pedestrian events. The attempt always is to portray verbs as opposed to nouns. For some yet undiagnosed reason the artistry portion of this brain's dopamine receptors fail at abstract and organic forms.
Because of nephrite's toughness but not so much its hardness the usual stone sculpting methods are ineffectual. Single-mindedly beat on a chunk of nephrite with mallet and chisel and one will miss every call to lunch and dinner for the next decade. Nephrite's toughness is why aboriginal cultures used the stone for hammers, adzes and anvils. But it is tractable to abrasion. The jade cultures of yore used the much harder quartz, emery and corundum sands to fashion implements and amulets. Today, of course, manufactured diamond grits are the preferred choice for cutting and shaping.
This carver's workshop is fairly well equipped with a myriad assortment of tools. Most of which are motorized. Many of which are self-made. There are several saws with diamond impregnated rims ranging from 8" diameter to 18". The saws are the heavy hitters early on in a carving project. Grinding is such a slow tedious chore that one wants to cut off as much waste material as possible. The word 'waste' used rather liberally as most trimmed pieces become candidates for later smaller projects. The saw cuts may be performed on a lapidary trim saw or for larger projects a pivoting drop saw. An arbor mounted diamond grinding wheel comes into play following the saw work. Smaller diamond grinding wheels are used next if appropriate. Then comes the detailed grinding. Small diamond burrs mounted on some variation of a bench arbor might perform much of the shaping. Or else a motor-driven flexible shaft with hand piece and small burrs will consume a significant proportion of the project interval. Lastly comes the tedious sanding. Jade carvers learn and relearn the inevitable fact that once the piece has attained the desirable shape the work is only halfway done. The sanding goes on seemingly endlessly. The coarser sanding may be done by hand with shaped pieces from grindstone blocks. Later stages of sanding most often are done with diamond impregnated pastes applied with a motor-driven rotating tool which may be nothing more than a hardwood or bamboo dowel.
To emphasize the tedium of sanding consider the carving Cameraman. The carving's shape rather much looked at eight months into the project like it is seen now in the photograph. But it took yet another seven months of several stages of sanding to achieve the final desired finish. It can be disheartening at times to realize that the intended shape has been obtained but as much interval again is required to complete the sculpture.
The Cameraman carving was a particularly challenging subject. A 1:1 model was crafted of wood and clay. Initial cuts were made with a saw then came the grinding. And more grinding. What turned out to be a constant dilemma was creating the tripod legs. Not only are there angles within each tripod leg that must match the others but that all three tripod legs required the same angles to arrive at the same corresponding platform position. No small number of templates were created from phenolic sheet (electronic insulative material) to act as guides. It was a painstaking process of grind, measure, compare, grind, measure, compare.
The dioramic Saturday Morning Cartoons was one of the less tedious and more fun projects. Except maybe for making those little vacuum tubes, transformer and speaker and such inside the close quarters of the cabinet. As sculptors know, achieving proportion with human figures can be challenging. And faces can be exasperating to get right. When the entire head is smaller than a walnut the detail work is quite protracted. Achieving eye and ear symmetry can take hours.
It had been the intention this year to begin depleting the years of accumulated jade scraps to use in smaller short interval projects such as amulets and jewelry items. For some reason these 73 year old hands could not resist embarking on yet another months long project. And only recently yet another jade candidate for a larger project somehow found its way into the shop inventory. Oh, but if there only were another forty years of opportunity.