Abraham Mohler has now spent over 15 years in the business as a stone sculptor. With a studio in downtown St. Louis and gallery representation, he has broken rank and garnered the kind of exponential conservation of momentum you expect from objects in motion. I sat at his feet over the course of several days at a stone symposium hosted by the ever-hospitable Jorge Leyva a couple years back.
Abe had never met the stone sculptor Bill Snow before, he came to the symposium through another carver named Julie who had been one of Bill’s protégés for some time. Julie and Abe connected at symposium in Colorado.
It’s not a conference. Think: no more than forty-five people per week. Colorado is the biggest one Abe knows of, but he hasn’t been around as much as others. He knows something similar exists in Santa Fe, Minnesota, the East Coast. The Italian marble countryside hosts one, but they can’t be much larger than the Colorado one because, let’s face it: stone carvers may well face extinction in a few generations.
Someone polishes a slab of limestone, accompanying our conversation with the screech of some grinder. “Oh that’s giving me chills,” Abe said. He points to the tool and explains how it’s great for making big rocks into smaller rocks. I ask him if that’s why he comes to symposiums: for the big tools. He doesn’t. He finds symposiums great for teaching techniques through more unusual tools meant for the minutia of the carving life. These intensive, short workshops compound the craft of the carvers attending.
“A lot of people who go are retired, semi-retired,” he said. “People with time and money to travel around the world learning how to do this stuff. Then they come to these symposiums and freely share what they’ve learned. It’s a great way to learn the process of stone carving. It can’t be taught very easily or effectively in the university programs because it’s so expensive, dusty, and the learning curve is really steep.”
On the original recording for this interview, I’m coughing hard. I got a sinus infection later that week from all the dust.
He adjusts the straps on the dust mask hanging around his neck so as not to choke. “You’re not gonna produce work in a semester’s time. I think for those reasons it’s not commonly taught in the universities. Philosophically the universities have gone in a different direction. There’s a gap in knowledge of where you can find this stuff, where you can learn how to do this.”
The sounds strike me again on the recording. This time it’s the high-pitched, oscillating ring of a chisel running over marble, a wineglass harmonica, the ringing of a great steel trainwheel over its I-beam track: resonant frequency hitting home.
“When I came out of college, I had spent most of my time in the wood shop. But rather than pursuing wood, I chose stone because as long as you have a hammer and a chisel and a piece of stone, you can make some cool stuff. I supposed the same is true of wood, but you need all the saws and equipment to build the raw starting block. With wood you’re building first. With stone—“
“You’re shaving first.”
Subtractive art. A refinery. Like all things that deal in ore.
“I didn’t have any money starting out.”
“So it was cheaper?” I ask.
“To get in at a certain level,” he said. “Now since then, yeah. To get started with a good set-up, two-thousand dollars would be kind of reasonable. For the air compressor, maybe a grinder. Two-grand would be… and the stone itself can be pretty expensive.”
“Like a marble or something,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “It can be pretty cost-prohibitive once you get into it.”
“Are you full time?” I ask.
“I’m very fortunate,” he says. “Ten years ago, I was just committed to being an artist and wouldn’t allow myself to go find a real job. It’s been tough. It’s been very, very difficult — I have a wife and kids. She raises the kids so I’m providing for the family with what I can bring in. It’s not easy, but we both enjoy what we’re doing so much, this is what we’re committed to. So far it’s been good and the future looks very bright. Each year has been better than the last because each month you survive, it gets a little easier. It’s a very accumulative process. You get used to hearing ‘no’ a lot. I get used to hearing some promises, ‘I’m gonna do this or I’m gonna do that.’ And so that hope keeps you going. Maybe two percent of those promises come to reality.”
“That sounds like support raising for nonprofits,” I say.
“Yeah,” he said. “I live on that hope so I’m thankful for it. Each of those people that I’ve met along the way end up leading to something in some way, some where. Every little bit helps.”
“So really it’s building clientele just as if you were selling washers.”
“Selling stocks, bonds,” he adds.
“Which is funny,” I say, “because a lot of people don’t think about it that way. They say, ‘I want to be an artist,’ and they don’t realize there’s a business side to it. And a lot of that is the Midwest and especially in a Southeast Missouri like a Sikeston or like a Greenville, Ohio, you know it’s more about shaking hands with people than it is about excel spreadsheets. I’m guessing you’ve tried to mix it up every few years to go smaller and have some more affordable things?”
“I’m beginning to learn that,” he said. “Early on I was trying to do bigger things because it takes just as long to do a small thing as it does to do a big thing. But the idea is… a big thing could have a higher price point. So my tendency was to go for the bigger things expecting that they were going to sell, but they haven’t sold as well as I thought they would. Price sensitivity is a big thing to pay attention to, so it is good for me to begin to work small and then work backwards and say, ‘I might be able to make more on faster nickles than slower dimes.’”
He has a point. Given the opportunity to invest in a gumball machine that charges 5¢ per gumball and sells 1,000 gumballs in a week or a pinball machine that charges 50¢ and gets 75 plays per week, I would go with the gumball machine every single time — the gumballs provide a return of 33% more. The same goes for short story-to-novel blend, at least for now.
“Having a bit of both to have a nice, broad portfolio… people see and like my work so you gotta be attentive to how it fits their style.”
“What’s the biggest thing you’ve made?” I ask.
“I’ve done a headstone that weighed about eleven tons. It was women at the feet of the cross. It’s a black granite headstone,” he said.
Springstone. A black African stone from Zimbabwe. As a very, very hard stone, similar to a granite, with very fine grain, sometimes he’ll find a vein of iron inside it. How does he know? It’ll spark. He’s learned to look out for the red in it that starts out grey brownish and ends black, protecting the chisel point from hitting on rust.
“What’s fascinating is how many types of stone there are,” I said. “As diverse as countries.”
“And people,” Julie said.
“Opal stone,” he said.
“This is harder,” she said.
“Stone is measured on a scale of one to ten,” he said.
“The Mo scale, conveniently,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said.
Behind them, a fourth carver named Mark found a way to integrate a black stone and a white stone perfectly so that the yin and yang blended in a mutual maelstrom.
Another worked on a cool a hand-forged flute, but had nothing to lay it in.
“I need a pretty cheap process,” Mark said. “Blown glass?”
“Or just slumped in the kiln,” Julie said. “If you used clear glass, you could see that whole…”
“High five,” Mark said.
“That’s why you go to symposium,” Julie said.
“Mark and I were talking about that earlier—it’s more important that the idea gets used,” Abe said.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I feel that way about copywriting and intellectual property. I can’t understand why writers cling so tightly to their ideas: even if every writer I ever met stole an idea and made a living off of it, I’d still have a lifetime of ideas left to write.”
Julie talked about sharing tools as well as ideas.“Tools, on a practical level, the symposium—I was telling John—tool-sharing is a great thing because I can carve for months—“
“She’s introducing me to these,” Abe said.
He lifts up a handful of tiny tools like what you might find in a dentist’s arsenal. They’re delicate little scrapers.
Julie said, “And Abe introduced me to a cool little air hammer that were supposedly modeled after tools found in Michelangelo’s studio years later.”
Abe rotated the scraper slowly before his eyes.
“Its just a little scraper,” Julie said, blushing and grinning a little.
“You could basically polish it with this,” Abe said. “No cloth.
“Those scrapers won’t work on Zimbabwean springstone or granite,” she said.
“They’d work great on marble,” he said and his eyes took on the kind of imaginative depth you see in the Greek sculptures at the Met: considering a world of potential futures, all of them fantastic.
“The only time I tried it I ended with blistered fingers, gloves on,” Julie said.
Abe snapped out of the reverie and started back in. “We were talking about diversifying sizes and scales. I have a big rock pile of stuff I’ve cut off of other stones. It’s a nice way to recycle stone, repurpose it. I did a big project for Missouri Botanical Garden, a great big sun dial. After the project I was left with these triangular blocks of stone. Not a whole lot bigger than this, couldn’t bear to throw them away because at $2 a pound, each one of these pieces was like five bucks. You can’t just throw that away. Held onto them and I’ve been making alabaster babies. As I’ve had my kids, I’ve done alabaster, life-sized fetuses or the size of a newborn for doctors. They look like pearls. I’ve been creating stone shells for them and they’re really elegant. They’re carved out of stone. It’s a unique image that people have begun to associate with me. The idea of making babies is kind of…”
“You’re in the baby-making business.”
“I get it from my name. Abraham: Father of Multitudes.”
“Father Abraham. That’s a good exhibit name, man.”
“Making Babies. Yeah, it’s a good way to repurpose the stone, so all the white come from that. I’ve done a fair bit of that in my career — finding blocks of stone from buildings that are torn down. Half of my stone has just come to me from building projects, stuff that I’ve salvaged.”
Let me tell you — as someone who married into a St. Louis family there is a lot of loose stone in that city. In my mind, Abraham is to St. Louis stone what community gardeners are to Detroit soil and ethical carpenters are to Joplin.
“I do like that concept: repurposing something that was going into a rubble pile somewhere and turning it into something wonderful.”
He loves the organic nature of it, how often stone reminds him of his early days spent carving wood. I grew up in the house of a carpenter so I heard go with the grain often, but until that October symposium, I had never heard it applied to stone.
“Different stones behave in different ways. Alabaster can be kind of tricky because it’s growing, it’s formed with all sorts of different veins. It’s more like wood in that you’re trying to run one direction and all of the sudden there’s a sheer fissure that shoots you the other way.”
“Like a knot.”
“Yeah. And you’re like, ‘Well I guess I’m not going to carve in that direction. I’ll go a different way.’ A stone like that can often crack in the middle of a carve and you’ll lose a large section and have to start over, so you have to heed the stone. But if you’re careful and you take your time, you’ll have something that’ll last forever.”
I live in New York City these days. Often times when riding the N or the D over the Manhattan bridge, I see the cityscape rise up before me and wonder how much of that metal and glass will be around in a couple of thousand years. The pyramids have lasted because of the sheer gravity implied in the kinds of materials used. Greek sculpture has lasted because they chose marble. In fact, looking back at Mark’s pictures, these stone sculptors seem to wear the exact same clothes that you might find on farmers, lumberjacks, and concrete workers — it’s a manful, dusty craft meant to hew weighty art from slabs. Today, we live in a disposable culture that has no time left for stone carvers and deep in my bones, I’m wondering if our lack of care — our inability to heed the stone — is creating great cracks in the earth itself,. I’m wondering if our very disposable culture is disposing of itself and the people who inhabit it slowly, surely, with a ruthless efficiency that one day will cross the point of no return.
Perhaps it’s not stone carvers that are dying out after all.
Perhaps it’s the ideas of permanence, eternity, and infinity.
And perhaps, like the sculptures that have outlasted empires, the ideas of permanence, eternity, and infinity don’t require our belief in order to keep on being true.
Go buy an alabaster baby from Father Abraham if you’re ever in St. Louis. His spirit and his craft fill me with joy and peace every time I get a chance to talk to him.
And taken together, they make me want to live forever.
photos via Mark N.