Being a flower grower is pretty full on, even in the winter. One day I will be organised enough to go away for a couple of months, but in the meantime I’ve resolved to leave the To-Do list behind a bit more frequently. The longer I do this job, the more I realise that it doesn’t help to have my head constantly in the business and that ignoring it completely every so often not only makes me happier but actually increases my productivity when I return.
First off, then, a two-day course at The Old Kennels in East Devon. I’ve taught a Christmas wreath workshop here for the last few years. It’s a beautiful tucked-away venue, run by Tracey Bell, who selects incredibly creative and interesting courses: stave-basket making, Victorian wirework, art-nouveau tile decorating, hand-painted sign writing and so much more... If I could, I’d do all of them.
I chose Carving a Stone Gargoyle with the brilliant Kate Semple. I mean, who doesn’t need a gargoyle in their life?
The picture of what we were going to produce looked fabulous. I was doubtful that I could produce something like that from scratch in just two days, but Kate (wearing a dusty smock and looking exactly how you want a sculptor to look) seemed confident that we'd all be fine and offered us a choice of four or five designs to copy. I chose the one with a big smile and lovely folded-back rabbit ears.
We were given a block of Bath stone (apparently softer than Portland) and a template from which to work out the initial big bits that needed to be got rid of.
The trick to sculpting is getting your head round taking the bits away you don’t need. It sounds obvious but it’s actually quite a difficult concept - when you draw, you concentrate on the thing you’re creating, not the space around it. Add to that, the 3D element and suddenly your confidence about what goes where goes out of the window.
Kate demonstrated how to carve a guide channel, which acts as a barrier to stop you lopping off more than you meant to, and gave us all a dolly (the hammer tool) and a couple of chisels - one flat-headed to carve the guide, and one with a point to “pluck” away the bits of stone you’re aiming to get rid of.
By lunchtime we all had a vague outline of what we were aiming for and had begun to use a claw chisel (more like a fork end to it) to refine what we were getting rid of. I could start to see a face emerging - even if it did look like it had some hideous disease.
I am naturally quite shaky and rarely get more than half an hour into anything involving tools before I’m bleeding. I started off quite tentatively but, of course, the more confident you are the easier it turns out to be and soon we were all sending great shards of stone round the room.
All the time, Kate was moving round the class, giving each of us personal attention, doing a little bit for us to copy and being incredibly encouraging.
After lunch (always a feast at The Old Kennels - to keep course prices down, Tracey asks you to bring a small dish to add to the delicious salads, veg dishes and bread she makes herself) it was back to the carving. Suddenly I had lost my nerve. Starting to shape the eyebrows and the nose, I was scared of lopping off a vital bit I'd need later (I have a whole new sympathy for plastic surgeons...). Kate came and carved the shape of one eyebrow and the cheek bone and left me to copy it on the other side. What I really liked about the class was that you get time to work at your own pace. Having shown you your next steps, Kate goes off to help another person and there's no pressure to keep up with everybody else. You're all just doing your own thing, in your own little space. I really liked that.
By the end of Day One I could see a face developing - not a pretty face, and not one that resembled the gargoyle I was supposed to be following in any recognisable way but it was a face! I went home quite pleased with my efforts and proudly covered in dust - just like a real artist.
Day Two and I was anxious to get going. It seemed like I had a mountain to climb if I was to turn this into anything recognisable by 4 o'clock. This time, for the intricate bits, we used a chisel with a rounded edge and tried to smooth the stone out as we carved. It's hard! Where Kate made the chisel glide across the stone to leave smooth, beautifully-rounded shapes, I could only manage small, jagged grooves. The eye Kate carved was plump and round and in the right place. The one I did kept getting flatter and flatter as I tried again and again to get it vaguely even. I know gargoyles are supposed to be grotesque but I didn't really want it to be cross-eyed.
Still, I persevered and gradually, very gradually, it came together. A quick motivational chat to Tracey's alpaca at lunchtime and another fine lunch all helped. By mid-afternoon, I had got the shape of the ears in there. The other students, meanwhile, were finishing off their designs.
Seeing I was struggling, Kate came and rescued the shape of the other eye. Then it was just a case of smoothing and refining. I liked this bit a lot - using a rasp and smoothing away the more viscious-looking marks suddenly made it look much more professional. Kate was keen to stress that you shouldn't get rid of all the sculptors' marks, as that's what gives it its character. No problem there, I'd be here till Christmas if I were to do that.
So this is the little man I ended up with - not all, but mostly, my own work and certainly much better than I had thought I'd do.
I loved my course at The Old Kennels and I'm sure it did me good to get away from the field for a couple of days - even if I did spend quite a lot of time thinking about which flower bed my new little friend would be happiest in. The hellebores, of course.
The Old Kennels is at Stentwood, Dunkeswell, Devon,
EX14 4RW. Details of their course programme can be found at www.theoldkennels.co.uk/courses. Tracey also offers B&B and sells 100% pure alpaca quilts and pillows.
Find out about Kate Semple's brilliant courses here: http://www.thestonecarvingstudio.org/index.htm