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Stone art: “It's almost like meditation”

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Aaron Salamon demonstrates his stone art carving techniques on a slab of soapstone. Salamon was one of the artists who participated in the self-guided arts tours hosted by the Estevan Arts Council on July 25 and 26.

The shed of Aaron Salamon's house in Estevan is a testimony to his newfound passion for stone carvings and sculptures.

The tools of his trade hang from the shed’s walls. Different types of stone wait to be chiseled and shaped into different objects. His basement is filled with sculptures that not only reflect his passion for stone work, but serve as an artistic tribute to his mother.

Salamon was among the artists who participated in the self-guided arts tours hosted by the Estevan Arts Council and Culture on the Go on July 25 and 26. Members of the public could drop by and chat with Salamon about his art and his techniques, and even work on a stone carving.

Incredibly, he only took up the art form in 2013.

It started when he was at his parents' farm last year, a few weeks after his mother passed away.

“I went out to Dad's shop, got a hammer and chisel, grabbed a stone from the field, and started carving,” he recalled. “The field stone I was using was really hard, so after nine hours out there, I had barely made a face in the stone.

“But it was a really relaxing, great way to spend nine hours. I just enjoyed the process so much that I started looking around to what stones I could buy.”

The process of carving and sculpting stone is “almost like meditation,” he said. It gives him time to think, and focus on creating something.

His grandfather was a skilled stone carver who turned stones into jewelry, belt buckles, clocks and other objects. Each grandchild, including Salamon, received a gift carved from stone.

Salamon said he was inspired by his grandfather’s craft.

“I guess I grew up always seeing different stones, and being amazed at how impressive they looked polished up and presented in jewelry,” said Salamon.

Stone carving can be a very elaborate process. Demonstrating the process on a slab of soapstone, Salamon said he’ll use a point chisel and a hammer to create a rough shape. From there, he’ll use a grid pattern to attain the desired shape.

“Then you'll go to a fork chisel, and take out the deep gouges from the chisel you've used before,” said Salamon. “So every chisel you use, you try and take out all the gouges you made from the previous one.”

He also employs rifflers, which are a hand tool.

“That's why they're all the different fancy shapes, depending on what angles and corners and things you want to get into,” said Salamon. “There's pretty much a shape for everything you want to get into.”

He’ll use coarse, grit sandpaper and work his way up to 3,000-grit sandpaper for the finishing.

“You have to be careful how you progress, that you're always taking out the scratches from the previous level of sandpaper, before you move to the next one, or else you'll get through … all the stages, and you think you're good,” said Salamon. “You'll let it dry, and there'll be a really noticeable gouge.”

A gouge will force him to start all over again.

If he wants a glossier finish for his sculpture, he has various products in his shed at his disposal. The type of stone dictates the finish that he uses.

Salamon has become an expert with a variety of stones. Soapstone is a soft material that is relatively easy to work with. He could carve it with a fingernail.

“If you wanted to get into it with minimal tools and equipment, you can start with soapstone, get a basic set of sculpting tools for $150 or so … and you can start carving that,” he said.

People who came to his house through the self-guided arts tour could use a chisel and a hammer on a slab of soapstone, to experience just how soft it is. Salamon said they might wind up contributing to his next work of art.

Alabasters, black chlorite and pyrophyllite are his favourite materials to work with. All three boast similar levels of hardness.

Several types of alabasters are on display in his shed and his basement. All three have varying levels of hardness. They’re beautiful, they offer a lot of colours, and they can be translucent, he said.

Black chlorite actually starts as a rough white stone, but as he polishes it, the stone turns black.

“It's a difficult one to work with, because as you're polishing it, you're wet sanding it,” said Salamon. “When it's wet, everything looks perfect; everything looks shiny and black. But when it dries, any defects or scratches in it, they show up bright white. So I find it's challenging.”

One of his favourite carvings, an eagle he named Freedom, was used with pyrophyllite.

He cautions anyone who wants to try stone carvings to use a facemask or goggles, so that they don’t expose themselves to the dust generated by the work.

But it’s not as difficult as some people think.

“It might be a bit intimidating for some people, because it seems like different things, different tools, stone and whatever else,” said Salamon. “It's something that's as complicated as you want to make it, but at the end of the day, it's as simple as a hammer, a chisel and a stone.”

His basement houses a stone art narrative, Mom’s Last Few Years, which chronicles his mother’s battle with cancer. Five pieces, employing different techniques of stone sculptures, pay tribute to his mother.

It starts with Embrace, which depicts his parents sharing a tender moment before telling their children about her cancer.

“They were always a loving couple, and supportive and everything,” said Salamon.

The other exhibits are Support, which honours the support structure of her family and friends; Bound, which reflects her repeated battles with cancer, and her desire to beat the disease; Guardian, which is a snow owl that Salamon saw while racing to Saskatoon to be with his mother the night she passed away; and Release, which depicts a woman saying goodbye and walking into the fire of cremation.

Salamon said he wants to further his stone shaping skills. He wants to work with harder substances like marble and granite. Granite would require diamond tools for finishing and cutting work. He does have the tools to work with marble. 

And one day, he would like to travel to an annual stone sculpting symposium in California, or even a training program in Italy, to further his skills. 

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