Polar Bear Carving
I don't know where they came, from but there they were in my hoard of rocks. Some of the odds and ends of one of the collections I've come by. Just two or three pieces of white alabaster, white as the driven snow, dimpled and peaked. I often contemplated they must have been pulled out of a stream. Fast moving water must have made those shapes. I remember looking at one about five by six inches across and thinking how beautiful it looked, and how very like the Arctic snowdrifts, wind sculpted and burnished.
As I looked at it, I thought what it needed was a set of tracks meandering across it. What would have made those tracks? A polar bear of course! Nothing else could make those tracks in my head. There it was now. An image in my head of tracks being left by a polar bear, as though I had spotted them from a helicopter and there he is now at the end of them. But what is he carved from? I guess it will have to be something white. But what will we have? A white rock with a few tiny prints in it leading to a small white figure. A great idea in my head, but in reality it will go unnoticed simply because of the color. We've got to do something about that!
As I look about my beloved hoard of rocks and ponder, I look at some low grade Siberian lapis lazuli. There's lots of white in it, and we feel we do need some white in a polar bear, but what about some intense blue in spots and blotches? The blue won't hurt the idea of arctic cold. It will introduce a little fancy, and isn't that what gemstone carving is all about? A little fancy combined with hard reality to make something unique.
So, I started carving the bear. Practically all of the rough shaping was done with a very aggressive 6" diamond blade. The bear was a small carving about one inch long, and looked quite natural. I had studied pictures of polar bears to get the proportions. When I'm looking for reference material, I like it if I can get more than one photo of the same animal. I was once carving a soapstone buffalo, and using a number of different photos of different bulls. I found as I switched reference matter how very different each animal was from the rest. No two buffalo were alike, so trying to use a number of shots of different bulls was not helping. I suppose in most cases the carver has to settle these internal disputes according to his own conscience and the resources he has at hand. At the end I just find myself hoping that the viewer recognizes it as whatever is on the label. I just hope he realizes it isn't a doorstop.
On the subject of soapstone, my favorite tool is the wire wheel in a Foredom for small work, and in an ordinary hand drill for big work. Protect the Foredom from the dust with a small plastic bag. For the hand drill, use an old machine or the cheapest you can find. The dust wears it out, but one thing I like about it is the air coming out the side will blow your dust away. Do it outside, wearing a good filtration mask. The beauty of the wire wheel is its speed, as it always stays sharp and doesn't load up. Everything else loads up, so the work slows down, and right away becomes tedious. I know you don't want to wreak a drill, even an old one, but lets think outside the box a little. Say this priceless old heirloom lasts for 3 or 4 large carvings. Considering what a large original carving can sell for, maybe that isn't such a great expense. I found while working on the buffalo that I could remove bulk material and could detail at the same time.
Further shaping was done on the polar bear with coarse diamond burs under a water drip. Smoothing and polishing was done with different grades of diamond paste, beefed up with loose diamond powders. I used certain methods, too lengthy to deal with here, which can be found in a number of good "How To" carving books. The bear carving came together nicely, and looked very natural. The tracks happened very easily because the Alabaster is so soft, and I simply gouged them out to an appropriate size and pattern. Few pieces I've done have ever come together so easily. I liked the piece. It gave an impression of a vast land because the bear was so very small. The natural stone got a chance to make a big statement. Very little was done with it, and yet it worked in the telling of this simplest of stories.
I wrote this article just to show how ideas can begin for carvings. Some pieces inspire great wonder for what has been done, and one marvels at the skill of the carver. Some pieces are done simply to refine something that's caught the carvers' attention in the natural forms. One can be inspired to make certain appropriate decisions to show others what has been seen, and because of these moves we've told a story in stone.