Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life Lessons from a Stone Sculptor

Funny how a day can go nothing as planned, and still work out better than I could have ever expected. Last Thursday was one of those days.

I was in Pittsfield, Vermont at 1pm, about 7 hours early for my night of obstacle race training. That part was intended. I'd easily found the Original General Store, stretched, had a beer and reorganized my gear after the 10 hour drive. The General Store is an absolute treasure - great food, beautiful wares, amazing ambiance and, best of all, wonderful people. Andrew, the salt and pepper haired chef was cooking up a storm and Leann, a beautiful woman with an air of quiet confidence, was seated at the counter with a coffee and some bookkeeping. Both clearly approached their work with joy and ease, and made me feel most welcome.

The only thing between me and a perfect day were the metal filings in my eyes. This is where things started to stray from the schedule. I had gone back out to the truck to sharpen my axes with a hand file, to be followed by a 4 hour nap. As soon as I started filing I knew that I didn't know what I thought I knew about sharpening tools. For example, it probably should have occurred to me to wear goggles or at least my sunglasses. Soon there was a thin layer of metal shavings on my jeans as I valiantly worked away, on a warm, sunny, gusty afternoon. Yep - gusty. So, you know what happened next... Both eyes. Full of tiny strips of steel. And to add insult to injury (literally), I had made no headway in my acuminating efforts. I couldn't whet an edge but I sure as hell had to wet my eyeballs fast!

After rinsing for a while in the General Store washroom I was finally able to blink again with some semblance of normalcy. But time was ticking and I still had an "axe to grind" and some "logs to saw" (please take a moment to appreciate those very punny double-entendres!). I decided I had better ask for some help.

"Leann," I began, "Do you know anyone locally who I could see about sharpening my axes?"

This question must have seemed very odd on a number of levels. First, Pittsfield has a population of 400 people. I am pretty sure there is no one locally who Leann does not know. Second, I would imagine most anyone in Pittsfield would have some idea about sharpening an axe - it's just that kind of place. But, third, they would also be certain to wonder what kind of fool drives 600 miles to a wood chopping event with dull axes. Well, they were about to meet one ... me.

Without the slightest display of disdain, Leann replied, "Of course. I will call my husband and if he's there I know he'd be happy to do that for you .... Hi, Julian. I have a friend of Joe's here who needs to put an edge on his axe. Sure thing, I will send him right down."

About 2 miles down Route 100 I found myself in front of an unassuming red barn that was too close to the road. What set it apart from the hundreds of other red barns along this same historic stretch of highway was the magnificent marble sign welcoming me to Stone Revival. Immediately upon opening the door, I knew I was in for a treat. Still, I had no idea how great the next few hours would be.

I was standing in a gallery full of original masterpieces. There were marble reliefs, 3 dimensional busts, wildlife, all hand carved from various types of stone. I was honestly speechless.

"Hello there!" boomed a friendly voice from the next room. "C'mon in!"

And that is how I met Julian Isaacson.

Julian makes quite an impression. It is clear that he does physical work, as he is as solid as the rock he shapes and has hands that could easily crush mine. But his broad smile makes it clear that he prefers making friends to foes, and he seemed genuinely happy to help me out. 

My axes were still in the truck and, before I went to retrieve them, I asked him about his work. His studio was filled with works in progress. Mostly stone. One enchanting piece of wood that was being transformed into a fallen angel. And all the tools of his trade - hammers and chisels and myriad implements I won't even try to name.

Questions about his work flowed easily into questions about his life. One of seven children of artist parents, Julian is self-taught - with no schooling save for a life of creative immersion. It would have been an interesting upbringing; an American Indian mother, a Russian Jewish father, a house full of musicians and artists of every medium. Originally envying his brothers' musical talents, Julian soon found his own in sculpting and in cooking.

For many years sculpting was primarily a labour of love, while he made his career in the kitchen. It was in California that Julian had a successful restaurant business before returning to his native Vermont several years ago and refocusing his energy on his work with stone.

Julian and Leann have two adult children, and it was after we had discussed our kids that I pocketed the first gem of wisdom from my new artist friend. Julian had moved on to explaining his work in 3-dimensional solid pieces - pointing to a face that was nearly completed. He explained that the most important thing was to only shape it a little at a time. Not only would that prevent accidentally removing too much stone that could not be replaced, but also it would allow the piece to show the artist its true shape, which may evolve very differently than the sculptor had originally envisioned. 

As he spoke, I continued to listen but also found myself thinking back to a year ago, coaching my son, Jack, in wrestling. Without getting into the specifics, I was upset with Jack and - in my well-intentioned efforts to help shape him into the person I thought he should be - I now saw that I had chiseled away a little bit of who Jack really was. Reflecting further, it wasn't hard to think of times I had done the same to Katy, or my parents had done the same to me. 

Julian continued, "Sometimes I find myself tense, using too heavy a hand. And it is important to be able to step back. Whenever I realize I am trying to force a result I find it's best to turn my attention to something else until I can return with an open spirit."

I don't know if Julian intended the analogy to parenting, but that is the beauty of his words - just like his sculptures. While they have an external physical/literal form, they also serve to inspire and inform on a much deeper, more personal level. For you this lesson may resonate instead in your work, in your marriage, in your life-planning.

Eventually I did run to the truck for my axes and, while Julian ground the blades with a sure touch, we continued our lively conversation. We covered lots of ground (I am sure I will eventually have a whole series of posts relating to the insights gained that afternoon) and finally Julian gave each edge a final look and handed them to me. He wouldn't take any payment and actually thanked me for the visit!

My four hour nap was now only going to be 90 minutes, but I didn't begrudge the lost sleep in the least. Not only were my axes razor sharp, but I knew that I was a tangibly better person than before I arrived at Stone Revival, and I had made a new friend.

Julian's website is under re-construction, but check back in at www.stonerevival.com in the future to see his extraordinary work!


  1. What a great lesson for a parent to be reminded of! We are here to shape but in the image they are intended to take, not necessarily the one we envision in our mind. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. I just got goosebumps reading this. I don't know if it's because of how important the lesson is or because I'm so proud of Vermont's kindness. It's filled with so many people such as the one's you met in Pittsfield!

    Glad you got your blades & mind sharpened (;

  3. John, thank you for sharing the internal beauty and spirit of such a special man. I have been blessed to love, and be loved, for 28 years by Julian. You too - have a true listening heart, and are a great storyteller. We will see you again I hope!