Jason Chrastina of Portland works on a small marble sculpture.
photo by Helen Schmidling
Jason Chrastina of Portland works on a small marble sculpture. photo by Helen Schmidling
Turning a stone into a work of art is hard work. It’s dirty. It’s noisy. It can be toxic. And it’s addicting. Ask any one of the artists participating in the International Stone Carving Symposium this week at Suttle Lake Camp.

Symposium Director Doug Wiltshire said that there are between 50 and 60 sculptors at work during the annual event, sponsored by the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association (NWSSA). They hail from Washington and Oregon, from British Columbia, Italy, Germany, and Japan. They work under individual open-air tents, chiseling, sanding, blasting, and sanding again.

The tents circle a vast open field with a massive generator at the center, its hoses snaking through the grass to the tents to power each sculptor’s tools. The hiss of the generator alternates with the whir of drills and the chime of chisels. Early in the week, the sculptures are rough – barely suggesting a figure, an abstract shape, or a face.

By Saturday, the sculptors will present their work, finished or not, at an Outdoor Sculpture Show on the grounds of Suttle Lake Camp, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The public is welcome to observe the artists at work during the week, and especially welcome to return or visit for the first time on Saturday, to see and perhaps purchase a piece of art that’s part of the earth itself.

The artists are both men and women, from teens to seasoned citizens. Some are turning to stone for the very first time, and others have been carving for 30 years or more, and have MFA degrees framed back on their studio walls. Most of the time they work in solitude, so this communal sculpture event, in the woods at Suttle Lake, is both nurturing and inspiring.

Jason Chrastina of Portland was lured back to carving after a long hiatus. At the front of his tent were three moderately sized sculptures that he made around 20 years ago: one in marble, one in limestone, and one in alabaster.

“Life just got in the way,” he said.

He works in retail, selling natural foods, and homeopathic medications to stores all over Oregon.

“Back in 1999 or 2000, I moved to Seattle,” he said. “I knew about this society; I knew there was something, somewhere, but this year, my partner found out about this (symposium) and encouraged me to do this. So I got this chunk of marble, drilled some holes in it, and I’m chiseling around the holes.”

He’ll see a result by week’s end.

Leon White from Seattle is a veteran. On his workbench, a mermaid was emerging from a two-foot tall block of premium Carrara marble. White described the whimsical piece in great detail: “She’ll have a sand dollar necklace, and she’ll be petting a sea horse. There will be a fish here, and a starfish under her tail, which will sweep around to the back like so,” he said, waving his hands over the marble. A career artist, White began as a painter, but turned to carving stone when he got bored. He’s been a member of NWSSA since 1989, but this was his first symposium near Sisters.

“You know, it doesn’t upset me if I don’t get a whole lot done this week,” White said. “I just bring one piece to work on, because this … it’s like a reunion. We’re all excited to be here. Many of these folks don’t have a studio where they can generate this much noise and dust, so they come here to rough things out and take them back home to finish.”

Stephanie Robison teaches sculpture at City College of San Francisco. Her tent covers more than a dozen tables, where she’s working with beginners who have the opportunity to try their skill using borrowed tools, borrowed air, and new materials. Baeven Hoit, 17, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, is one of them. Her mom, Valerie, explained that Baevin has tried out all kinds of art, and makes up stories about her art as she goes. Early in the week, her sculpture definitely looked like a wolf with a bird on its back. Baevin, who has autism, is one of many special needs students participating in the symposium this year.

Veteran sculptor Patty McPhee of Tacoma brought to the lake a soft, translucent stone that she envisions as an eventual Calla Lily, by week’s end. She’s been with NWSSA for 25 years.

“It’s where I found my passion,” she said. “It’s hard work but it’s so soul-satisfying, because it connects you to the earth. We’re doing what we love, but it’s toxic I mean, really toxic. Once I was sanding a piece, a green stone called chlorite, when my husband walked in and hollered ‘STOP!’ I looked around me and there was a green haze, everywhere.”

As a result, she has asthma, but she won’t give up her passion.

McPhee describes herself as a tool junkie, with at least three angle grinders and more safety gear than a small store. All of it thanks to her teacher and mentor, Everett DuPen.

In 1925, the Hollywood Daily Citizen praised the then 13-year-old sculptor DuPen as “the genius among us.” By his death at age 92, DuPen was “an elder” and fellow of the National Sculpture Society and National Academy of Design. In his 38-year faculty career at the University of Washington, he made the Sculpture Division a nationally and internationally known group. He was a friend and a mentor to generations of artists, including McPhee and others within NWSSA, who are now mentors to a new generation entering the enchantment of this age-old artform.

“I mentor anyone who comes my way,” McPhee said, “and I find that I learn so much from the people I mentor. I receive far more than I give.”

Saturday’s Stone Sculpture Show is at Suttle Lake Camp, 29551 Suttle Lake Road, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. More information about the Northwest Stone Sculpture Association is online at nwssa.org.