By Susan Gallacher-Turner
Joni Mitchell, chiseling out beauty.
As I stepped out of the car, it was obvious right away that a stone sculptor lived here. In the front courtyard was a pumice sculpture of a mother and child that radiated a loving connection mixed with free-spirited playfulness. This was one of two outdoor sculptures adorning Joni Mitchell’s home but there was much more in her backyard studio which she and her husband built themselves.
Through the double doors, this simple white studio held an amazing array of power tools, a kiln, and a hose connected to the air compressor housed in the garage. And it’s the tools that powered Joni’s interest in stone carving, without them Joni would have given up on stone. “In my first class, I only had a hammer and a very small chisel and I swore that I would never touch marble again, because it was too hard,” said Joni. But when Marlyhurst teacher, M.J. Anderson, a well-known stone sculptor, introduced Joni to power and air tools, Joni said, “Then I really loved it.”
Joni took me through her process step by step. First, she begins each piece by going through the stone for obvious flaws, carving off at least 1 inch of the stone surface to get rid of marks and imperfections. Then she uses her power tools to cut lines 1 inch apart, and uses her hammer and chisel to knock out the rough shape. After marking out the form with chalk, Joni puts on her safety gear including ear plugs, safety glasses, gloves, mask and hat and carves away using smaller power tools. From then on, the process becomes more about responding to the emerging shapes.
Joni described it as feeling her way through the stone, “It’s very tactile. I have to stop and use my hands to feel my way, using the small air chisel, I start carving the features in.” Joni changed to smaller and smaller diamond tip grinders and carved out the baby’s nose and lips. Joni said, “I do a lot of feeling and hand work.” She used a series of small stones in different textures to smooth out bumpy areas by hand. Then a variety of wet/dry sandpapers and compounds are used to polish the marble ending with a stone sealer to protect the stone.
It was easy to see the beauty of the marble when viewing any of Joni’s finished pieces. But how does Joni choose her stone? She said, “I usually go buy a piece of stone, sometimes for color or shape or posture, then I look at it for a while. With this piece of pink marble, I had it for a couple of years until I was ready to carve it. I could see the posture, very feminine and very fleshy and perfect for the mother and child and the relationship.”
Images of mothers and children abound in Joni’s work. As a mother of two, it was her loving memories of the special joy and connection with her young children that inspired Joni. Joni explained, “A lot of times what inspires me to make a piece is a moment in life that has really touched my heart. That’s why I work.” “I love the mother and child. I would do just babies, if I could.” About the inspiration behind the pink marble piece in process, Joni said, “It’s the way that the mother and child are physically connected.”
And it was that physical connection to the art making process that kept Joni working during a very difficult time. After losing both her brother and her son in a little over one year, it was the studio, the stone and a choice to be positive that helped her heal. “Art has really helped me a lot through some very hard things and that’s why I do it. I hope that when people look at my art it helps them, gives them a feeling of hope, feeling that things are ok,” said Joni.
Joni’s journey into art started with a correspondence course and ended with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Marylhurst University. In the process, she has worked in watercolor, acrylics and charcoal. But it was a clay sculpture class that fired her love of the three dimensional form and led her finally to stone. Joni said, “With sculpture, I just knew what to do, it might be anatomy training for the radiology work that I do, helped, but I loved it and I couldn’t stop doing it. I’ve always loved stone. I grew up as a child collecting pretty rocks. And I love the permanence of it when it’s done. I like the fact that I work on my pieces for months before they’re done.”
Marble sculpting was a process that took patience, focus and perseverance. And for Joni, it was a way to find answers to personal questions and a choice to see the beauty in life. Joni said, “It’s a very spiritual thing to me. I’ve always been that person to see the beauty and the beautiful things in life. In my heart I always wanted to sculpt something positive and beautiful.”
Below, Joni at work in her studio.
Joni has shown her work in the Beaverton Arts Commission show. Currently her work is being shown at the Kingstad Gallery, and will be in the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts Show.
You can visit her this fall during the Portland Open Studios Tour October 11-12, 2008. Portland Open Studios is a self-directed tour of 98 artists workplaces located throughout the Portland Metro area. Tour Guides will be available at local outlets soon.
To see more of Joni Mitchell’s work visit her website at http://www.jonimitchellart.com.
To hear a podcast of the interview, please visit http://www.infopods.org; scroll down to the bottom to find the Joni Mitchell interview.