by Roderick Conway Morris

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Courtesy of Emily Young/photograph by Annie Hanson
Emily Young with one of her seemingly half-finished, monumental heads
on the grounds of the Convent of Santa Croce in Tuscany, where she lives and sculpts using a wide variety of stones.

A Sense of Utter Stillness, Carved in Stone

By Roderick Conway Morris
GROSSETO, Italy 23 October 2014


Visitors to the Venice Art Biennale in 2013 had the opportunity to see a side exhibition that for many was the revelation of the event. Titled 'We Are Stone's Children,' the show featured extraordinary, seemingly half-finished, monumental human heads, carved in exotically colorful materials such as Dolomitic limestone, onyx, quartzite, clastic igneous rock and lapis lazuli.

The works, with intriguing titles like 'Lost Mountain Head,' 'Dark Forest Head' and 'Earth Song,' were arranged around the cloister of the church of Madonna dell'Orto, founded in the 14th century after discovery in an orchard there of what was considered a miraculous rough-hewn stone statue of the Virgin.

The creator of the pieces in the Venice exhibition, which traveled on afterward to the Fine Art Society in London, was the English sculptor Emily Young, who was declared by Jackie Wullschlager in her review in The Financial Times to be 'Britain's greatest living stone sculptor.' Among the commissions Ms. Young has won in recent years was one for eight stone angels, some of them weighing almost a ton, for Salisbury Cathedral on the occasion of the building's 750th anniversary celebrations in 2008.

Ms. Young's work is distinguished not only by the variety of stones that she uses, many of which would be regarded by other sculptors as too unpredictable and problematic to carve, but also by an acute awareness and knowledge of the geological processes that, over hundreds of millions of years, have produced them.

She views her work as not so much employing materials but collaborating with them. As she has put it, 'We honor, knowingly or not, nature and history each time a human works a stone.'

Four years ago Ms. Young acquired the early 17th-century Convent of Santa Croce, on a hillside outside the village of Batignano, near Grosseto in Tuscany. This is where she now lives and sculpts — in a property consisting of a two-story cloister, with first-floor monkish cells now used as bedrooms, a semi-ruined, roofless church, gardens and an olive grove. The property is close to the stone quarries that are a primary source of her raw materials.

Born in London in 1951, Ms. Young manifested an early talent for painting and drawing but had a somewhat checkered educational career, attending and being invited to leave a series of schools. These included a Quaker boarding school, where the authorities deemed her, in their judgment, 'too idiosyncratic' for their establishment.

After leaving school at 17 she went on to the Chelsea School of Art, but lasted only four months there before setting out for India. Her adventures included being picked up in a somewhat indiscriminate drug sweep aimed at foreigners in Afghanistan, after which she spend three weeks in prison in Kabul. But her travels in the Middle East and India vastly broadened her artistic horizons, she said. She also spent time in the United States and, after four years of wanderings, returned to London and embarked on a career as painter.

Ms. Young is not the first professional artist in her family. Her grandmother, Kathleen Bruce, was one of the first British women to make a successful career as a sculptor, befriended by Rodin when she went to study in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century. Bruce married the Antarctic explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who died returning from the South Pole; the bronze and marble statues of him that she made after his death remain among her best-known works.

But it wasn't until Ms. Young was about 30, and somewhat by chance, that she decided to follow in the footsteps of her distinguished forebear.

'I moved house, to Shepherd's Bush,' she said during a recent interview at her home in Tuscany. 'A friend had left behind a mason's kit with some hammers and chisels. I found some slabs of marble at a stone reclamation yard and I started chipping away, and somehow I knew what to do with them and began making reliefs.

'It was like doing the paintings, but much more precise. It used all my energy just to make a tiny mark, whereas with my paintings I could just splash around. I found sculpting really demanding.'

Ms. Young started to go to salvage yards and to the nearby Kensal Rise Cemetery, where tombstones were being carved, looking for material. 'There was a stone cemetery at the back and they'd just give me broken bits of stone. Later I went down to Dorset to bring back limestone, some of which is heavily crystallized and will take a very high polish. I also came to Italy to buy stone and later brought back stone from India and Mexico.'

At first she sold her sculptures out of her studio. 'But then a gallery came along and said they would take all my sculptures, and I began to make a better living, not just surviving,' she said.

The antiquity of the materials she was dealing with, and the radically different ways they responded, have been inspirations ever since.

'I've just been working some quartzite stones, for example, that are three and a half billion years old,' she said. 'They're river stones from the west coast of Scotland. They are incredibly hard, so hard that you can't cut them other than with a diamond-edged tool. And when you do, it becomes so hot that a glowing, white light shines out of the stone.'

The climate in Italy makes it possible for Ms. Young to do much of her work in a large grassy space in a sheltered spot outside the convent's church. On a recent visit an imposing array of monumental heads at various stages of completion was on display — although the finished sculpture always includes substantial areas of stone left unworked. 'I see my work as a conversation between me and a piece of rock, a process of elimination until I arrive at something acceptable,' she said. 'This can go on for weeks or months.'

Ms. Young is 'mostly making heads at the moment,' she said. 'I don't want these heads to be culturally specific, and I try to get rid of all the emotional content to achieve a sense of complete stillness. When I begin carving, the face might seem a little worried or a little happy. I want to get rid of all that. I want it to be utterly still. I want to create a feeling of silence.'

Placed where the altar formerly stood in the apse of the ruined church, there is also a fine example of another of the remarkable sculptural forms that Ms. Young has developed: enormous stone disks, created by slicing through onyx boulders with a saw, that represent 'the two great forces that rule the earth': the sun and moon. By day the disk has an ochre hue, but back-lit at night the disk glows blood-red, like a distant planet.

Onyx, she said, 'has a translucency and drinks in light, and I cut it to show the skin, not just the 'good stone' on the inside. For me, the whole piece of stone has a history, and the marriage of the highly polished and unpolished gives it a sense of tension.'

Next year she hopes to open Santa Croce to visitors so that they can see her work displayed both indoors and in the garden spaces of the convent. 'I'd like people to come here and share a little of what I love about this place and take that experience away with them,' she said.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023