Dialog with a stone


A stone may sit in my backyard studio for years before it tells me what’s curled inside. Then all of a sudden I feel some energy, something calling from it. Answering that call is one of the great joys of stonecarving,

At first the stone and I, we are shy together, we do not know how this thing will unfold. Like a relationship with a lover, the process is first one of just looking and listening. The dialog may be short and sweet, or long and arduous. The carving begins slowly at first, then with increasing confidence. It is often fraught with unexpected pain or pleasure: a piece breaks off, a new texture appears, wonderfully rough, impossible to plan. One can’t take credit for it.

At the end of a carving session, I sweep up slowly, a ritual for easing out of the intense absorption. But I am still infatuated and find myself glancing out the window at the carving in the backyard. After the brutalities and heartbreaks of the session, are we still speaking to each other? Are we still lovers? Once underway, a carving is never far from my thoughts.

Images appear in my dreams and abruptly during meditation. Then I go out and look over my stones, to see where this particular image might be hiding. In my notebooks there are hundreds of sketches that have not yet found a stone. I can already tell that this life is going to be too short.

Once an image begins to emerge in the stone, it feels so familiar that I am convinced I have seen it before. Years ago I told this to a Nigerian shaman. He laughed. “Of course you know them. They are all your previous lives."


Written September 1991

for the “Women As Artist” exhibit

Cape Museum of Fine Arts, Dennis

Becoming a sculptor

A letter to a young artist

My father was a petroleum engineer and inventor, my mother had been a voice student at the Juilliard School of Music. Creativity ran in my blood. My father had a basement workshop with all sorts of tools, so I learned how to make things - carts, benches, tree houses. In grammar school I got permission to take a shop class even though I was a girl. Remember that this was in the 1950’s, long before Title IX! I also had to take sewing and cooking, but I knew very early that I loved creating things. I wrote stories and drew pictures, and my family encouraged me.

At school it was sometimes a different story. My father and I used to watch the Friday night fights on TV and I was fascinated with the muscles the boxers had. So in 5th grade art class I made a male torso out of clay - nothing racy, just the midsection showing his muscles. The teacher sent me to the principal’s office! He thought I was too young to be thinking about "all that". It felt like a crushing blow. As you probably have realized by now, even young artists encounter opposition.

Unfortunately art and music are some of the first things schools cut when they have budget problems. Teachers who insist that you must "color inside the lines" can frustrate young artists. We think differently because we see differently, operate differently. Trying something new and challenging is exciting, but often it disturbs other people. Fortunately for the world, art is a powerful drive - it wants to come out. In me it was very persistent. I went through school, college, graduate school, marriage and had two children - but art was always there. Like Cinderella, she often lived in my brain like a poor stepsister, cleaning the fireplace. But after all, she was a princess and her true nature would emerge.

So after years of trying hard to live a conventional life as a wife, mother, and business partner in the vineyard my husband and I were establishing, I got really sick and had to leave. There was no question of returning to marriage, the farm, and for a while, my children. After some recovery time I went to art school - the famous Museum School connected with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I spent two glorious years there refining how to be a sculptor. It was like being in the world’s biggest candy store. My Cinderella had finally found her correct role and she has never looked back. Gratefully and with a lot of support I have been able to be a parent again and more recently, a grandparent.

Although I have carved stone for 38 years now, I started by taking books out of the library that had pictures of stone carving tools, teaching myself by trial and error. I loved the work of Henry Moore and the Mexican sculptor Zuniga. When I got to the Museum School they didn't have any faculty that could teach stone carving, so I badgered the head of the sculpture department. There were 5 of us students already carving stone and more or less self-taught, so the department coughed up $500 and hired 3 faculty for a semester, a different teacher coming once a week. We learned it was very important to protect our eyes, hands, ears and lungs and what kind of safety equipment to use. We learned how to forge our own tools, and we toured the large stone sculptures in the Mount Auburn Cemetary. We worked in hand-made sandbox platforms in the plaster room at the Museum School, and did a lot of laughing and carving.

And what does a sculptor produce? Anything you can think of. You are only limited by your imagination. And how do you make a living? That can be very tricky. There is a saying among artists, “don’t quit your day job”. Only about 5% of artists in the US make their living entirely on their art, so most of us have to work at something else and do art in our off-time. But creativity is a stubborn princess – eventually she will come out. How that can happen for you will be one of the great adventures of your life.




The healing art of stone

Sculptor and Teacher:

North Truro Artist Ellen Sidor

Shares the Healing Magic

of Stone Carving

by Elizabeth Aldred

Puiblished in the Cape Codder

April 2, 1997

   Like the alabaster figure of Buddha sitting on a worktable outside her studio, stone sculptor Ellen Sidor conveys a feeling of being centered, at peace with herself.

   That peace is recognized and appreciated by the artist. She traveled some long and difficult roads to acheive it, and she is glad to share the reward: the healing powers of sculpting in stone.

   “For me, carving stone is magical, a meditation,” she explains. “It grounds me to be a carver. The first effect is a healing of myself, quite apart from the end result. It’s an amazing process: very hands-on, very tactile, rhythmic.”

   Ms. Sidor shares in two ways the healing rewards she finds in sculpting stone: exhibiting and teaching. Her work is currently included in a show at Swansborough Gallery in Wellfleet, on view through Sept, 14, and she will give a demonstration and mini-class in stone carving at the gallery Sept. 3 from 3 to 5 pm.

   The sculptor also teaches stone carving classes at her studio in North Truro, where she welcomes students of all ages. No previous knowledge of carving, drawing or other art instruction is required.

   In keeping with her relaxed demeanor, Ellen Sidor’s studio is a casual, unintimidating place. Perched on a small sand bluff off Noons Heights Road, overlooking Noon’s sandpit and contracting business, the small building is actually a pre-fabricated garden shed that she discovered at the Boston Flower Show. The real work space is outdoors, where several of her own works in progress are evident, as well as a grinding table, space for her students and storage for her materials.

   A recent delivery of some 6000 pounds of stone will last about two years, she says. It is mostly Brazilian soapstone and alabaster. She has worked in all kinds of stone, but steers clear of granite and larger works since damaging her elbow.

   Some of the stone she has on hand will be sold. “This is the only place on the Cape where you can buy alabaster,” she notes, explaining that she started to sell stone and carving tools because she found there was a demand and no other local sources. Her neighbor in the contracting business is very supportive, she adds, using his heavy equipment to help out with the lifting.

   At ease, enthusiastic, committed to her work, Ms. Sidor gives the impression of a lifelong sculptor and teacher. But the truth is she only came to this work about 17 years ago, at the age of 40. “I feel like a snake that’s shed its skin three times,” she says, recalling previous chapters in her life.

   Fresh out of college, she worked as a news reporter before going back for her master’s degree in counseling. Marriage was followed by a new career, operating a vineyard in New Hampshire. Then a painful divorce opened the door to a whole series of discoveries starting in 1980. Always interested in painting, she “rediscovered the artist in me” after coming across a book about sculptor Henry Moore. “That was it,” she says with simple finality.

   “I was forty. I thought: if I had to do it over, what would I do?” A teacher encouraged her to go to art school, not for the formal qualifications, but to have the experience of immersing herself in art. She spent a year and a half attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“It was like walking into the world’s biggest candy store,” she recalls happily. And doing it at age 40 rather than 20 years earlier, was “just right”. She knew what she wanted. And even though stone carving was not taught at the school then, she and five other students advocated successfully to get it added to the curriculum.

   Buddhism also took an important place in her life at that time. Moving into the Providence Zen Center in Rhode island in 1981, she ordained as a Buddhist teacher and operated a meditation center for seven years. She also continued to work as a writer and editor, with particular interest in Buddhist publications through Primary Point Press, which she co-founded in 1986.

   Her introduction to teaching carving came indirectly through Buddhism when the carpenter who was building her meditation center watched her at work and asked her to teach him, “I said, ‘I’m not a teacher,’ but he said, “I don’t care,“ she remembers. Since then she has taught stone carving to children and adults in various settings, including Rhode Island’s Museum of Natural History, Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and her winter home in Arizona, as well as at her summer studio on the Cape.

   Teaching gives her the opportunity to nurture others, she says - and she takes it seriously. “To me, teaching is not a trivial thing.... I feel extremely lucky and you can’t hoard that. You must take what you need and pass it along - get it out there.”

   The creative part of her finds expression in her own work, which she describes as “meditative, affectionate, emotionally resonant.” Pointing out that stone carving was “for many years functional, then became decorative,” she adds, “I’m rooted in the figurative. I feel art needs to relate to your life.....Part of my art always relates to: how can you use it? How is it healing?”

   Her garden shed studio holds only the things that require shelter from the elements: a library of art books, mostly for her students to consult; a series of photographs of animals to serve as models; some drawings of works in progress, including a gravestone commissioned by the family of the late artist Ellen Harris Wynans, and a limestone stele for the “Elegy” series she contributed to an ongoing show at Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

   That show received a favorable write-up - with particular mention of Ellen Sidor’s work in the current issue of Art New England. You get the feeling she appreciates the recognition, but it’s absolutely incidental. For her, what really matters is living, working, healing, sharing - and she’s doing it all.


An Artist’s Insight


For the past 15 years, stone sculptor Ellen Sidor’s outpouring of work has been included in shows, galleries and private collections. It’s as if a river that was dammed up has been released to run free along its true course. She explains this clearly in her “Artist’s Statement”:

   “It took me the first four decades of my life to understand that I was an artist, and to finally claim it as my life’s task. Ten years of intensive meditation teaching and a seemingly endless river of images have led to delight in the carving process and a joy in teaching. So if some of my sculpture looks contemporary, some prehistoric, some like folk art - please just enjoy.”