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.”