Earlier this year, Little Toller published Alex Woodcock’s memoir King of Dust, a craftsman’s journey through the landscapes and ancient sculpture that inspired him to first pick up tools, eventually becoming a stonemason working at Exeter Cathedral. For this series, Alex asked writers, artists and those who work with stone to respond to the idea of ‘Artefact’. This essay and accompanying photographs are by the stone-carver Jo Sweeting.
A single shoe pulled from the darkness of a drawer where it has spent many years. In my hand it is no longer than my index finger and only twice as wide. It is bird-like in weight but has an undertow of force for me. Filigreed with lace, coral-like; fragile, not from use but the passage of time. Faded now, but when given an expensive object chosen with love. Two grosgrain ribbons to tie at ankle, hand-sewn to the shoe: a pierce-through-pull-through of running stitch. A single shoe that never touched ground.
I am a sculptor. A carver of stone. My ideas begin by walking, reading, noticing. I listen. A dialogue between myself and the natural world. There is a rhythm in these things that are most central to my life.
There is a rhythm in the carving. A rhythm of mallet hitting tungsten chisel. Of chisel connecting with stone. Sometimes a ring sounds, sometimes a soft grounding echo. The rhythm is tap-wait-tap tap-wait-tap. But each carver finds their own note.
My long strides in carver’s boots across the chalk landscape at Firle Beacon, in the lark-light of the Sussex Downs, and the slow palsh* I take on the Bideford-black beach at Bucks Mills in North Devon: these are taken with certainty; knowledge that I belong in these places. There is a rhythm of heel-space toe-space, and the breath begins to find a pace to accompany this.
I am not an adventurer, preferring to revisit and return again and again to the same path, beach or hillside. This is how I carve my place in the world. Over time, these have become my sites of memory and belonging, each return laying down a strata of meaning.
I have carved words every day for years: on the skin, into the body of stone. Huge heads, bowls, candlepieces – objects that celebrate time and change. They have grief and joy in them and make small things monumental by grounding and honouring them in ancient material. I make things that I want in the world. I make them to connect with others and to understand my shape.
More recently in the landscapes I love I have carved words in two erratic boulders: Foundle* on the Downs; Palsh at Bucks Mills. These stones have been moved by tide or glacial force into new landscapes. They do not belong.
I left the first set of hands at ten days. Passed for three months from my natural mother, through foster carers, and via an agency, until I landed with my adoptive parents.
I arrived dressed in lace with matching shoes. Size 1 Baby Deers made in Walsall, England.
This shoe, which has long since left its other half behind, was for many years not known to me. Then, on meeting my natural mother, it was offered by my adopted mum as a treasure long looked after. In the space of my home this soft, empty shoe created a violent seismic shift. It ambushed and ignited. It detonated with a resonance of cliff-edge sliding to beach.
There is a Tibetan word, shul. This word is become now central to my work and life. It means, in its simplest concept: a mark or trace left by the thing that made it passing through.
Tiny things often go unnoticed. A limpet has a place on its rock called a ‘home scar’. It leaves to hunt, then returns on the incoming tide. As it grows and turns and returns, it makes an indentation, which is where it belongs. Much as a mother bird, turning in the nest, makes a form that fits her young.
Extraordinary, the presence that an absence makes.
Jo Sweeting is a sculptor and lettercarver, whose work is informed by the concept of ‘shul’, a marking which remains after the thing that has made it has passed. She works chiefly in British Limestone. She designed the frontispiece for Hetty Saunders’ biography of J. A. Baker, My House of Sky, published by Little Toller in 2017. Jo is at present carving a large erratic boulder called Foundle (see the Instagram for the project here). She is also working towards a large project in Devon in collaboration with Common Ground and the National Trust, supported by Robert Macfarlane, Chalk Cliff Trust and The Burton Art Gallery, beginning in late March 2020 . This project will work on an even larger boulder, taking on themes of language, time and place. Find out more about Jo’s work on Instagram.
Palsh. Devon dialect. A slow walk, looking carefully.
Foundle. Sussex dialect. Anything found on a hillside.
Shul. Tibetan word. A mark made by a thing that has passed by or through.