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The offer was like catnip to a tabby, blood to a vampire or flames to a moth. It was a million pounds of rock and plenty of time to chip away at it, and proved ample enough to lure G. Ramon Byrne away from Big Sur to Ventura's Art City.
The move wasn't a blind date. Byrne had been buying material from Art City for more than a decade and knew its founder, Paul Lindhard. One day, Lindhard broached a question. "Paul said, 'I've got a million pounds of stone and a good 10 or 15 years of carving, why don't you come down here and join us?' " Byrne recalled.
That was 2005. Byrne set up shop in the eclectic outdoor art haven just off Olive Street and is so happy to be there that he's practically burst out in a symphony of stone for a unique exhibit whose origins stretch back almost to his first days there. Byrne has carved a suite of eight life-size musical instruments and companion pieces from various manner and color of marble, limestone, brucite and onyx. This silent sonic stew harmonizes to form his first solo show here, titled 'Composed in Stone,' that runs through June 26 at the Museum of Ventura County in Ventura. This elegant work was five years in the making, the fruits of many 12-hour-plus days, including the wintry ones when he'd show up at Art City with wool cap, warm Thermos and heavy coat, ready to put tool to stone.
The 56-year-old Byrne is old school; he's a third-generation stonemason and sculptor. He's a hammer-and-chisel guy. At his hodgepodge patch-ofground studio amid Art City, nary a power rotary tool can be found. His tools - 'I have a million chisels' - are arrayed like surgical knives on an operating room tray. Some of them were his grandfather's tools.
I always do it the hard way,' he said. 'I like to do everything by hand. It's the challenge of it. And I feel connected to every guy who ever took a hammer to a piece of stone. It's been going on for 20,000 years. I like that kinsmanship.' In Big Sur, Byrne did masonry work for 35 years, an amalgam of commercial and custom jobs - amphitheaters, grottos, fountains, benches, fireplaces, swimming pools, homes. Byrne knows what it is, as he put it, to be 'on my hands and knees all day in the hot sun, rubbing concrete.' But he also worked at the Esalen Institute and fell under the tutelage of the legendary Edmund Kara, the renowned Big Sur wood carver and sculptor who once did a redwood likeness of Elizabeth Taylor for the movie 'The Sandpiper' and designed fashions for Lena Horne and the Rockefellers. The worldly Kara was Byrne's prime mentor, as well as his entryway into arts and culture. Big Sur was his refuge from a troubled past.
Byrne figures to put quite a dent in Lindhard's Art City stash. He often works seven days a week.'For some people, Italy is this dream vacation,' he said as a grin broke. 'Me, I think, 'I want to go to Italy and get a big truckload of stone.
A MENU OF STONE
Thanks to Art City, Byrne didn't have to go that far to mine materials for 'Composed in Stone.' The sousaphone (a type of tuba) is Bardiglio Italian marble. The guitar is Calacatta Italian marble. The two companion conga drums are Nero Maquina black-andwhite Italian marble. The accordion was crafted from Canadian henna marble. The saxophone came from Indus gold limestone. For the violin, he tapped British Columbia brucite. The double bass was carved from Texas chocolate limestone.
He selected instruments spanning musical genres and cultures. The sousaphone captures the marching band feel; the conga drums throw in Latin and African flavors; he saxophone epitomizes jazz; the violin is “the acme of classicalmusic andoneofmy favorite instruments”; and the accordion flavors polkas, waltzes and mariachi music.
The guitar is a bowto rock ’n’ roll and is modeled after a Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster. Byrne even carved in flames to capture Hendrix’s penchant for lighting his ax on fire. Byrne, who is ofMexicanand Scottish heritage, said that the Polish introduced the accordion toMexico, a reason why polkas and mariachi music have similarities.
The whole thing started soon after he arrived in 2005, when Byrnewasdraftedtosculptwhat turned out to be a “whimsical saxophone” for a Ventura Music Festival fundraiser. He loved the piece but had to part with it. That stimulated him. He started carving an accordion. One day, after setting it on a bench, a thought hit him: It’d look nice with other instruments. What became the exhibit was birthed. “I was able to envision almost the entire thing,” he said.
800 POUNDS OF ART, 600 HOURS OF GRIT
He pictured the double bass (also called anupright or standup bass) as the ensemble’s centerpiece. It’s adorned with a woman’s face at the top. Understandably, it was the last piece he was honing during a field visit aboutaweekbeforetheexhibit’s May 6 opening. It was nuance work, shaping her nose and the left side of her face, and making her eyes more feminine. Hechiseledaway, first with a round-carved hammer, using its weight to drop a peck of a hit, and thenwithawooden mallet. Tiny puffs of dust particles went airborne or fell to the ground. Sweat beaded on his temples, cheeks and forehead. He worked deftly, but it’s been a difficult piece.
This is one of the toughest stones; I’ll never carve a face in chocolate limestone again,” Byrne observed. “The limestone is soft, but therearepiecesof agate inhere that aremuchharder than the limestone.” He used a diamond file and a blue-hued carbide stone to minutely bring down the surface in preparation for sanding. He held the carbide stone with his thumb, forefinger and middle finger as lightlyasawriter holds a pen. From here, it would be sanded, polished and sealed. Voilà — one double bass, heading toward exhibit. The double bass, Byrne estimated, weighs about 800 pounds. It’s taken him at least 600 hours to do. Asked how much work he had left on it, he smiled and replied, “ ’Til the last minute.”
The guitar’s white marble was easy to carve because it’s always consistent and uniform, but the detail work, especially creating the sensationof flames in stone, was challenging.
He plucked the piece from a 14,000-pound slab of marble in an Art City yard, work that involved cuts with a big saw, inserting splitting wedges and forklifts. Finally, Byrne found and extracted a 10-foot-thick white streak for his Hendrixinspired guitar. He knows his stone. Byrne walked over to another Art City work station where assistant Rafael Barradas was water-polishing a gorgeous French horn done in white Baja onyx. The onyx had brown streaks of iron in it, a la caramel swirls in vanilla ice cream.
The stone formed in a pocket or void in an underground cavern pockmarked with iron and other mineral deposits, Byrne explained. The onyx then crystallized around it, trapping the minerals within.
The French horn will flavor the exhibit but is not part of the instrument ensemble, Byrne said. It will be for sale; one look at it is to knowhewon’t be lacking for offers. It is translucent; the horn’s fringes gleamed in the afternoon sun . “It’s elegant, simple, graceful, a beautiful stone — that’s what we shoot for,” Byrne said.
LESSONS ETCHED INTO FINGERTIPS
Byrne called Barradas his protégé and apprentice, just as he once was with his mentors, chief among them Kara, with whom he worked for almost 30 years. At first, Byrne recalled, he sat on a stool and watched Kara, who was known to spend a year or more on one piece, work. Neither of them talked. “After that first year, I got to sand a few things,” he said, laughing.
As he tinkered with another exhibit companion piece, a representation of a pre-Columbian Aztec fire serpent carved from Nebraska limestone, Byrne spoke of such influences and things h e learned, including the quick tap-tap, pause, tap-tap rhythm of his chisel work and the mantra “cut to the chase,” meaning do asmuch as possible with the initial tool before jumping to the next step. All those years seemed fused into his fingertips as he finessed the stone serpent, chipping away at its jagged teeth and ornate headgear in delicate taps. He was taking off maybe 1/64th of an inch. “I slow it down,” he sai dwithout looking up, “and I get the reward.”
Always work into the stone, he said, meaning hit the chisel into the block rather than lopping off edges with the chisel pointed away; it’s easier to deduce how much will crumble away. “I want greater control here; I don’t want to gamble,” he explained. Dainty carving by hand, he added, is all about “knowing that the slightest touch is gonna get mewhere I want to go.” For a time in his youth, where he wanted to go was a dark issue.
A BIG BOOST FROM BIG SUR
Byrne was born in Lone Pine, spent a few years in Bishop, then moved with his family to GardenGrove inOrangeCounty. There, he ran into trouble after his parents separated and his dad left.
Byrne got kicked out of high school, never went back, and spent the 18th year of his life in jail for stealing cars and burglaries. Jail was sobering; when he got out, he took stock of his life and left in the early 1970s at age 19 for Big Sur, where he had hitchhiked a few years earlier to spend a summer camping out and “being a hippie.”
Masonry work, Kara and other mentors helped shape his path. Big Sur, he said, was “a life-changing experience for me, going from one environment to another that was 180 degrees different.” He still rues his youthful misdeeds. Maybe, Byrne later wondered aloud, he toils so hard now because he’s working off that guilt.
His work has captivated local artists and patrons, some of whom teamed up to help throw him a big museum bash on the eve of the exhibit opening. Among them was Lindhard, who founded Art City in 1984. He spoke of Byrne’s diversity and range, and how his fascinations lead to artistic focus. Lindhard recalled that conversation with Byrne several years ago about his sizable “bank of stone” amid Byrne mulling a switch from mason to fine artist. “He’s proceeded to become one helluva stone carver,” said Lindhard, a full-time sculptor himself. “He has fantastic energy and a will to move forward.”
Byrne has become involved in the local community. He’s vice president of the Ventura Artists’ Union Gallery and has done pieces for Meditation Mount near Ojai.
He wants “Composed in Stone” to be a happy occasion. “Everyone who comes in and sees these instruments smiles,” he said, alluding to Art City tours. “They giggle, they laugh, they exclaim. Everyone knows music or has some connection to these instruments.” He rattled off a list of world problems. “That’s the magic of this series, to make us smile,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s needed. These pieces came to fruition so we can have some levity.”
G. Ramon Byrne's musical instrument sculpture exhibit will continue through June 26 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $1 for children 6 to 17; museum members and children under 6 get in free. For more information, call 653-0323 or visit venturamuseum.org. Byrne's website is gramonbyrne.com. For information on the place where Byrne does his work, visit artcitystudios.com
Ramon can be reached by email: email@example.com, cell phone: 831-915-5042.