The Pointing Machine

Fernando finally came back and asked me how I was going to “do ” my bull. What kind of question was that? “I’d use the máquina,” he said. “It’s a lot quicker, you know.”

A machine! I didn’t want to use a copying machine. I wanted to carve my statues using only my eyes to guide me. Yet I was hardly in a position to object to Fernando’s suggestion, at least now. I braced myself while waiting to see this máquina. I knew this was the twentieth century and you had to put up with things like that. But the universe being the moral thing that I figured it was, I was sure whatever the primitive contraption could come up with and be proud of must necessarily be deficient. How could a machine produce great art? I waited for them to drag it out or wheel it out.

maquina_de_sacar_puntos1-medinaPointing machine mounted on the “cross” (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International photo by  MarisaLR)

But, lo, the máquina wasn’t a machine! It was no more than a measuring stick, like the oil stick in a car. What made it a macchina was only the modestly ingenious way of suspending the stick in the air, holding it fast and yet allowing it to swivel and do measuring all around the figure. It was a machine only in the old pre-Industrial Revolution sense—an aid to doing what had always been done, i.e., taking measurements.

But I couldn’t get rid of my prejudice. Without examining any of the figures copied with the máquina I would have supposed that they had to be of low quality. I could see that the men who made them not only had no aesthetic sense but even lacked interest in what they were doing. So I was shocked at the high quality of the stone figures they were carving. They were really indistinguishable from the originals. Every curve, every fine curl and bulge had been perceived and reproduced to perfection. How could such a thing be? It meant that all a sculptor-artist had to do was to model a figure in clay and then leave it to the stonecutters to copy in marble. Stonecutters  who hated their job! I kept my disgust to myself for the time being. The idea was to get carving.

Fernando went back to his high rock and it was Luis who came to show me how to use the máquina, transferring measurements from my plaster model to the stone block.


I picked up the square hammer and the pointed chisel. At first I could not bring myself to lambast the noble block. I shied away from using all my might, made token swings with the hammer, and was relieved when the chisel skipped and made only scratches. Seeing me, Luis took my hammer and chisel from me and demonstrated the sculptor’s slam: a marble chip the size of a moth flew into the air.

Respect for the block

Isn’t stone just another material? In the past it did not strike the awe it strikes in us now. They did not hesitate to hack it to pieces, to drive drills into it, to smooth it into the most unrock-like shapes and surfaces. All they wanted was its hardness. Sometimes all they wanted was its cheapness—in classical times, for example, when anyone would have preferred bronze. They painted over the surfaces to liven it up, treating stone no better then we do a mere plaster figure.

800px-canterascampaspero6Canteras de Campaspero (foto GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1. de Rastrojo (D•ES)

That respect is the same as the would-be writer has for the white sheet of paper, though a stone is much more deserving of deference, not only because it is much more expensive. It is imposing because of its mass, its weight, its origin. It is nature’s own creation, the weird child of millions of years and of the forces that made the universe. It is like a miniature mountain, with all its prominences and recesses; and it has a character like a mountain. People in the stone business get to know their blocks, which stand around like furniture in the workshop. You walk around them all day and at break-time your eyes rest on them.


In Fernando’s shop they had all the right to stand where they were that the finished statues had, and just as must claim on your imagination. When I showed Fernand a plaster figure or told him about some work I was planning, he would say, “I’ve got just the stone for that, too”. Or: “If you ever get around to doing that Miura of yours, I’d like you to do it in the Marquina behind the grinder. I’ve been thinking of a bull for that one.”

Once you know them and after you have had them around, stumbled over them for months, daydreamed with your eyes on them (and who knows if you were not led by them and their faces to think in the way you did), it is twice as hard to begin work on them and in one hammer-stroke to change altogether and forever what has been comfortingly fixed in your daily life.

The best way to lose your respect for a block of stone is to watch stone-cutters for awhile. They are not awed into inaction or retreat.

800px-une_chasse Maul or chaser (Wikipedia  free-domain photo)

There is a tool that was not mentioned in the list above. It was not included because it is an accessory really. But it is as old as stone-cutting. That tool is the maul or chaser. It is chisel-shaped—the kind with the screwdriver head—but larger and heavier. It is even blunt, though Jacinto preferred to bevel it slightly. It works cruelly on a block. In the hands of a skilled stone-cutter like Nicanor its effects are incredibly devastating. It does to the block what an earthquake does to the mountain. It actually causes an earthquake to the block, sending violent vibrations up and down it, which is how it works. In one stroke, with or against the vein, entire sections of the block will collapse, whole shoulders will fall crashing (and crushing if your foot is unadvised) to the ground.

The morning ended

Before I knew it, the first morning was over and I had done almost no carving. I walked back to the subway wondering whether I would ever really learn to use those crude tools and whether I had come to the wrong place. Fernando was no artist-sculptor and his men were anything but art students. Still, it was carving I was after and I had gotten my first immersion in the world of stone. I tried to tell the house-maid Pilar about the stoneyard and she just wagged her head. What kind of nonsense was I up to? She wanted me to move up in the world, not down. After siesta I went to work and gave four classes of students their English lesson. Pilar had dinner ready when I got back home—I gobbled it down and went right to bed, exhausted.

Next chapter: The Stonecutters

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1 Response to The Pointing Machine

  1. Pingback: Watching a Sculptor | Fernando's Stoneyard

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