‘Michelangelo would die if he saw this’

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Visual Art

Duff ’n Stuff, Nov. 6, 2012

Happy Election Day!

I’m going to heed the message of dear little, four-year-old Abigael Evans, who is tired of hearing about “Bronco Bama” and Mitt Romney, and not talk about the election other than to say, I voted and may the dear Lord help us all.

Now for something completely different.

Stone sculptors are few here on Whidbey Island, relatively speaking, but I know at least one of them pretty well, and these days she’s acting like a kid in a candy store over some white marble.

“Waves At Night” by Sue Taves. Photo credit Michael  Stadler

Freeland sculptor Sue Taves (who also happens to be one of the founders of this magazine and, subsequently, how I’ve come to know her well) is an artist whose work I’ve always admired. I covered one of her shows for a local gallery when I was still reporting for the Record.

I was particularly enchanted by her “Wind” and “Rain” series, and her “Waves,” some which used variations on carved basalt.

In late summer, Sue told me she was excited about this Alaskan white marble that she purchased at a bargain, which was on its way down from a quarry on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska.

“How much marble?” I asked her.

“Eight tons,” she told me.

“Eight tons? You’re having eight tons of white marble shipped to Seattle?”

That’s when she told me about how she had come to find this pristine rock through the members’ grapevine at the Northwest Stone Sculptor’s Association. A guy named Gary McWilliams, who owns “Stone Arts of Alaska” and operates two stone yard facilities there, had made a deal with the new owners of Calder Quarry, the source of the elusive “Alaskan Snow Marble.”

A quick history lesson on the Interwebs told me that around the turn of the 20th century, prospecting the deposits on the northwest side of Prince of Wales Island led to a quarry being opened near Calder, and shipments started in 1902. From 1904 there had been a steady increase in the marble output of Alaska, coming from a few quarries in the Shakan-Calder region of Alaska’s Ketchikan district.

A pile of Alaskan Snow Marble on Prince Wales Island. (Photo courtesy of Gary McWilliams)

But the place had been closed for a long time, McWilliams said, and the new company that acquired it would use the white marble solely for industrial reasons.

Apparently, they crush it for the calcium carbonate and use it as whitener for paper, porcelain, pharmaceuticals and other things.

He said that as they were cleaning up the place, a quantity of blocks that were quarried, probably about 100 years ago, were offered to him to be shipped at no cost to Ketchikan. Brilliantly white, this marble looks much like the Italian Carrara marble that was famously used by many artists of the Renaissance, particularly Michelangelo, who used the white marble for his masterpieces, “Pietà,” “Moses,” and “David.”

“Held side by side, it would take someone with a keener eye than mine to tell the two apart,” McWilliams said of the Alaskan Snow.
“My experience with such old, sawn blocks is that, while their outer half inch can be soft from weathering, they are sound as a nut inside.”

A block of Alaskan Snow Marble awaits transport off Prince of Wales Island to Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Gary McWilliams)

One Anchorage sculptor, Carl Hild, who recently received pieces of the marble from McWilliams said poetically, “They are lovely in their sparkle, luminescence, whiteness and translucence.”

Taves was sold and began the plan to transport one of the 7 x 4 x 3½-foot blocks that would have to be shipped by barge from Ketchikan to Seattle and then crane lifted and delivered by truck to the island. She would be starting a new series in winter and had envisioned it in white, and which she plans to show in a year or two.

In August, Sue was saying things every full-blooded sculptor says, such as “I can’t wait to see my rock! My rock is coming! I’m so excited to see my rock!”

Sue Taves takes a look at her Alaskan Snow Marble after it was shipped to a dock in Seattle. (Photos courtesy of Sue Taves)

McWilliams sent her pictures of the quarry and its treasures. Under one photo of piles and piles of marble that would soon be crushed into powder he wrote: “Michelangelo would die if he saw this.”

The “Hunter Lab” scale is a measurement for brightness that varies from 100 for perfectly white to zero for black, approximately, as the eye would evaluate it. McWilliams said the white marble from Calder Quarry is usually measured at around a 95, which means it’s very white. Probably Michelangelo would like it very much indeed and might be very sorry to hear that it is used less for art than for antacid.

Sometime later, Sue was on a bus in the ferry line returning to the island, when she spotted the Hanson’s truck coming back from Alaska Marine Lines in Seattle with her treasure.

“Hey, that’s my rock!” she said, and then had one of those Whidbey Islander conversations with the truck driver about his cargo.

“We were all talking about this rock and what you were going to do with it,” the driver told her.

Taves said she has already split off a three-ton chunk of the boulder, which she’ll split about six more times to make the first 10 to 15 pieces. She’s still forming her ideas for the series, but somewhere in the air between Prince of Wales Island and Whidbey Island, the muse flies with Michelangelo and the rest.

From the heart,
Patricia Duff


Related events and info:

Check out this movie featuring sculptor Sue Taves getting her Alaskan Snow Marble delivered from Ketchikan to Seattle by web designer Jan Shannon.

Gary McWilliams still has lots of the Alaskan Snow Marble left at his winter location in Bellingham. If interested, email him at stoneartsofalaska@gmail.com or visit his website.

See the work of sculptor Sue Taves at her website or at Whidbey Life Magazine’s directory.

At Brackenwood Gallery on First Street in Langley, Sue has some small pieces showing in the “Small Pleasures” holiday gift show through December.

She is also on the Whidbey Art Trail with seven other fellow artists at Freeland Art Studios, which you can visit by appointment through the winter season. Call or email to set up a time.  Freeland Art Studios is at 1660 Roberta Avenue in Freeland.

To find out more about Michelangelo’s quest for the perfect stone you might refer to  Eric Scigliano’s “Michelangelo’s Mountain: The Quest For Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara.”


Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several first, second and third place awards in the categories of Best Arts Story and Best Education Story in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association 2011 competition.

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