By Laurelle Walsh
Stone carver, university professor and part-time valley resident Batya Friedman slowly chips away on an ancient limestone pillar at her open-air studio in TwispWorks’ South Shed.
Part of a sculpture quartet titled “Passages,” the stone stands like a slender human figure, around 5-feet high, with flat planes, sensuous curves, and a pale ivory color. Friedman quietly taps the surface of the soft stone with a hammer, paying close attention to the changing interplay of light and shadow, leaving at its base a drift of white dust.
“I love everything about stone,” Friedman said, “how it smells, what it feels like when you touch it, how you can bend light. The slow, gentle way of carving with the bushing hammer. All the surprises in the stone, that become part of the piece.”
Three pillars are in progress at TwispWorks; the fourth, completed while Friedman studied stone carving at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, is currently in Pratt’s Stone Garden. “I would love to unite the four pillars once they are all done,” Friedman said. “In my mind’s eye, they are a quartet and belong together.”
The pillars — also called post rocks — were “fenceposts in a previous life,” quarried out of a single 12-inch bed of limestone under the Kansas prairie, Friedman said. Post rocks were crucial building materials for the early homesteaders of North Central Kansas, who made the best use of local materials in a place where trees did not grow.
Friedman’s post rocks were delivered to TwispWorks late last summer from stone supplier Marenakos Rock Center in Issaquah. Mike Schmidt from Palm Construction used his skills operating a boom to carefully position and place each pillar onto its post. “He was truly amazing,” Friedman said.
The bottom of each stone — the smallest weighing 320 pounds, the largest around 650 pounds — was core drilled, and then lowered by boom onto an 18-inch rod welded onto a heavy steel-plate base, on which each pillar securely stands.
Leaving ‘human marks’
After more than a century of use as fenceposts, the aged post rocks arrived covered in a mottled grey “skin,” along with the grooves, rust marks and fragments of fence wire that give away their former function. Friedman slowly carves off the grey surface, revealing fossil seashells and the limestone’s original ivory color.
“I made the decision to soften the stones, but leave a trace of human marks visible,” Friedman said. She carves with a custom bushing hammer that leaves a stippled surface on the stone; a point chisel gets into tight grooves.
Friedman’s introduction to stone carving began around eight years ago when she took a beginning stone carving class at Pratt from sculptor Sabah Al-Dhaher. “I was hooked,” she said, and continued studying with Sabah until she launched her independent project at TwispWorks last summer.
In addition to carving stone, Friedman has worked in mixed media. Her other project at the moment is a series of encaustic paintings of large animals: wildebeest, water buffalo, lioness, and baboons.
Friedman is a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, and adjunct professor in the departments of Computer Science and Human-Centered Design and Engineering. She pioneered the field of value sensitive design, an approach that accounts for human values in the design of information systems.
“I have a sense that what I’ve learned about engaging complexity from carving — working in three dimensions — has carried over to how I approach designing information systems in complex socio-political contexts,” she said.
As far as her current project goes, “It’s been a personal goal to carve something bigger than myself,” she said.
Friedman expects “Passages” to be done by the end of the summer.
“The stones feel like they want to be in a public space,” she said. “I could picture them on a mound. Or in some context with paths leading to them or around. The work [visiting artist] Karin Wimmeder has just done with the large circular installation in the TwispWorks parking lot has inspired me to think in a broad and creative way about public space.”