For Ballarat Art Gallery’s Romancing the Skull exhibition, Josh Bowes chiselled a giant head out of 1.5 tonnes of basalt. He tells Smith Journal how he did it, and why he’s so mad about playing with rocks.
Tell me about this basalt you’ve used; has it yielded any surprises?
It'd been sitting in a friend of mine’s paddock for a good 70 years and I said to him one day, "Do you want that rock?" and he said, "Mate, you can have it." It was a bloody huge rock, so we loaded it onto the trailer and brought it back home. I discovered it had some serious fractures, which scared the living bejesus out of me, but I've also found a lot of little gems and crystals caught inside it. They’re quite beautiful those little discoveries because when you cut a stone open like this, it hasn't seen daylight for thousands of years. This stuff is all trapped inside and you just don't know what's in there till you open it up.
What got you started on the skulls in the first place?
One Sunday I had this spare rock rolling around. It was sort of suited to being a skull so I got the chisels and hammers out and started carving. From then on, I got asked to do lots of skulls; I kind of don't want to be doing skulls at the moment, but that's the way it is! When Ballarat Art Gallery asked me to do a piece for this exhibition, it was such an honour that I thought I'd up the ante and pick a really hard stone: a local basalt. It’s almost impossible to work with. It's dense and glassy, very sharp and hard, so it's really difficult to shape it. It breaks all the tools! But because it’s so glassy, it can be polished and that’s why I picked it.
How did you create this particular skull?
Most of the time I do it freehand; usually I get a rock and start using my chisel, shaping, chipping away. But because this particular stone is quite dense and hard, it's tended to shatter the tips of my chisels so I used a mixture of chisels and grinders to take the excess off. This time around I got a natural boulder and squared it, cutting all the sides off to make it a perfect block, and then I went in freehand and started cutting sections off until I got the shape of a skull.
So when you’re sculpting, is it you versus the rock or is it more symbiotic than that?
For me, it's a relationship inspired by the material. I’m not driven by a desire to own it, so it's definitely symbiotic. Most of my work is dry stone walling, and I like to lay it as I find it. I'm attracted to its original shape, and it's a really beautiful contrast to make sense out of something so randomly natural. Had I been cutting the stones into perfect blocks, well – then I'd definitely be trying to conquer the material.
Have you had any disasters working with stone?
Disasters do happen. Let's say when you’re doing some hand–cut lettering and you carve something in stone but didn't check the spelling... That happened to me once. And the stone cost $700. So that was game over!
Where do you find all your rocks?
I like stuff that's aged. I get most of my rocks from one farmer who has hundreds of acres. With some of the old goldfields rocks, you find tool marks where people have been looking for gold, where hammers have hit rocks. The marks are aged but you can see them. And that's one of the most amazing things about that material, it can change hands, and can be put in something else, moved over there. It's such a permanent thing. I'm fascinated by that.
What has working with stone taught you about yourself?
I think it teaches you to have respect for nature. And the reward of doing a beautiful wall, or carving something out of a piece of stone, I can’t even put that into words. To achieve such a thing with such a hard material is really rewarding, and it makes you feel closer to the natural world. I think that on your jobs, you’re processing other stuff that’s going on in your life. It's very therapeutic. You can make sense of a lot of other things you’re facing, working with something so abstract and trying to make sense out of it.
Some believe that stonemasonry is a thing of the past. How do you respond to that?
There have been dry stone structures and buildings, temples, bases of castles, going back thousands of years. Some of those things are still standing in perfect condition today. And yet there is that sense people have that those skills are gone now. Well, that's a load of crap. We still have the skills. In an era now governed by money and time, people are crying out for stuff to be substantial and more permanent than the things made today in China, for example.
There’s also a misconception that it's impossible, working with this material. But it's so actually so basic. We've been playing with rocks since our days in the cave. It's within us all, that's how I see it.
Josh Bowes’ giant basalt skull is part of the Ballarat Art Gallery’s Romancing the Skull exhibition, which opens today. Watch the gallery's superb video below, showing the installation.