Zoë Wilson Carving

Zoë Wilson, a stone carver based in Hampshire, UK, embraces the tradition of manual craftsmanship, drawing inspiration from geometric patterns and the tactile nature of Welsh slate.

Zoë Wilson Carving

Edition 4 Feature
Words by: Zoë Wilson 
Location: Hampshire, UK 
Photo Credit: ©AsiaWerbel / ©Tara Bradley-Birt / ©Zoe Wilson

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Continuing the tradition of skills passed from master to apprentice has shaped my career and is at the heart of my work. My stone carving is simple in its manufacture, using only a mallet and chisel, but born from a wealth of knowledge gleaned over the years from highly skilled craftspeople. I once read in a Medium article by Reed Knecht (2018) that craft is the “seemingly impossible skill of making something by hand. Perfectly.” This is precisely how I feel about carving. 

For me, craft is also about the personal relationship between the maker and the material. I feel a huge amount of respect for stone as a raw material and feel a responsibility to always strive to create pieces worthy of it. 

I have always had a love of being creative. As a child, my family taught me the pleasure of making things by hand and always encouraged self-expression. I studied for a fine arts degree in painting at university but found it too conceptual. This led me to understand that I am interested in the material and the process of making as well as the ideas behind the finished piece. That is, I am a craftsperson at heart. 

After graduating in 2007, I worked for a granite manufacturing company and found I had a love of stone. I followed this new interest and completed two informal apprenticeships, the first in stone masonry and a second in letter carving. Having developed a range of skills with both power tools and with chisels, I knew that I wanted to learn more. 

In 2013, I gained a place at the City and Guilds of London Art School to study for a diploma in historic stone carving. I was hugely inspired by my tutors and felt so privileged to be taught by such skilled craftspeople, on a course like no other in the UK. In my second year, the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust recognised my passion and gave me a scholarship to support my studies. I went on to develop an understanding of three-dimensional forms and then learned the skills required to capture them in stone while maintaining the life and energy of the subject. 

I graduated with a first class diploma in 2016 and moved with my husband to live in Southeast Asia, where I absorbed the incredible man-made and natural patterns around me. Such beautiful Islamic designs, with strong geometric patterns, adorn buildings and surfaces. Incredible plants envelop everything else in the rainforest. Seeing the sacred geometry in the plants everywhere I looked, and the enormous scale of the trees, was a truly humbling experience. 

It was only on my return to the UK, in 2018, that I began to realise how much I’d been influenced by my time living in Southeast Asia. I started to experiment with geometry in my carving and it continues to be my biggest inspiration today. I find geometric patterns restful and satisfying, yet at the same time intriguing and surprisingly dynamic. 

While overseas, I was also very homesick. I feel my time away sparked in me a new admiration for the English countryside. Though I’d never fallen out of love with it, such an extended stint away made me cherish the countryside even more on my return. I feel a strong affinity with the stones of the UK; as far as possible, they are now the only stones that I carve. My favourite is Welsh slate, which is amazing because it has such a fine grain. This allows me to carve incredibly thin lines – virtually anything that can be drawn with a pencil can be carved into slate. 

“ I find geometric patterns restful and satisfying, yet at the same time intriguing and surprisingly dynamic.” 

The contrast between the sharp edges of the cut stone against its smooth polished surface makes it an incredibly tactile material. I really enjoy the contrast of combining a flowing pattern with the hardness of stone. Its dense nature also means that every single chisel mark can be seen in the finished work. These chisel marks introduce to the work a certain character that eliminates the possibility of mass manufacture and reminds the viewer that this is handmade. The marks reveal the presence of the maker; a legacy left in each mark. 

The combination of slate and geometry feels to me like a perfect marriage. Geometry relies on perfect accuracy to create intricate patterns. For me, this calls for meticulous precision with the execution of carving, which I can achieve using slate. Our eyes have become accustomed to the level of accuracy made possible by machine production. I relish the technical challenge of working accurately enough to create a handmade piece that is equally satisfying to look at, if not more so. 

Historically, carving has always relied on light and shadow to complete the work and bring it to life. This continues to be an important interest of mine. As light moves across the carved geometric design with the passing of time, different areas are highlighted. This alters the appearance of the reassuringly constant pattern in unexpected ways. I feel this also connects the work back to nature, where the stone was originally formed. 

Lockdown completely changed the way I view my craft. I now see it as an essential part of my life rather than just a career choice. I hadn’t realised until this point how much it benefits my mental well-being. Concentrating wholeheartedly on one practical task that is both intricate and challenging enables me to switch off completely from the outside world, like a form of meditation. 

I also feel very differently about the purpose of my work. I want to try and convey to the viewer some of the feelings I have while making the work. The sculptural nature of carvings invites the viewer to move around the piece to look at it from different angles, watching the pattern change. I hope to create pieces that are both interesting and engaging and which also invite the viewer to pause and reflect. 

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