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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Samy

Guest blog - Catherine Samy, Chair of Trustees, The Lettering Arts Trust

‘And what’s that?’ I asked, pointing at the many pieces of jagged stone leaning against a wall.

I was visiting Charlotte Howarth’s letter-cutting studio in Norfolk. She had given me a ‘tour’ of her magical workspace, with work in progress on an easel, chisels of every type and size adorning a whole wall, and what she calls ‘every woman’s dream’ - a 1.5 ton gantry for lifting stone. Light poured in through huge glazed doors which link the studio to an equally beguiling garden beyond (great to have a landscape gardener as a husband). ‘That is my installation’ Charlotte replied, with a characteristic twinkle in her eye. It turned out that the pieces of stone were offcuts, the result of shaping material for specific commissions and cutting away the surplus. Oh and also pieces of stone which had shattered for one reason or another. Similar stashes are to be found in most studios, or scattered around the yard outside. These sometimes find service in creating a small artwork, but often sit for years, becoming almost invisible. Yet they are precious.

The stone that letter-cutters use as their raw material is sourced from the planet having formed millennia before. Depending on where and how it formed it may be white, yellow, beige, pink, grey, black, or every shade between. Each type of stone has its own texture and degree of resistance, some soft beneath the chisel blade, others sending shocks up the arm of even the most skilled artists as they work its surface. Some are peppered with the remnants of ancient creatures, likely to spring from the surface if hit at the wrong angle and leave their imprint as a dimple on a smooth face. Charlotte tells me that some limestones even release gasses as they are cut – mysterious bubbles of ancient bog air visiting the nostrils of humans millions of years after they formed.

Pippa Westoby - Earth (riven green slate offcut, 56 x 26 x 3 cms, Aldo Leopold quote)

Artists spend most of their time fulfilling client commissions to achieve something very specific, to mark an event or a life, or to commemorate a happening. The shape of the piece is designed and then created with the hard work of cutting stone, sanding, maybe softening edges. Then letters, and often decorative elements, are drawn out to create a harmony of line and space. Time is spent adjusting elements and re-drawing. All this before chisel hits rock. It is a work of precision that is informed by years of learning and practise, combining a skill with the artist’s own creativity and achieving so much more than mere words cut into stone.

At a time when some quarries are running short of certain stone, or the quality of what they are finding is diminishing, it seems appropriate to try to make every piece of material matter. So, the idea sprang up for an exhibition which would challenge artists to reach into the corners of their studios, select an offcut, and elevate it, creating something beautiful from what might have been a redundant or forgotten slice of our planet. It seems in keeping with the spirit of reducing waste and honouring natural resources.

Personally, I have always loved the glimpses of history that are seen in broken inscriptions at ancient sites in Italy and Greece - truncated sentences or sentiments with the rest lost to earthquake, progress, war, or simply time and the elements. I am thrilled that the idea of starting with a possibly redundant piece of our planet and transfiguring it has inspired so many artists. Letter-cutting is a form of alchemy, and I know that the artists involved will turn the ancient material into something even more precious.


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