Carving Marble on Tinos, Greece

As my wife and I began planning another visit to Greece, we knew we wanted something more than just a touristy taverna on the beach.  After a little internet research, we discovered the “Dellatolas Marble Sculpture Studio” on the island of Tinos. 

Wow! Why not?  What better way to spend a couple of weeks, learning an ancient art from a master sculptor during the day, and hanging out on the beach and in a taverna with the locals in the evening?  I realized this would not be the first choice for many people, but for me, it was a natural.  For years I had dabbled a little in a few artistic endeavors, with wood-carving being one of my passions.  Grandiose feelings of Rodin and Michaelangelo were instantly dampened by the realization I knew virtually nothing about carving marble.  The studio on Tinos reassured me this was not a problem, as they worked with rank beginners as well as experienced sculptors.

Roughed out feggite

On my first morning, a taxi dropped me off at the studio, travel weary and a little tentative as I entered the building, feeling like a kid on his first day of school.  Although the yard and carving area was open, everything was very quiet as nobody had arrived to work, giving me an opportunity to explore my surroundings.  Marble was scattered everywhere . . . large slabs leaned up against the building and huge containers of scrap pieces waited to be picked up for disposal.  Various carvings, both finished and unfinished lie about the yard.  Behind the studio’s outdoor sculpting “patio”, a dry little pasture hosted a few ragged and bearded goats, intent on finding a fresh patch of grass, rather than showing any interest in the marble carvers.

Inside the shop area huge diamond circular saws, drills and other large pieces of equipment stood ready for cutting, drilling and polishing marble.  A selection of carvings, large and small occupied small carving tables, sturdy stands to hold the pieces at a convenient height for working.  A thick layer of fine marble dust, mixed with small pieces and chips of the same material covered the floor.  Like the exterior of the studio, various carvings, busts, and intricate moldings were scattered about on shelves and piles on the floor.

Before long, Annette Fougnies and her husband Petros Dellatolas greeted me and welcomed me to the studio for my first try at marble carving.  A brief tour of the facility, as well as explanations of some of items I had seen earlier followed, including a brief tour of their show studio, where they displayed some of Petros’ finest work!

Annette and Petros at our coffee break

By this time, some of the students had arrived and were working on their pieces.  One novice was chipping away at a slab of practice marble, a task I would soon find myself doing.  Others were using small power tools, run by compressed air, buzzing away at larger pieces, creating what they hoped would be a masterpiece.  One lady was attacking a huge block of absolutely pristine marble from Turkey, working from a small clay model of her project.

My first lesson was to learn something about the tools and how they were used.  In most cases, Petros, the master, would come to your carving area and explain in Greek.  Annette would follow with a precise English translation.  Between the two sets of instructions, you received a detailed description of what was to be done.  One of the first things to be learned was the use, the stroke and the rhythm of each tool.  When Petros used it, it looked so easy, and one could count the beats, one-two, one-two, one-two, as the chips of marble flew from the pointed chisel at each stroke of the hammer.  When I tried it myself, it took some discipline and practice before you get just the right angle to chip off the marble, and to maintain the rhythm to make progress.  I learned too, that the hammer they used was a “sculptor’s hammer”, different from a “stone-cutter’s hammer” which had a flat face, while the sculpting hammer had a slight angle to the face, so when you stroked in an arc, the face of the hammer struck the tool at the proper angle.  I started with an 800 gram hammer, but picked up one kilo hammer one day and found it to be more suited to my grip and strength.  One day while we were out exploring the island, we visited the small blacksmith shop of Dimitri, the smithy who made the carving tools and hammers for the sculptors on the island.  I ordered a one kilo hammer for myself to take home . . . quite expensive, but something I had not seen at home – especially with my initials stamped into it by the Tinian blacksmith!

Petros cutting a slab of marble for me.

After the pointed chisel, came the toothed chisel, which was used to carve the surface down to a certain level.  To start this lesson, Petros would come out to my “practice” slab of marble, and start hacking away along one side, taking the surface down a few millimeters.  The rhythm on this stroke was one- one – one, with a much slower cadence, each time almost peeling off another layer of marble.  “Oh, that looks easy” I thought, watching the master at work . . . until I picked up the tool and tried it myself!  The grip, the angle, the power of the stroke had to be just right, and you had to keep up the rhythm once again to make progress.  After about a day of this, with aching arms and hands, and a left thumb swollen and bleeding from the constant misses of the hammer in my right hand, I finally had most of the large slab down to a new level.  “Good”, said Petros as he looked it over with a critical eye.  With that, he picked up the hammer and chisel once more and proceeded to cut the edge down to a new level and I had to start all over again.

About the swollen, bleeding thumb . . . after some bleeding on my marble one day, I was quietly trying to wrap my thumb with some tissue and electrical tape to provide a little protection from the glancing blows of a miss-directed hammer.  Annette and some of the students commented on it at coffee break.  Tongue-in-cheek, she said “I can’t understand that, you must be the first student who has ever done that!”  Of course, this brought rounds of laughter from the group as they had all gone through similar torture, and were still subject to the odd blow to some unprotected part of their bodies.  Even Petros, who had carved stone since he was five years old, had suffered his share of self-abuse.

Finally, we got to a point where we could do some finer work.  A small chisel, less than one centimeter across the face, with a very fast tap-tap-tap cadence, with the tip at an angle, carving a V-groove in the marble.  First one side of the groove, then the other, always trying to maintain a straight line, with smooth sides and an accurate V shaped groove.  I was surprised at how smooth the carving chisels could make the final surface – at least when Petros did it!  Apparently, this was the sign of a good sculptor, how finished you could make a piece without resorting to other methods of filing and sanding, which is still used, but as little as possible.  More groove cutting, joining other grooves at right angles, then curved grooves, until we were finally using the same technique to produce letters.  “You’ll be able to carve your own tombstone in marble” it was suggested.  Needless to say, not many took this suggestion too enthusiastically.

After we had “perfected” the basic chipping and carving techniques . . . as well as possible for novices, it was time to move on to our own project.  Before arriving, I had voiced my concerns with Annette about what I might carve, mentioning a few suggestions.  She told me not to worry, that “Greece would  talk to me”, which it did.  There were many sources of inspiration on Tinos, but one which struck a note with me were the many “Feggites”, or so called “fan lights” that were seen on almost every building all over the island.  These fan lights were architectural features built above windows or doors originally used as a source of ventilation and/or light when the doors and windows were shut up against the weather.  The ancient ones were quite plain, an arched rectangle with smaller arches or circles cut through them in a pleasing pattern.  During the seventeen hundreds, these became a little more elaborate, with fancier cutouts, surface decorations, crosses, stars of various types and other religious symbols.  In later years, a double headed bird appeared, along with many other features influenced by the various countries and cultures that had occupied the island.  In more recent times in the past century or so, these carvings became quite elaborate, introducing dolphins, sea horses, mermaids, sailing ships, anchors and other nautical themes.

Author marking the marble for carving

As I came to this part of my course, I decided to carve a “Tinos Feggite”, complete with dolphins, an anchor and some waves to depict the sea.  One evening back at our apartment, I sketched out my ideas on paper and brought them to the studio the next morning.  The ideas were accepted enthusiastically, and both Annette and Petros helped me out with the final design, then showed me how to transfer it to the marble.  From a larger slab of white Tinos marble about an inch-and-a-half thick, Petros first cut a manageable rectangle, then cut the top in a semicircular curve.  The white marble of the surface only went part way through the slab, changing to faint streaks of a light grey and more white.  When this is carved a certain way, it brings out a beautiful grain pattern in the work, referred to as the “water in the marble” in Greek.

Once I had transferred my pattern to the slab of marble, the work began.  First, I had to drill out all the parts that had to be removed, using a small air powered drill.  Once these pieces were removed, then the cleanup and smoothing had to be done with a chisel.  Although this could be done manually with my hammer and chisel (as I said, I had already “mastered” the techniques), Petros allowed me to use an air-powered chisel.  This required even more lessons to master the grip, the pressure and stroke of this marvelous time saver.  Soon, my “masterpiece” took form, the dolphins came alive, leaping out the waves below.

After many hours of chipping, shaping and smoothing with aching muscles and blistered fingers, the piece was ready to be turned over.  Now the rear edges of the figures were sculpted again, cleaning off the ragged edges and making a clean, sharp outline.  Annette said it was something like needlepoint, where the back of the piece should be cleaned up to look as good as the front.

Finished project

At this point, our time on Tinos had run out, and we had to leave to continue our journey elsewhere.   I looked upon my first piece of marble sculpting with some pride, and our friends could not believe I had done this in such a short time.  I knew I would be doing some final cleanup and polishing when I returned home, but I could at least point to this and say “Look what I did on Tinos.”

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