Image of Dr David Paton introducing 'On Softer Ground' a walk from Godolphin House to Tregonning Hill, Water and Stone, 2023, CAST. Photo: Molly Deegan, CM Productions
Image of Dr David Paton demonstrating granite carving technique, Water and Stone, 2023, CAST. Photo: Molly Deegan, CM Productions

Dr David Paton’s introduction to the Water and Stone/Dowr ha Men programme of talks, as delivered on Saturday 14 October 2023:

I should like to introduce our session this afternoon by taking a moment to reflect on the notion of fluidity and solidity as it relates to water and stone. 

In her keynote talk yesterday, Ruth Siddall spoke of a zone of activity deep under the surface of the earth, where ongoing interactions between oceanic and continental crust provide conditions for water to act as a flux to facilitate lower temperature melts of rocky matter. This vital relationship of matters remains integral to the formation of granite, where super-massive material processes enacted over billions of years persist in the geologic psyche. The beauty of the science of geology is that it situates the life worlds of flora and fauna — of which we people are just a part — into the infrastructure of the made universe as we know it now. 

Ruth’s talk made me think about the role of water in the quarry. Water is used every day to dismantle the granite body. It is integral to the use of the saws, and it is integral to large-scale stitch-splits, where water is poured into the 30mm wide, 40cm deep, holes, before the plugs and feathers are slotted in and the rhythmic hammering-in gradually enacts the breath of the geologic— the splitting of the granite block and the first inhalation/exhalation of that exposed matter to air altered by human beings. The relationship between water and stone, at a geological scale, or indeed a quarry scale, evokes a potent sense of vital relations. You can’t have one without the other, as chemical compounds and elements circulate through shifting densities of matter, down through rock, and out through fissures and up into the atmosphere and down again, on and on and on… 

When thinking about granite, I always come back to the notion of rhythm. What I gathered from my time working at the quarry as a mason was rhythm, always rhythm. The working day, the flow of body and tool, the actual labour of the shaping of things. The time-scape of the quarry, of quarries, is a substrate laid down in the flesh of the worker. Furthermore, it is the everydayness of labour — the tedium, the weather, the intake of calorie rich foods, the argument at home in the morning, the banter in the crib hut, the broken tool — that resonates in the oscillating void of the quarry. This is the intersection of human and rocky matters that traverses back through the land. The quarry, and any other places of revolving work such as the home, the office, the factory, the field, the shop, the studio, the computer, are all geological. They are borne of geological matter and they will return to geological matter in a constant cycle of shaping and being shaped. How we work, and what we work with, is part of a biological life cycle that also evolves in perpetual tension with the geological cycle. As human knowledge expands, we are caught between differing imperatives of scale. Our knowledge, like the watery flux, both enables and contradicts human intentions and expectations. 

When Barbara Hepworth said something along the lines of “I the sculptor am landscape” she clarified something important about the stone-metal-flesh dialogue that one is folded into as a stone worker. I relate to this phrase deeply. There has been, and always will be, a profound thread of energy that flows between me, my hammer and chisel, and the stone, and the placing of these actions in the land. Until you have experienced this, it is hard to explain, but it is a pleasure to try to convey this, to fold others into a mutual understanding of these processes.

Socially, culturally, economically, technologically and creatively, stone has been, and seemingly remains, a central feature of the human experience. Extracted stone and geological knowledges in differing forms are not without their issues, with the environmental concerns associated with the disassembly of geological matter for its mineral content, its ores and oozing concretes. Indeed, the power of geological knowledge persists as it continues to be enrolled in colonial conquests of land and wealth-making, highlighting a profoundly troubling and still pertinent connection between historical and contemporary globally active socio-economic productivities. A violent slippage is, and has been, enacted through the lives of everyday people and the land they dwell within, as the earth’s surface is probed for linear, wealth-making, progress.

For artists, the significance of stone has waxed and waned in different ways, but at present we are in a period of excitable reverence for the geologic. And right now it seems particularly significant in Cornwall, with a palpable engagement with granite evident in the work of a wide range of artists and socially engaged craft practitioners. So, it feels good to have such a gathering of people to think about granite during Water and Stone 2023, about the geologic, about the significance of rock and of the stones in our daily lives. I think it is the notion of the everydayness of stone that matters. There is a propensity for romancing the geologic that sometimes takes us away from its more gritty significance. Everything we have and are comes from either rock, or, significantly, from water. Indeed, our very own fleshiness is fundamentally a mineral-rich water-filled geological sack.

The notion of people being simultaneously shaped by, and imbuing shape upon stone is something that came up resonantly in Ruth Siddall’s talk about the integral relationship between water and stone. Geologically speaking, both water and stone are in constant flow, and it is this imbrication of material relations acting across vast tracts of space and the construct of time, that is made manifest so vividly in the frozen moment of a tooling mark on a granite ashlar block. The embodied and still visible smash of a punch-tool into the granite meshwork is where we might come to understand what it means to be human in a more-than-human life world.

Water and Stone/Dowr ha Men was made possible by the support of Falmouth University, with FEAST, Cornwall Council, Arts Council England, Cornwall Community Foundation and Helston Town Council. The project was also part-funded by the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.