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Interview with John MacLean: A Self-Taught Artist Who Creates Beauty in Stone

Updated: Mar 27

John MacLean is a self-taught artist who has no formal training in either drawing or sculpture. He has been living in California since 1963 and has experienced the diverse and vibrant culture of the Golden State. He has been working in stone exclusively since 1997, after discovering his passion for alabaster carving. He works with the singular goal of creating beauty and joy in a medium that will live on long after he’s gone. He draws inspiration from Celtic design, nature, and his own imagination. His sculptures are abstract, organic, and dynamic, expressing his vision and creativity.

We had the opportunity to chat with John and learn more about his artistic journey, his creative process, and his advice for aspiring artists. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Q: How did you get started with art?

A: I’ve always been interested in art, but I never had any formal education or training in it. I started with doodling in my notebooks back in high school. I would sit at my desk and spend the period spinning out these loopy, curvy, psychedelic designs. Much to my surprise, classmates would often ask if they could have the drawings. The same thing happened in college, and at the one and only desk job I held. Years later, I began to take the drawings seriously, working on Bristol board with rapidograph and colored pencil.

Q: What made you switch from drawing to sculpture?

A: In 1993, I took a week-long workshop class in Celtic stone carving in Elkins, West Virginia. There, I learned the basics of relief carving in alabaster, and I found George Bain’s book “Celtic Art The Methods of Construction.” Applying the discipline of Celtic design would turn my psychedelic doodles into carefully drafted knotwork compositions. But as soon as I cut into a piece of alabaster, I knew my days of graphic art were about over. I had ‘found my bliss’ in stone work. I also found that I had no interest in relief carving. I had spheroids, bowls, swooping curves, tunnels, loops, and arches, blooming in my head. I knew I could take those figures I drew and translate them into stone. I’ve been working in stone exclusively since 1997.

Q: What are the main challenges and rewards of working with stone?

A: Working with stone is both challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging because stone is a hard and unforgiving material. You have to be careful and precise with every cut, because you can’t undo or erase anything. You also have to deal with the dust, the noise, and the physical strain of handling heavy and sharp tools. It’s rewarding because stone is a beautiful and durable material. You can create amazing shapes and textures with stone, and you can make something that will last for generations. You also have the satisfaction of transforming a raw and rough material into a refined and elegant work of art.

Q: How do you choose the stone for your sculptures?

A: I mostly work with alabaster, which is a type of soft and translucent stone that comes in different colors and patterns. I love alabaster because it has a luminous quality that makes it seem like it is glowing from within. I also like the variety and unpredictability of alabaster. You never know what you’re going to find inside a piece of alabaster until you cut into it. Sometimes you find veins, cracks, fossils, or other surprises that add character and interest to the stone. I choose the stone for my sculptures based on the shape, size, color, and quality of the material. I also try to match the stone with the idea I have in mind for the sculpture.

Q: What is your creative process like?

A: My creative process is a combination of planning and improvisation. I usually start with a sketch or a model of the sculpture I want to make. I use clay, wire, or cardboard to make the model, and I try to capture the essence and the movement of the sculpture. Then I choose the stone that fits the model, and I mark the outline of the sculpture on the stone. After that, I start carving the stone, following the model as a guide. However, I also allow myself to deviate from the model and adapt to the stone. Sometimes the stone reveals something unexpected or interesting that changes the direction of the sculpture. Sometimes I have to modify the sculpture to avoid flaws or cracks in the stone. Sometimes I just follow my intuition and let the stone guide me. I try to be flexible and open to the possibilities of the stone.

Q: What are the main themes or messages of your sculptures?

A: I don’t have a specific theme or message for my sculptures. I just try to create beauty and joy in stone. I want to make things that will delight the people who eventually will own them. I also want to express my vision and creativity in stone. I’m inspired by Celtic design, nature, and my own imagination. I like to create abstract, organic, and dynamic forms that evoke a sense of motion and energy. I also like to play with light and shadow, contrast and harmony, and simplicity and complexity. I want to invite the viewer to interpret the meaning and appreciate the beauty of my sculptures.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who want to work with stone?

A: My advice to aspiring artists who want to work with stone is to be patient, persistent, and passionate. Working with stone is not easy, but it is rewarding. You have to be patient because stone carving is a slow and meticulous process. You have to be persistent because stone carving is a challenging and demanding craft. You have to be passionate because stone carving is a creative and expressive art. You also have to be willing to learn and experiment. There are many techniques and tools you can use to work with stone, and there are many sources of information and inspiration you can find online or offline. You have to find what works for you and what suits your style and vision. You also have to enjoy the process and have fun with it. Stone carving is a wonderful way to express yourself and create something beautiful.

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