Sculptor meditates over ancient craft

A portrait of the award winning artist, Karin Mortensen at the Sea Horse Labor Day Art Show on September 1, 2012 in Sausalito, Calif. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman
Stone Sculptor, Karin Mortensen’s workspace at the Sea Horse Labor Day Art Show on September 1, 2012 in Sausalito, Calif. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

By Dannie Hawkins
The Guardsman

Karin Mortensen, like her craft, has been sculpted by her passions throughout her life. She teaches Greek, Latin and Spanish and speaks Portuguese, French and a West African dialect fluently. She’s even a puppeteer.

Above the many talents Mortensen encompasses, stone sculpting is one that is singularly special to her and she describes stone sculpting as a meditation with her hands.

Zachary Baroni carefully implements the sculpting motions from Karin Mortensen’s demonstration. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman
“Jormungand or Fossil Sea Serpent” by Karin Mortensen is made of African Wonderstone. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

“The American view is how can I use you, how can I profit from you?” Mortensen said recently at the Sausalito Artist Show, where she was demonstrating stone sculpture.

Meditating over her craft, Mortensen enters a state in which she asks the stone, “Who are you? How can I serve you?”

The  69-year-old retired teacher  came to City College due to her love for stone sculpture.

She decided to enroll in a stone sculpting class this semester after meeting City College instructor Stephanie Robison at the California Sculptor Symposium. Mortensen has been sculpting stone for four years, winning the two highest cash prizes at the Marin County fair out of 800 entries.

Her sculptures don’t come from her heart but rather to her heart.

An array of untouched stones. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

“As I listen with my hands, the stone speaks to me and then I pick up my tools and begin to form it,” she said. It takes Mortensen two to three months to complete a piece.

Zachary Baroni uses the chisel to carefully sculpt the stone. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman
For a small fee of five dollars, Karen Mortensen gives Zachary Baroni the basic, essential tools used for beginning sculpting. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman
Karin Mortensen’s tool bag, consisting of mallets and chisel’s, in a variety of sizes, used for stone sculpting. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

She had never worked with power tools before and beams with joy and appreciation while speaking of all that City College instructor Robison has recently taught her.

One of Karin Mortensen’s award winning pieces, “MBEMBA!,” which translates in Mandingo as “grandparent” or “ancestor”. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman
“Lizard Rock” by Karin Mortensen is an award winning pieced sculpted of Montana Soapstone. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

“When I’m holding a stone, I’m listening with my hands and my hands go to my heart,” she said.

Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Hudson River, New York and received an Ivy League education at Columbia University where she majored in anthropology and linguistics.

Mortensen recalls a deeply formative moment in her twenties when she camped at Devil’s Tower with her family. Walking over to an enormous vertical stone at Devil’s Tower National Monument, she put her head and hands against the stone and heard it sing.

“A very, very deep melody, similar to Tibetan monks throat singing,” Mortensen said. “There were no drugs involved, I never smoked pot or anything, I just heard the stone and realized there is something alive in it.”

Unlike many artists, Mortensen encourages people to touch her sculptures to experience its power. More than anything, she said she loves to give stone to others as gifts so they can “fall in love with the stone, learn it’s message, meditate through it.”

Karin Mortensen demonstrates how to sculpt a stone using a chisel. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

Mortensen’s journey reveals the grand, enriching treasure of our universe, a vast trove of beauty that the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives cause us to miss.

“People think the universe is made of stones, they do not know that stones are made of the universe,” Mortensen said, her sea blue eyes twinkling with a pure joy of true peace.

Often times we look for beauty at department stores and we are so quick to pay for an inauthentic, shallow depiction of something that is all around us: the peace, truth and beauty that reveals itself when we listen with our heart and allow that beauty to form.

Throughout her world travels, spanning from Sweden, France and all the way to Africa, Mortensen has held onto, realized and relished in the beauty of our universe and interprets it through her deeply moving art.

Karin Mortensen demonstrates to patron, Zachary Baroni, how to properly use a chisel when sculpting stone. Photo by Leslie Calderon/The Guardsman

Follow Dannie Hawkins on Twitter @danniedoll.


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