by Nancy McDaniel

OK, OK, how many times has someone told you that an event “really changed my life?”

I recently participated in a stone carving workshop taught by a Master Sculptor from Zimbabwe.

It didn’t exactly change my life, but it did open me up and taught me ever-so-much more than how to carve stone.

This is that story.

Chapungu Comes to Chicago
A remarkable sculpture exhibit opened in two Chicago locations (Garfield Park Conservatory on the west side of Chicago and Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe) on May 31. It’s called ChapunguChicago and it consists of about 90 monumental stone sculptures done by the Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe. The work is astonishingly complex and moving, primarily done by men of the Shona tribe. There are several prominent women sculptors, but most of the famous sculptors are men. The second generation of these sculptors is now carrying on this remarkable artistic tradition.

I have met several of the sculptors when I visited Harare over the years and I greatly admire their work. So I was so excited when I heard that this fabulous exhibit was coming to Chicago for five months. Parts of it have traveled to Kew Gardens in England, to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City as well as to Hamburg, Germany. But never have so many pieces been exhibited all at one time outside Harare. This truly was something not to be missed. (For more information, please go see

Just Do It, Nance
In conjunction with the exhibit, lectures are being given about the art form, about the Chapungu Sculpture Garden and its history, as well as about the Shona culture and how it affects the subject matter of the pieces (e.g. The Role of Women, The Spirit World, Village Life, etc.) About twelve of the sculptors, whose work is on exhibit, are taking turns coming to Chicago to speak, to demonstrate how the work is done…AND to teach five day stone carving workshops!!

The workshops were billed as “a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn from the master stone sculptors of Zimbabwe. Participants receive stone from Africa and the tools and training to create their own masterpiece.” How seductive is that? I, who have never “made art,” was tempted for the first time in my adult life to take an art class. A friend asked me why I decided to do this. I think it really wasn’t about making a sculpture. Rather, it was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study with a master. If you think about painting instead of Shona sculpture, this would be like taking a workshop with Picasso. If you think about bronze, it would be like taking a workshop with Henry Moore.

So although I was a bit nervous, I wanted to stretch and push myself and just try it. I never expected that I would be very good at it and I certainly didn’t surprise myself there. But it was a remarkable experience, more for the process, the growth and the intimacy we all shared.

Pica Rock, Any Rock
Tuesday morning 9:30 started with brief introductions (Hi, I’m Nancy/Alex/Janice/Donna. Hi, I’m Taylor Nkomo. “TAYLOR NKOMO??? You’re not supposed to be here – you taught the last workshop” (which I wanted to take because his piece “Me Too Mama” is my very favorite in the whole exhibit. But I couldn’t take that particular workshop because it took place when I was still in Brazil). But the two sculptors who were scheduled to teach our workshop were having difficulties getting their visas to travel (must have been those chisels! Hooray for the US – protecting us against artists. Oh, puhleeze!!) Anyway, Taylor was enlisted to stay another week to teach us. Poor Taylor, his homesickness and eagerness to get back to Zim to see his family and start working on a big piece again became our lucky break.

Formalities, such as they were, being over, Taylor gave us each a bumblebee-colored satchel full of tools – a chisel, a pallet, the thing I called the Basher, an orange handled thing with a pointy tip (see how knowledgable I am about tools? NOT!), three assorted files, two brushes, a mask and safety glasses (uh, not this girl. Remember, I am the one who doesn’t wear sunglasses or hats when I am at the Equator either) and a polishing cloth. I am bad with tools as simple as a hammer, so I was somewhat intimidated by this assemblage of stuff.

Taylor walked us over to a pile of rocks and told us to pick one. Some were opalstone (the softer brown and green one), while some were springstone (the harder black one). All looked hard. Really really hard. And dusty and not particularly pretty. Yet. Rock picking done, Taylor said “Now you can start.” Start what? “Creating.” What do I make? “The stone will tell you.”

Yeah, sure.

We each placed our rock on a giant tree stump and we sat on another nearby giant tree stump. That was it. It was time to begin. We stared at our rocks, either saw what was in there or maybe we didn’t. And we stared some more and then just started bashing away to get the excess off and see where the process – and our stone – would lead us.

“Nancy is a Scaredy Cat”
Alex picked the springstone. Alex was fearless and just started bashing. Alex was sort of a ringer. Turns out, although it was the first time he had worked in stone, Alex is a wood carver and teaches sculpture in a Chicago arts high school. Alex saw a woman in his big black stone. Like a genie in a bottle, Alex’s Beautiful Woman clearly wanted to come out. And quickly, she did.

Janice picked a big piece of opalstone. Like me, Janice had never sculpted before. But she is still an artist. She makes African textile dolls and she writes. She teaches English and multi-ethnic literature at UIC, where she is also working on her PhD in creative writing. She found a beautiful woman (The Woman Within) inside her opalstone; she said she felt this woman was a part of her. Maybe she was, because she certainly ended up just as beautiful as Janice.

Donna had never sculpted before either. And, like me, she seemed to be more tentative than the others and a bit daunted by the whole proposition. Yet she gamely began, gently tapping her stone and ultimately finding a lovely woman’s face in her opalstone.

Then there was Nancy. Me. I immediately found something evocative in my rock. I saw a face with lovely, long wavy hair coming out of her head.

I decided to go with a more abstract portrayal than the others did, in large part because that is what I was more comfortable trying to do.

I felt very awkward with my tools and decided to try something which I felt might be easier. After all, I wasn’t looking for a new career; I just wanted to experience the whole process.

Taylor showed us how to hold the tools (which I always seemed to do backwards) and for what purpose to use each one.

That was about it. He was mostly there to guide us and inspire us and help us out in a jam. If there was ever a “learn by doing” experience, this was it.

The Dreaded Crack Appears
I was happily bashing and sculpting away when I noticed It: a fine hairline crack running all the way through the back half of my stone. Despite my noviceness (novicite?), I knew that this was definitely Not A Good Thing. I really loved the woman I was creating and plaintively called Taylor over for advice and counsel. He said something like, “This is Not A Good Thing.” The only good part was discovering it early. Because this is the fatal flaw (ha, so THAT is where the term came from) in a stone. Eventually, it would have broken on its own. So Taylor bravely (I couldn’t look, so I hid my face in my hands) whacked the crack with a chisel. Now I had two stones to carve. The front half still spoke the same way to me as her wholeness had done. It was still a face of a woman with long flowing hair. It’s just that the hair was now not so long, nor as thick. Plus the poor dear could no longer stand up on her own. But no worries, I started bashing and chiseling again. She would arrive, one way or another.

Now, here comes the first metaphor for life. It’s about the cracks in the stones. A woman who had taken the workshop in June stopped by to chat. She was thrilled with her experience and her resultant piece; she had seen a mermaid hiding in the stone. She was happily and diligently working on it when she spied A Big Crack. She asked her instructor what to do and he said she must split it. She said, no you do it, please, I don’t have the heart to do it. He refused and insisted that she be brave enough to take this step. She reluctantly did. And once she did, she found an even more beautiful color of stone inside. And it made her mermaid more exquisite. And she was amazed by this. This is the first Stone Lesson: The Lesson of Letting Go. Of trusting the inner stone. Of chipping away the outside to get to the beautiful inside. Of bravely getting rid of the old self to let the new stronger, more beautiful self out.

Janice Finds the Woman Within
Janice loved her stone and the woman emerging from it. Janice is a very beautiful African American woman. So is her sculpture. She felt that The Stone Creature was part of herself, emerging from a cocoon. She said that once she realized that it was She who was emerging, she loved the piece more and more. She felt empowered by the process. She would gaze at and lovingly caress the piece.

More than once, I glanced over at Donna and caught her with a beatific look on her face, wistfully staring off somewhere and gently rubbing her hand over the smooth stone, the stone that was slowly becoming a lovely woman.

Alex said that working in stone was a very sensuous experience. He had long worked with wood and knows how it lives and breathes. But stone was different. He was in love with his stone. The woman emerging was beautiful too. This was really emotional and heady stuff for all of us.

Summer Camp Chapungu
No s’mores, no fried Spam over the campfire. But we commented how we felt as though we were at summer camp. Very quickly our group became fast friends. Each day got better. Each day, we told stories and revealed more and more about our lives. As we opened our stones, so too did we open ourselves up to each other.

We bonded over food and music. We had homemade brownies, cream cheese and great fresh bagels (Taylor’s first) and Bridgeport donuts. We had wonderful music from Zimbabwe and South Africa to put us in the proper frame of mind. And we even had Taylor’s favorite new beer, Corona, at the end of a day (which Taylor showed us how to open cap to cap, when an opener wasn’t readily available.).

And lots and lots of visitors came to the Artists’ Tent where we worked.

There were pre-school kids who were fascinated by the “magic stones” that changed color when they got wet.

There were a few people who knew lots about the art form and some who knew nothing but were rapidly captivated by it too.

There were people who had been to or lived in Zimbabwe as well as one who said “I don’t know where Zimbabwe is; I’m from New York.”

There were anthropologists and saxophone players and school teachers and restaurant owners and air traffic controllers.

And they all wanted to see what we were doing and some claimed they thought that we were Actual Shona Sculptors. They marveled at what we could do in five days. So did I.

“Me Too Mama”
And I always proudly told people that Our Teacher, Our Own Dear Taylor Nkomo, created what I personally thought was one of the absolute best pieces in the show: a moving, evocative, gentle and warm piece called Me Too Mama.

(It is a lovely woman, about 8 feet tall, with her little boy held up high on her shoulder, with an older child tugging gently at her skirt, also wanting to be held. The caption on the piece says “He does not realise that he has become too heavy and I cannot carry them both.”)

Almost to the person, they said “He made that? I love that one.”

A friend of mine discussed with Taylor how the piece poignantly captured her own childhood experience of always being the older one, never the one to be carried.

And Taylor was so proud.

And so were we.

And honored to be learning from A Master.

And a really really nice man.

My Girl
When I was finished, I truly loved what I had created. She wasn’t as fancy as the other sculptures, not as professional. But she was mine and she was whimsically beautiful in her own way.Taylor called her Funny Face. Some said she looked feline, some said she made them smile. Some had no idea what she was meant to be. But I knew.

(The second piece I carved out of the other half of the rock was less successful. When I was having trouble with her eyes, that is, I really really messed them up, dear Taylor, who was usually so supportive and helpful and encouraging, took a look and smiled impishly and said, “that is really HORRIBLE.” And we both laughed and then he helped me fix her a little.)

Another Lesson: Let the Stone Be What it Wants To Be
A favorite piece of art which I bought over ten years ago is an alabaster sculpture called “Cloud Gatherer,” carved by a Native American named Cliff Fraqua. In a magazine article, the sculptor talked about working with stone. He said “Sometimes you have a set idea of what you want to do and you look for a stone that will work. Sometimes it does not work out. You find flaws, there may be cracks, the stone may not be right. It makes you think the stone doesn’t want to be carved this way. You more or less let the stone be what it wants to be.”

And one of the Shona Masters, Dominic Benhura, stated simply: “It’s between me and the stone.”

Maybe life is like the relationshop between us and our stone. There is something to be learned by finding the beauty deep within and chipping away the rest. By relinquishing control for a minute and letting something else take us where it wants us to go. By letting life pull us along for a spell. By going for what is underneath it all, whether we realize it is even there. By changing course and letting The Stone Be What It Wants To Be.

Thanks, Taylor, for helping us get there.