City & Guilds of London Art School was founded in 1854. This specialized art college, in the middle of England’s capital city, offers a wide range of courses. Currently, it’s the only school in Britain that offers undergrad and postgrad degrees in historic carving. Today, we’ll introduce you to a few of their talented ornamental woodcarvers and architectural stone carvers.
“The school is a small independent Art school in South London. It is the only place in the UK which teaches carving to a degree level. The school is very unique – we are taught in a very traditional way – something that is very rare in the contemporary art world. The course emphasizes that to become a skilled carver there are many supporting disciplines to be mastered: Drawing, Clay Modeling, and Art Histories classes are a must. We also learn the Art of Lettering – drawing out letter forms ready to carve is a whole world in itself. The classes at the school are very small, making the whole school a really tight knit community.” -Student and Stone Carver Miriam Johnson
Over the past 3 years, Silje Loa has been studying woodcarving at City & Guilds. When she graduates, Silje will have a degree in ornamental woodcarving and gilding.
Her journey toward woodcarving has been a pilgrimage of her own making. To outsiders, some of her steps may seem random, but each change in course laid a foundation to her current career. Her understanding has deepened and her eye has matured.
- It all started after high school, when Silje set sail on a tall ship. Everyday was a lesson in the maintenance of wood along with other practical and invaluable skills.
- She then went on to study Prehistoric Archaeology. Her classes revolved around crafts, skills, and history.
- Those studies led her pursue a degree in the conservation of pictorial art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
- Once she earned her degree, she realized that she wanted to learn a craft and create great works of her own, leading her to City & Guilds of London.
“All of my experience outside of carving seem relevant and inspiring to me in my work… I love working in wood. There is such a huge variation of softness, grain, use and look in different types of wood and thereby a lot to be learned and explored. I learn better practically than academically, and the physicality of carving appealed to me. I love getting consumed by a project and feeling like I’m in a state of flow.” -Woodcarver Silje Loa
Although Silje is still in school at City & Guilds, that isn’t slowing her down. She’s won several sought after commissions. She was chosen to design and carve a grotesque (similar to a gargoyle) that will soon be fixed to St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The piece Silje is working on in these photographs also has a great backstory:
“I won a commission to design and carve the coat of arms for last year’s Prime Warden for the Fishmongers Company in London. The commission was particularly exciting because the prime warden was Princess Anne, the first female Prime Warden the company has ever had. The coat of arms is now at display at the Fishmongers Hall.” -Woodcarver Silje Loa
Silje’s advice to anyone considering trying their hand at the wooden arts:
“If you want to become a carver, get carving. Looking at carvings at museums and in historical buildings is amazing inspiration and can even give you an understanding of how they were made, but really just find a piece of wood, a chisel and begin.” -Woodcarver Silje Loa
Miriam Johnson began her career as a stonemason five years ago. Through the apprenticeship program with the Prince’s Foundation, she was able to travel across the UK working on historic buildings. To continue her training, Miriam enrolled at Bath College. There she learned masonry skills in the classroom and in the real world in a stone masonry company. That experience made her realize she wanted to specialize within the industry on the more artistic and creative side, carving. Bringing her to City & Guilds. In June, Miriam will graduate with a Historic Carving Diploma in Architectural Stone Carving.
In these photographs, Miriam is working on a beautiful piece inspired by her grandfather’s work depicting a centaur fighting a dragon.
“My Grandfather was not a stone carver, as far as I know this was the only thing he ever carved. He would tell us how he’d carved it for my grandmother (75 years ago) with nothing but a sharpened screwdriver.
As a child, I had heard this story so many times that it was a normal thing to me, nothing special. I didn’t think twice about it. Looking back now, the fact that my grandfather was not a sculptor – this carving is really impressive. On top of this, it is very likely that he carved this piece during the Second World War, whilst he was fighting against the Nazi’s in the French resistance.
Looking at it made me realize to myself how this piece and my grandfather must have subconsciously greatly influenced my career choice.” -Stone Carver Miriam Johnson
After Miriam’s grandfather returned home from war, he furthered his architectural work by training as a historian. He specialized in the medieval construction of cathedrals, and even wrote several books on the subject.
“Stone masonry in this day and age is a rare trade. It cannot be a coincidence that a grandchild of this man became one. Sadly, by the time I was in the trade, my grandfather had dementia and I do not think he ever really realized my occupation.” -Stone Carver Miriam Johnson
To honor her grandfather, Miriam decided to carve her own version of a centaur fighting a dragon. She made a few changes to his original design to make it her own. Miriam’s version is twice as big, chiseled out of black stone (to contrast the white), circular in shape (to symbolize a familial continuity), with a female centaur.
Miriam had always interpreted her grandfather’s version as a representation of himself, fighting the good fight. It was only fitting that her adaptation should represent herself, a woman, also fighting the good fight.
“I believe that children, both boys and girls, should have strong female role models, which is what I hope I am creating in my work.” -Stone Carver Miriam Johnson
“Creating something so permanent in the world is such a satisfying thing to do, and to have the chance, as I often do, to work on historic buildings is such an honour. Things that I have made with my hands will live on long past me. To be part of a trade that is so old, using methods that have not changed that much in hundreds of years is something that is wonderful. I also feel really lucky to have a job that could take me anywhere in the world, there is so much to explore!
It isn’t all rosy though. I can often work in pretty harsh environments, using an angle grinder all day, having to wear masks, goggles, gloves etc. Often I work outside, I’ve worked in snow, and sleet, and rain. Working in awkward places high up on scaffolding, lifting heavy loads, and working long hours.” -Stone Carver Miriam Johnson
Growing up in London, Zeinab was exposed to woodcarving before she ever knew it was a skill she could learn. Beautiful ornate buildings with intricate decoration are common in such a historic city.
Zeinab is currently studying Historical Woodcarving and Gilding. Her interest in wood followed her study of textile design.
Through her studies, she felt the need for greater sustainability. In an effort to combat consumerism, Zeinab researched mediums that had longer lifespans than textiles. She learned that woodcarvings can last twice as long as you or me. Eventually that led her to City and Guilds, happily in her own hometown.
That doesn’t mean she’s stayed put. Zeinab has traveled all over, using crafts as her universal form of communication. She’s taught weaving and block printing to small villages in Samoa and Indonesia. She’s facilitated art workshops in the Amazon. And she spent a summer in Rome, studying floral symbolism in Augustan art.
That time in Italy inspired the piece she’s working on in these photos. Zeinab carved this beautiful panel of lime wood in the style of the Ara Pacis, a Roman altar from 13 BC.
Zeinab hopes to raise awareness of woodcarving to support the continuation of the craft. She plans to show her carvings in contemporary spaces in an effort to revive the traditional skill as an art form and an important tool in conservation.
“Learning a traditional skill is a continual learning process. The more mistakes you make the more you will learn!” -Woodcarver Zeinab Harding
Stone Carver Sue Aperghis
For 30 years Sue worked as a graphic designer, creating packaging and branding.
“In my career when I first started, I tried to hide the fact I was dyslexic but I came to realize (and I would suggest it to others) that you should embrace the things that you find most challenging, and work hard and smart to get round your difficulties. Maybe try a different angle on how to learn. The most successful things I’ve done in art is when I confront my Demons the most.” -Stone Carver Sue Aperghis
Despite her struggle with dyslexia, typography has always been one of Sue’s main interests. That led her to Letter Cutting in stone, a skill she’s learned over the last 3 years at City and Guilds. She’ll graduate this June.
In these photos, Sue is working on a sculpture of a soldier, inspired by the works of Charles Sergeant Jagger on the Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park Corner. For two months, she molded a clay model to use for measurements once she started cutting into stone. The carving took about 6 months, and it was well worth the time and effort.
“I’m fascinated in the human form and obstruction of the figure and drapery to tell a story.” -Stone Carver Sue Aperghis
What a beautiful story of triumph! Confronting her dyslexia and pursuing her passion for typography led Sue to a whole new career. Now she’s picking up the mantel, continuing the traditional craft of stone carvers, with her own insights and vision.
Click here to find out more about City & Guilds of London Art School.