Soapstone is essentially talc with a variety of mineral impurities embedded, including mica, chlorite, serpentine, quartz, calcite and iron oxides. It comes in a range of colors and is a very soft stone, with a hardness rating of only 1 to 2 on the MOHS scale. It can be found all over the world and has been used by many cultures through-out history, from ancient Egypt, to India, China and the far North. Soapstone artifacts have been found which date as far back as 5,000 BC. Today though, much of the world most commonly associates soapstone with the peoples of the North, once referred to as Eskimo, now more properly known as Inuit, Yupik and Aleut. Historically, these peoples used soapstone for many things, including dishes, bowls, cooking utensils, and, the most recognized, for carving and sculpting. Common motifs include seals, bears, walrus and other sea life, and also images of mythical or mystical beings, their creatures of belief and religion. Hand carved, using bone tools, sanded smooth using sand and soapstone dust, these carvings have evoked the North for centuries. When working with soapstone, I continually feel that almost spiritual aura that surrounds soapstone and its history. To work in soapstone today, one must also respect the culture and beliefs of those who first worked with the stone.
Today, while soapstone is still used for the old purposes, it is also now used for fancy kitchen counters and table-tops, fireplaces, floor tiles, ovens and other, more utilitarian purposes. On the artistic side, the original native artists have been joined by many non-native artists, like me, who have adopted the medium. The tools have changed from bone and stone to steel, hand work pushed aside by powered tools and machines. While the large volume productions do undeniably keep the beauty of the stone, I believe the industrial uses have lost touch with that spiritual essence of the stone. It’s up to today’s artists to maintain the more spiritual side of soapstone carving, to keep us in touch with the beauty of a carved image, rather than the more materialistic pride in a kitchen counter-top.
Unlike most minerals today, which are blasted away from their deposits, soapstone, like the harder marble, is actually carved from the mountainside. Pilot holes are drilled around a large chunk of stone. Diamond grit chains are then threaded through the pilot holes, connected to a set of flywheels, and then the chain grinds a channel through the stone. In larger operations, huge chassis-mounted diamond-toothed chain saws carve channels in the rock face, cutting away large masses of stone. Once the block is freed from the mountainside, it is pushed over onto a sand or earthen bed. As it falls onto the bed it tends to break into smaller pieces along the natural fault lines. Larger or unbroken pieces are sold off for industrial uses, smaller pieces become medium for soapstone carvers. I say smaller pieces, but even the small pieces can weigh a few hundred pounds. Carvers like myself usually work with pieces in the ten to fifty pound range and the gallery carries pieces in most of the size ranges.