Guided by what the stone says

Katie Kowalski,
Posted 5/30/17

Arliss Newcomb is celebrating her 80th birthday this weekend by inviting more than a dozen of her fellow female stone sculptors to join her in a three-day artists-in-action show in Port …

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Guided by what the stone says


Arliss Newcomb is celebrating her 80th birthday this weekend by inviting more than a dozen of her fellow female stone sculptors to join her in a three-day artists-in-action show in Port Hadlock.

Stone carving is often thought of as an art form done only by men, Newcomb said, but the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association, of which she’s been a member for almost 30 years, is composed of about 45 percent women, and Newcomb is excited to bring a small group of those women to the Olympic Peninsula.

The artists-in-action show is June 2-4 at the Old Alcohol Plant Inn, which currently is showing some of Newcomb’s pieces.


Newcomb, who opens her studio annually for the Art Port Townsend tour, whittled as a child, and was for many years a wood carver by trade before she switched mediums.

“I just visualize things in the round,” she said of why she is drawn to three-dimensional art. “I can hardly draw three straight lines.”

Much of her wood carving she did on a boat, where she lived with her first, now-late husband. “He was very good about not minding wood chips in the cockpit,” she said.

A chance encounter with a stone carver inspired her to try out a similarly approached medium, and she was hooked.

“I love wood, and I think the warmth of wood is wonderful, but there’s something more enduring with stone,” Newcomb said.

Her pieces, she hopes, will last 100 years into the future.


Carving stone keeps her young and keeps her going, she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

An insomniac, Newcomb said she designs most of her pieces at night when she can’t sleep, visualizing them.

When she started carving stone, her work was very precise, she said. And she also insisted on being “like Michelangelo,” who carved everything by hand. What she didn’t consider at the time was that the famed artist had a lot of people who helped him (and kept his bed warm, too, she said, laughing).

She’s since moved onto using electric tools, and would never return to hand carving only. But, like Michelangelo, she holds to the notion of “releasing” a form from stone.

“You take away everything that doesn’t belong there,” she said of the carving process. It’s a cliche, she notes, but “that’s exactly what you do.”


Newcomb said she’s not an artist who creates easily recognizable pieces.

She discovered long ago she doesn’t like production work: In the early 1980s when still a wood carver, she was whittling flowers on a walking stick, and by chance a purchaser for REI saw her work, and requested 100 walking sticks. He wanted them completed in about three months.

“I said yes, foolishly,” she said. They were all purchased within months of her completing them, and he wanted her to make more. “And I said ‘never again.’”

“My pieces are all pretty individual,” she said. “My style is what the stone wants it to be.”

Newcomb approaches her work by honoring the stone’s integrity, letting the stone dictate what it wants to be. Sometimes, the stone takes her in a direction entirely different from where she started.

She was carving an elephant once – a big piece – and when she was about half done, it broke in two. She felt like “the world was going to end and all that,” she said. “I was so upset.”

The half-carved elephant sat around for two years. After the death of her first husband, she returned to the piece and carved two figures out of half of it.

“It was a piece that I hadn’t intended to do, but it was in the stone, and I just had to do it,” she said. The piece, which depicted two figures, a male and a female, standing apart from each other at a 45-degree angle, helped her process the last six months of her husband’s life; he had felt like he was a burden to her, and wasn’t doing her any good. “It broke my heart,” she said.

The sculpture was purchased by a friend, whose husband also was dying at the time. “A really powerful piece,” it helped both of them.


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