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Carving Her Niche

Local sculptor Deborah Banker chiseled a person from a 683-pound stone

by Carrie Madren, Bay Weekly staff Writer

When Annapolis sculptor and teacher Deborah Banker turned half a century old on March 1, 2007, she wanted a rock. She didn’t want the sparkly kind that comes in karats. It didn’t have to come from husband and Bay Weekly Sporting Life columnist Dennis Doyle.

What Banker wanted was a 683-pound chunk of raspberry alabaster.

“I needed something special, and I decided to be brave,” she said of the biggest rock she’s ever attempted.

Episode 1: The Rock Arrives

“I saw it and had my heart set on it,” says Banker, a sculptor who for over 30 years has chiseled her medium of preference down to rocks. She shops for her rocks by catalogue. Banker ordered the birthday boulder from a California distributor, who got it from a quarry in Utah. Her spring shipment included 11 other stones — each 20 to 25 pounds — for her sculpting students at St. John’s College.

When it arrived at the Federal Express in Baltimore, Banker was surprised. “It was much bigger than I thought,” she said of the $1,200 purchase. Shipping by 18-wheeler from California was included in the price.

Federal Express hoisted the rock into the back of Banker’s Nissan Frontier pickup truck by forklift.

“I thought, how am I going to get this out?” she wondered on the way home.

Her surprised family helped her use an engine hoist — Doyle’s Christmas present to her — to lift the heavy load into their Cape St. Claire garage-turned-studio.

Then Banker started dreaming.

Episode 2: The Artist’s Dream

“You can really do anything with stone carving,” Banker says, “though you wouldn’t do a ballerina with extended arms — it has to be more compact.”

Banker wanted to take full advantage of the size of her stone, about 18 by 18 by 31 inches.

Before she took chisel and mallet to the raw, rough, free-form stone, ideas swirled in her mind. Would it be abstract, perhaps a drop-shaped gyre?

She’d been carving abstractions on a smaller scale. Last summer she sculpted an abstract series that suggest martial art hand positions. The Lion, a smooth, pink-mottled hook, represents a curved hand. Phalanx represents shoulders and an extended arm.

No. As Banker dreamed, she knew a person would evolve from this rock.

Episode 3: From Stone to Sculpture

In mid-summer, Banker put chisel to her rough, pale greyish-pink birthday stone. She envisioned a triangular figure with arms stretching out.

“When I started, I realized that the rock was too crumbly,” said Banker on August 1, during an early carving session. If she continued the outstretched limbs of the figure, she risked breaking the sculpture. As she cleaved off tiny pieces of alabaster, she got a feel for the form she would make. A compact, solid, crouching figure: That was an image she’d had in mind for a long time.

The first cuts into the stone were guided by a crude clay model, formed without detail. Designing too much specific detail in the beginning of the sculpting distracts from the form.

“I’m finding this figure inside of this solid block, trying to get it out,” she said. “You have to be very adaptable carving stone.”

During high summer, the best hours for working under the 10-by-10-foot tent were early in the morning and into the evening, when the sun retreated over the trees.

At work, Banker dons a respirator with a clear plastic face-shield, a cloth that covers her head and heavy-duty earmuffs that protect her hearing from the scream of the electric grinder.

Sculpting, Banker said, “is one of my favorite things to do in the world. I’m happiest when I’m covered with dust and making a big mess.”

As the spinning blade of her diamond-blade angle grinder sliced through the alabaster like a knife cutting hot butter, dust swirled and spewed, catching in the breeze like smoke.

Starting out with her electrical saw, she worked slowly and deliberately, gaining momentum as her figure took shape.

“It’s almost cliché, but it [the rock] really does tell you where to go when you get involved with creative process in the stone,” she said. “It’s clear when you get to a point, and it’s just right, and you can stop there.”

As she worked, Banker found surprises: a hairline fracture, clay within the alabaster, varying colors, rich hues. Shades of pink swirling and striping surfaces within the alabaster. Sprayed with water, the pale grayish-pink stone turns a deep rose. Each discovery shaped her design.

By late August, Banker had become an expert on this rock. She knew its every bump, nook and cranny.

By autumn, craggy rock yielded to knees, a head, arms, feet and shoulders.

Then, as school began, the sculpture’s head fell off.

The accidental beheading didn’t faze Banker. To reattach it, she used a stone epoxy called Akemi, predicting that when she finished, the crack wouldn’t show.

Episode 4: Life Intrudes

In September, leaves swirled, and life pulled Banker away from her sculpture.

Pulling out of her driveway each morning at 7am, she often didn’t return from work until 6pm. On top of teaching full time at Glenelg Country School in Howard County, Banker also joined the board of directors for the Maryland Federation of Art Gallery and taught clay figure sculpting Saturday mornings at St. John’s College. A husband, two teenage sons and two dogs each wanted time, as well.

Even as life intruded, she thought about her sculpture every day.

“I like to have it visible so I can see it and let my subconscious work on it as I go about my day-to-day activities,” Banker said. “It makes me happy to see it there when I pull in the driveway after a long day of work.” She stole an hour here and there to satisfy her carving craving.

As autumn cooled into winter, Banker layered up to keep warm when she worked. She covered the sculpture with a blanket too, to keep ice from cracking the stone.

“When it got really cold and nasty, I took a break,” she said.

Episode 5: A Year in the Making

When Banker celebrated her 51st birthday, her work took an unexpected turn. Last year’s injury to the sculpture had proven terminal for the head.

“The place where the head had fallen off and been re-attached drove me crazy,” she wrote in an email. “So I cut it off,” she said. “The stone rules. There is no sense fighting it.

“Otherwise I would have spent all my time trying to cover up that crack.”

Shrinking the crouching figure by about six inches, she redefined the head. The setback of the decapitation and readjustment would take her well past the one-year mark.

Banker’s year with her alabaster “really has been an up-and-down journey,” she says. Each change in the rock — its shape, its diminution by more than a hundred pounds — has been wrought by her stamina, each blow a feat of mind and muscle as woman masters stone.

The sculptor has enjoyed the 50th birthday gift she chose for herself.

“It’s nice not having a deadline,” she said. Unlike commissioned sculptures, this one is entirely her own. She’ll likely show it in the DeMatteis Gallery in Annapolis when she finishes. “I can take my time with it and get it right, the way I want it.”

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