Why I Laid Down the Sculptor’s Tools
THE year is 1950. A mountain road winds down among the fir trees, with occasional clearings that provide majestic views. At a magnificent spot high above the valley and overhung with a wooded rocky cliff, a small team (including me) are perched on scaffolding. We are chiseling away at large blocks of stone assembled to form a mass 15 meters (50 ft) high. A human form is starting to take shape. But what is it to be? A memorial to the Maquisards (French resisters) that fell in their fight against the Nazis. For this region, situated halfway between Lyons and Geneva, at the southern end of the French Jura Mountains, was the scene of much fighting during World War II.
Later I took up a new profession. Yet I still feel a pull on my heartstrings whenever I hear workmen hammering away at stonework. How did I come to lay down the tools of the trade I cherished?
A Passion From Youth On
My favorite recollections from as far back as I can remember are of times spent modeling or drawing. I excelled in art and handicraft classes, resulting in my enrollment in the Lyons Art School in 1945, when I was 17. There I learned the different techniques involved in the art of sculpturing. We were taught to make facsimiles of the “Venus of Milo,” the “Nike (or, Victory) of Samothrace,” one of the slaves sculptured by Michelangelo, and so forth. We also learned to work from live models. Basically this consisted of executing clay copies of busts, trunks or the entire human body. This we did in the round, that is to say, in three dimensions unattached to a background, a method to be distinguished from bas-relief, in which figures are carved on a flat surface, projecting only a little from the background.
Under the watchful eye of Monsieur Bertola, a famous master sculptor, we also learned how to balance volume harmoniously, capture the rhythm of graceful silhouettes and control the play of light by varying the rounded forms and hollows. Every afternoon during the last school year, we were trained in the studio in the art of stone carving. This branch was to become my speciality.
Early in 1950, I began part-time work in a religious art studio, at the same time continuing my studies in sculpture. I stayed there only a few months because the man in charge had artistic conceptions that were very different from mine.
How I Was Taught
I will try to outline briefly how I was taught to carve a statue. The sculptor starts with a few sketches enabling him to estimate form and proportion. He then makes a rough, reduced clay model that will allow him to determine the main shape and structure of the work. The next step is the most important and the longest, for it is the making of a clay model, usually full scale, of what the finished statue will look like. A plaster cast of this fragile clay model must be made before it dries and cracks. This cast may then be copied in marble or some other type of stone.
Our plaster model was on a one-to-five scale, making it three meters (10 ft) high. The little team consisted of two experienced stone carvers who did most of the rough hewing, and two assistants who, like me, continued on with the work to the point where the master sculptor could put the finishing touches on.
Work on the spot continued for over three months. We did everything ourselves, from putting up scaffolding to forging the different chisels and points. In this way, we acquired much skill in the art of handling hammers, especially working alongside such practiced stone carvers. Work here was a far cry from the studio, where fine chiseling requiring only light hammering with a few supple wrist movements was performed and where the stone, placed at the correct level, was on a revolving stand for easier handling.
I particularly remember the trouble we had in getting the scaffolding to stay close to the rock we were sculpturing, especially toward the top of the monument. The tall wooden scaffolding poles had a tendency to give to a certain extent. This complicated things, especially when I was trying to chisel out the lady’s delicate hairline, 15 meters (50 ft) above the ground. The flimsy platform wobbled, and I had the impression that the statue moved backward every time I hit the chisel!
However, we learned to become as agile as monkeys and took a mischievous pleasure in inviting visitors to come up and take a closer look at our handiwork. As a rule, by the time they got up there and discovered the impressive setting and shaky planks underfoot, their minds were absorbed with everything but our masterpiece! It must also be admitted that a close-up of a 40-centimeter (16-in.) nose or ear is not particularly inspiring!
Spiritual Longing Satisfied
I was not making as much progress spiritually as I was professionally. I had been brought up a Catholic but had much difficulty in accepting certain doctrines, especially transubstantiation, the belief that Christ’s literal body is served at Mass. I often had discussions with my priest. One day, having run out of arguments, he told me I reasoned like a Protestant. Considering myself to be spiritually disabled, I prayed to God for faith.
I was still of the same mind in August 1950, when I came across a book called Let God Be True. Knowing my interest in spiritual matters, my mother had obtained it from Jehovah’s Witnesses a year before. At that time I had just leafed through it and put it on a bookshelf. Now, as I started reading it, I just could not drop it. I read it from cover to cover. Upon discovering the different Bible doctrines, I began to realize that all my questions from years back were now being answered. I immediately wrote to the Paris office of Jehovah’s Witnesses for more details.
One evening, in September, a Witness came to our house and asked my mother if I was home. She explained that I was never there during the week. This was so, for I was working as assistant to the Lyons sculptor Charles Machet. For several weeks now we had been working away on an enormous sculpture to the glory of the Maquis of the Ain department, in the lower Jura Mountains. It represented a woman appearing to emerge from a cliff and breaking her chains. The following words of the French poet Aragon were engraved on the side: “Où je meurs renaît la patrie” (“Where I fall, the fatherland rises again”).
The Acid Test
Every weekend we all returned home to Lyons, and that is where I met Jehovah’s Witnesses. One Saturday my mother told me they would be coming, and come they did—right on time. We had a long but lively conversation, and I bombarded them with questions concerning the Trinity, the origin of evil, the end of the world, and so forth. They would consistently use the Bible when replying, and arrangements were made to start a study.
In November 1950, having finished work on the enormous sculpture in the lower Jura, I resumed classes at the Lyons Art School. During this period I started studying the Bible, spending many hours learning about God’s purposes. However, after my initial enthusiasm, the discussions frequently became stormy.
The acid test was the study of the Ten Commandments. I balked at the second one, recorded in Exodus 20:4, 5: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them . . . for I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God.”—American Standard Version.
Of course, I replied that I only made religious statues and memorials; I did not worship them. I was merely earning my living. Roger and Yolande, the Witnesses who were studying with me at the time, used the same reasoning as second-century writer Tertullian, considered a church father. He wrote: “To begin with, that speech, wont to be cast in our teeth, ‘I have nothing else whereby to live,’ may be more severely retorted, ‘You have, then, whereby to live?’ . . . ‘I make,’ says one, ‘but I worship not;’ as if there were some cause for which to dare not worship. . . . The arts have other species withal to afford means of livelihood, without outstepping the path of discipline. . . . For how much more easily does he who delineates [sketches out] a statue overlay a sideboard!”—On Idolatry, chapters 5, 6, 8.
In time I was obliged to admit that I would have to give up making sculptures connected with religion, or even with the dead, for this amounted to ‘rendering sacred service to the creation rather than the One who created.’ (Romans 1:25) This development severely cut down on the number of orders I could accept in order to earn a living. Yet, at the same time, I shared Tertullian’s view that I could use my art “without outstepping the path of discipline.”
Ups and Downs
I was still of the same mind when, in March 1951, I learned that the municipality of Saint-Étienne (a large town not far from Lyons) was searching for an art teacher to give lessons in modeling and stone sculpture. The candidate was to be selected according to qualifications and by means of a practical test. I thought that this job would be ideal and applied for the post. Unfortunately, I was turned down due to my poor health record, for in 1948 I had been treated for tuberculosis.
This was a bitter disappointment, but Roger and Yolande sustained and comforted me, and I started attending meetings at the local Kingdom Hall. An important step came in 1951 when I attended the Witnesses’ first postwar national convention for France, held in Paris. I was just bubbling over with enthusiasm and felt completely adopted as part of that happy throng of conventioners. I went out in the preaching work for the first time, and when I came back I had already made a firm decision to dedicate my life to Jehovah.
Upon arriving back home, I found a letter from the municipality of Saint-Priest in the Lyons area ordering a fresco on a model that I had submitted. The bas-relief was based on the theme of education and was to decorate a school complex then under construction. This was welcome news, for it would keep me occupied for several months and would help me break with my old acquaintances. During that time, I attended local meetings more regularly. A few weeks later, in November 1951, I was baptized.
Up until then, my father had made heavy sacrifices so that I could learn the difficult art of sculpture, and he just could not understand why I no longer put all my efforts into securing a career. So I was obliged to leave home. Moreover, once my work on the fresco was finished and the wages were used up, it became impossible to accept the few orders that were now coming in, because of my stand on Bible principles.
I finally faced up to the decision that I had always postponed—so unbearable it seemed to me. Yes, I abandoned my beloved passion and stopped making things “sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.” (Acts 17:29) I then accepted office work in an insurance company with which I am still working today, 30 years later.
I do not regret my choice, for it has resulted in many blessings for both my family and me as part of Jehovah’s people. But even to this day, I will not go near anything to do with sculpture for fear that my old passion might be aroused. However, I am awaiting Jehovah’s promised New Order in hopes that my art might find some useful outlet. If so, I will joyfully pick up the sculptor’s tools and resume my work with hammer and chisel, only this time to Jehovah’s glory.—Contributed by Dominique Aimo-Boot.