Our latest interview is with a brilliant and skilled stone sculptor named Boris Litvinov. We peer deep into his mind to see his motivations, creative sparks, and techniques. Enjoy!

The Interview

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in a town of 150+K population in one of the former Soviet republics.  While going to school in the 1980s, the focus of my studies was always on sciences. I did very well in all sciences and enjoyed studying most of them. With the fall of the Soviet Union came the terrible instability and the political and economic situation in the whole country. My family was lucky to be able to escape to the United States. Once in the U.S., I enrolled in college and subsequently transferred to a university where I studied physical therapy. Now I practice physical therapy as my day job and create in my spare time.

When did you first start sculpting and what interested you in it?

My interest in sculpture developed as an extension of my interest in how things worked. From early childhood I dissassembled various appliances, mechanical toys and anything that contained moving parts or electronic components. By dismantling things I learned how they worked and sometimes was able to put them back together in working order. The times when I was unsuccessful in functional reassembly, I used the parts to build something else and thus, started on the path of creativity. It became more purposeful in my teenage years, when I was supporting myself by building and selling amplifiers, stage lighting equipment, radios, tvs, etc. My friends and relatives started asking me to fix various electronics – for me it was fun. Inadvertently, some of the items couldn’t be repaired, so they joined the rest of my materials to experiment with. I was always much more interested in 3-d art than any 2-d. My art had to have volume. Also, I was fascinated with the eternal transformation of matter. Matter is never created nor destroyed, it simply changes physical shape and sometimes composition. So, my contribution to the global recycling effort was the transformation of various items that otherwise would be discarded and end up in a landfill of some third-world country, polluting and disfiguring earth. I attempted to make something beautiful out of otherwise useless materials. I always admired masterpieces by various sculptors. Art is very inspiring to me. It evokes many emotions, sometimes conflicting and uncomfortable, but always enjoyable. So I try to create pieces that evoke some kind of a strong emotional response.

Do you have formal training in sculpting?

The only formal education I have in arts, I received from a local community college in 2008. At the time, I was working too many hours and hadn’t produced any art in years. I was slipping into depression and realized that the only way out for me was to return to creativity, some form of artistic expression. That was the time I enrolled in a clay and stone sculpture class and fell  in love with stone art.

Did/do you have a mentor?

My sculpture teacher, who taught me to use the tools, was the only real interference with my creative process. For the most part, no mentor.

Inspiration & Creativity

Please explain your general thought process when it comes to sculpting. How do you select a rock to begin with, and turn it into beautiful art?

Sometimes I already have an idea of what I want to sculpt. In that case I look for a rock that would reflect the mood of the piece – flamboyant colors and textures for flamboyant ideas and bland, monochromatic stone for peace and tranquility. Other times, the stone might dictate what it wants to be. Sometimes the stone will start resisiting my plan in the middle of the process and I will have to change my plan – can’t argue with the stone. To see what the stone colors are, I and spray or wipe the stone with water. While it’s wet, it looks the most like it would as a finished piece. I also consider the hardnes of the stone during my selection. Softer stone is easier to work with, but will not allow as much detail as a harder stone. So, for less detail and more flow – soapstone, alabasters, and for more detailed pieces – marble, onyx, granite.

What inspires you to create sculptures?

My inspiration can come from many different sources. Human body, meditation, metamorphosis, peace and tranquility are my recurrent themes. I often get inspired by awesome art after visiting a gallery or a museum. There are so many talented people out there. My desire to change something hard and cold as stone into something organic and fluid like water often drive my creativity. Whenever I encounter a sculpture I really like, I have an intense desire to touch and feel it. I want to know its temperature, texture, hardness, smoothness, feel… I want to run my hand along a curve or edge and pause trying to decide if the feeling is pleasant or not. I see with my eyes, but also with my hands. As a physical therapist I have touched thousands of human bodies and know what feels right. While I sculpt, I often will use a tool to shape the stone, but periodically have to run my hand along the surface just created to feel that it is right.

What kind of challenges or setbacks do you face as a sculptor?

Sometimes the grain or hidden cracks or fragility of the stone will result in a break somewhere in the middle of the sculpting process. I do fairly technically difficult things with stone. It is quite difficult to get the stone so thin without breaking, or “open” it up and polish it to a degree comparable to car paint finish. Stone is a very unforgiving medium. Stone sculpture is a subtractive method of sculpting, so if you make a mistake, unlike with paintings or clay sculpture, you can’t really correct it. You could of course change the design to integrate the flaw you created. The public may not know it, but you as an artist will always know that it wasn’t your original intent – you have got to live with it.

The other challenge is the physical labor involved. Stone sculpting can be quite exhausting and time consuming. So, patience and physical strength you must have. After a week at the office, having worked physically with many people, it is sometimes a challenge to get into sculpting. What is never a setback is the lack of ideas or inspiration. I haven’t had a “sculptor’s block” yet!

Is there a particular sculptor whose work you admire or look up to?

There are many I admire, starting with the unnamed sculptors and architects of the Akropolis and other massive Greek structures built without power tools or cranes to Micheleangelo’s slaves series and David to Rodin to the Japanese masters of netsuke art. Too many to name.

Do you use reference images or work more-so from the ideas in your head?

I discovered that the images in my head sometimes look much better than the actual 3-d models of the same. So, I will sketch something I want to sculpt first, then, depending on my 3-d understanding of the subject, I might also make a miniature clay or wire model to give me multiple perspectives. But mostly, the ideas start out in my head.

Materials

Is there a particular type of rock you prefer to work with?

I haven’t had a chance to work with many different ones yet. So far my portfolio includes soapstone, alabaster, onyx, wonderstone. Marble and granite are on the list. My best work so far has been in alabaster – it comes in so many diferent colors, textures, opacity – I love it!

How do you select good material? What makes a good rock for sculpting?

I try to select rocks with fewest cracks and infiltrations of compacted dirt first. If these criteria are not met, the rest doesn’t matter much. After that, it’s size, shape, color, texture. There are some rocks that are just too hard for the tools I use right now, like granite or jade. They are great stones with wonderful veins and colors, but require much harder tools to work with.

What kind of tools do you use?

I use a combination of tools at every stage, but to give you a general idea:
Rough stage: pneumatic chisel, angle grinder, hammer and manual chisel, power drill
Shaping stage: rasps, files, manual chisel and hammer
Smoothing stage: wet-to-dry sanding paper, manual chisel
Polishing stage: wax and rag

Methods

This next question might refer back to a previous one in the inspiration and creativity section, but could you please describe the process of rock to sculpture from a more technical viewpoint?

I am completely captivated by the color your final pieces have. Please explain how you go from a piece of grey rock to the brightly and beautifully colored final pieces.

Most rocks look grey because their surface is rough and dusty. First, I like to know what colors I am dealing with, so cleaning and wiping the rock of any dust particles is done. Then, I either submerge the rock under water, or if it is too big, simply spray with water or wipe with a wet rag. The only secret to bring the colors out is to get the rock as smooth as possible. This is  achieved by progressively smoothing the rock with a chisel – rasps – files – sand paper in that order.

The sanding stage involves progressive sanding with rough sandpaper, 60 grit to progressively higher grit until you reach 6000-8000 grit. You have to do the entire piece with each grit paper before moving on to the next, otherwise the finish will not be consistent or smooth. Then you may apply some sort of stone sealer/color enhancer to protect it from the elements. The last stage would be waxing, just like you would wax a car paint surface: apply a thin layer of wax, let it dry, then buff with a rag or whatever else you mught use for buffing. Then repeat the application of wax and the buffing process until the surface is consistently smooth and reflects your happy and satisfied face.

How do you get the sculptures so smooth?

Refer to the answer above.

Design & Style

How would you explain your style of sculpting?

I think of my work as crossing several conventional styles: abstract, surrealist, figurative. I think the common denominator in my artwork is the juxtaposition of the cold, rough, even jagged nature of stone with the smooth, organic, life-like, human-like forms. Perhaps one day I will come up with a name for it. But more likely, someone else will after I have been recycled by the maggots and the plants, lol. Everything around us is recycled star material. Including you and me. I’d be flattered if Sal Dali called me “le Grande Recycler”, lol.

 

So concludes our interview with Boris Litvinov. You can view more of his work at his deviantArt page, located here.