The above statement is attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, and after that remark about that nose it must be the statement I heard the most often. Why people keep saying that is beyond me. It's actually never been funny. Many visitors might feel compelled to say anything meaningful or funny if they are confronted with sculptors. Sometimes it is not all that easy to imagine how someone makes a sculpture.
Another comment I have heard several times is: 'And do they cast that, then?’ When I'm clearly carving the stone. A variant is that they ask me if that block is cast. Here in the Netherlands we are apparently so lacking in stone that a person can not imagine that somewhere in the world blocks are broken or cut out of a mountain. Stone is apparently something so unreal tough that a normal person cannot carve in it. It's just for big sawing machines to make floors out of it.
“The sculpture is already in there, you just need to take away the rest…” It seems odd that Michelangelo would have said it that way, and if he did, I think most people do not understand what it means.
I have noticed over the years that there is such a thing as a shape memory. Because I've worked as a restoration sculptor for years and learned to copy old sculptures in new stone, gradually my memory was trained. In the early years, I had to look five times at a shape to remember one small part of it, and sometimes I had already forgotten when I turned around, now those shapes remain in my memory for a long time, and can be recalled at will. This is firstly because each sculptor builds a kind of memory bank with shapes and styles. Curves and lines are kept in the brains in the form of images. Useful, because brains do not work with ones and zeros, but with pictures. Secondly, it is literally a memory training. Looking closely at a model, turning around and trying to reproduce it. Gradually the time you get to hold the picture increases, purely through training. This is supported by the picture files in your brains.
What does this have to do with Michelangelo? Well, if you start to carve a new sculpture, you only have that block standing or lying berfore you. You will have to indicate with chalk or pencil what you want to cut away, and usually there will be a lot of measuring will be involved . A trained sculptor can often form a partial projection in his mind of how the sculpture will have to be cut out of the block. Apparently Michelangelo had developed such a shape memory that with a few measurements as a starting point he could already visualize fairly accurately how the sculpture was placed inside the block, allowing him to carve his way to the final sculpture in a particularly effective way.
So he was known for being able to remove more stone in a quarter of an hour than another experienced stonemason or sculptor in a few hours, and that the professionals who saw him work were shuddering at the risks he took while doing it. In this initial phase it has everything to do with keeping margins for error, so you can correct later if you need, if you encounter a fault line or carving error. In addition to his shape memory he had considerable capabilities as a stonemason, trained by working along with stonecutters in hard local stone from an early age.
Apart from the stories about Michelangelo, this is the most fascinating aspect for me: the ability of the memory to hold images of a wide variety of things for a long time, by training it. It is using this idiom in my head that I search for expression and beauty, and it is also this stock of images that helps me to recognize beauty sooner.
In my youth, whenever I had to help my father on the land during 'selecting' of tulips, which means to identify and remove diseased plants, then in the evening on the couch all those tulips would come by in a row once again. For I had been walking the whole day, looking concentratedly at every flower. As I sat quietly, all of those flowers went by in a sort of procession, and they were all affected by virus. That has to do with the focus on one aspect.
Years later, when I struggled to get me the art of chopping Gothic crockets own making, something similar happened to me. Gothic crockets are deceptive in their simplicity. They are characterized by their subtle beauty, that is hard to follow for a twentieth-century person. But later that night when I was sitting on the sofa, or lying in my bed, I would see all kinds of crockets come by, one even more beautiful than the other. And I what I had to work so hard for that day, I could now see in all its beauty before me! Unfortunately, the next day it was just as elusive to me, until I gradually got to know the shapes and styles. It would be interesting to this phenomenon someday deeper investigate.