By Alan Hochman
When people ask me how long it takes to create one of my sculptures, I sometimes like to answer, “My whole life.”
I’ve always loved art and started collecting it while still in high school, but I never imagined in those formative years that I’d become an artist myself. After all, I have no formal training, and to this day I can’t draw – not well, at any rate.
My first career was as a computer programmer, my second as a marketing consultant – both distinctly sedentary occupations that led me to seek something physical to do in my spare time. For whatever reason, I decided to try my hand at sculpting stone, crafting a few rough pieces and taking pleasure mostly from the hard work they involved.
Right from the start, however, people responded to my pieces in positive ways, so I soon found myself with the serious hobby of generating commissioned works of art. It took several years, but gradually I found myself doing more pieces of increasing sophistication – and did so while teaching myself how to sculpt, reading and re-reading books on stone carving and working largely by trial and error.
Eventually, I came to a point where I decided to make a complete transition and declared myself a sculptor on a full-time basis. By 1999, I’d built a studio in Cave Creek, just outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., where I still spend time designing and sculpting works that could loosely be termed “modern” or “contemporary” – and all of which draw on the raw power and beauty of natural stone.
SENSES OF WONDER
I’ve heard it said that all sculpture is in one way or another about the human form. Although what I do can’t be called “representational” in the usual sense of the term, what I do is nonetheless about the human experience and the way art influences people, the spaces they’re in and the way they interact with their broader surroundings.
What I like most about sculpture compared to any other art form is that it is three-dimensional, so it creates a very different set of experiences for viewers than does art, for instance, that hangs on a wall. That’s not to diminish what painters accomplish by any means, but with sculpture there’s an immediacy to the experience that emerges when a piece is well-placed in a landscape or an interior space: You can walk around it, touch it and, in the case of a fountain with moving water, you can hear it.
Most often, sculptures define their spaces by creating focal points and destinations. With mine, I further try to create stone images that work in harmony with nature and the architecture of the home, office or adjacent structures as well as the interests and personalities of my patrons. In that sense, these are works that are not separate or removed from their surroundings, but are instead very much a part of them.
|I sometimes cut large slabs with curving lines and then arrange the resulting pieces relative to one another in ways that highlight either a contrast or continuity in the material. The flowing water brings the grain and its colors forward – or, in cases where the grain is less pronounced, lends a shimmering texture to otherwise flat, smooth surfaces.|
This is why I work almost exclusively on commission: If I don’t know the client or the space in which a sculpture is to be placed, I cannot strike up those harmonies in any meaningful way.
At the same time, I do have a certain approach I follow: I’m always excited by the idea of creating pieces that embody certain types of contradictions, puzzles and surprises and enjoy giving viewers a sense of wonder at how a given piece was made. (I love it when I hear them exclaim, “How did he do that?) Moreover, I try to set up juxtapositions in all my sculptures that are designed both to captivate and intrigue.
Some of my larger pieces, for example, seem to balance on a pinpoint even though they obviously weight thousands of pounds. I’ll also cut a slab of stone with curved lines so that the veining creates visual continuity between pieces in ways that can be truly surprising. I also create works in which extremely polished surfaces abut untouched natural or carved rough surfaces, and there are some extremely large sculptures that have voids, portals or windows cut into them or that feature sharply contrasting colors.
Water is another key to my work on large and small fountains as well as what I call my “Zen pools,” in which water provides a constant source of contrast and the sounds it makes interact with and animate the solid, unchanging shape of the stone while enhancing sensations of color and texture.
ONE OF THREE
As is true of many artists who celebrate natural forms and materials, I’ve always been inspired by nature.
I currently live in the desert, which in this area isn’t barren at all but is actually filled with a surprising volume of plant and animal species. My studio is located above an arroyo, and when the rains come, there’s a wonderful, fleeting drama that occurs when the ditch fills with torrents of flowing water and then quickly returns to its usual dry, empty state.
In the past, I found similar inspiration living near the Pacific Ocean. I lived for a time on the coast just beyond San Luis Obispo, Calif., with easy access to the whole central California coast, and also lived for a while farther south in Santa Monica. It was there that I developed a profound appreciation for the vast drama of the sea – and, after announcing my intention of moving to Arizona, heard friends register their shock that I would consider such a move since the ocean seemed so much a part of my work.
To me, however, the ocean and the desert provide similar experiences in that both are connected to vast expanses of air and space, both always changing but in extraordinarily different ways and time frames.
|There’s wonderful playfulness in the concept of cutting ‘windows’ in large slabs of stone: It’s unexpected, incongruous and creates the opportunity to use small flows of water to lend intense, surprising dimensionality to monolithic surfaces.|
At present, I’m in the process of opening a second studio in north San Diego County in Fallbrook, Calif., where I’m similarly taken by the wonderful topography of rolling hills and deep canyons and their proximity to the ocean. In short, I’m happy wherever I find a connection to nature. Even though I don’t draw literal “artistic” inspiration from being in natural spaces – that is, I don’t mimic nature – I find that natural surroundings always energize and propel me in my work.
I believe this love of nature shows through in every piece I’ve ever done. It’s at a point where I regard the creative process as one of unleashing forms hidden in the stone – so much so that there are three participants in my work: There’s the stone itself to dictate the artistic moves I make; there are the tools I use to work it; and there’s me, lending thought, strength and sinew to the process.
My goal in resolving this triad is to get out of the way and let the stone and tools do most of the communicating as an intuitive process unfolds. This is why I have difficulty expressing how specific design ideas come to me: I’m fully comfortable knowing that what I do is fueled by experience and my subconscious appreciation of forms and the materials themselves.
I’m also a devotee of eastern philosophies and the way those traditions see no separation between the human spirit, nature and the rest of the universe. My works aren’t literal, iconic representations of anything along those lines, but I draw on that connectedness and find that it constantly guides me.
Sometimes, when I listen to the way artists – myself included – talk about their work, I recognize that it can all start to sound like well-considered nonsense. To me, however, any philosophical or spiritual underpinning are not the substance of the work, but are instead part of the method, the sheer practicality of the way I create my sculptures and connect them to their settings.
And there are other practicalities in what I do that are quite imposing. First off, stone is generally heavy stuff, and working with it can be phenomenally demanding in a physical way. Among the first things I consider in a design is how I’m going to move the raw stone and how it will be lifted, transported and installed when I’m done. (Working with high-speed saws, chisels and grinding tools is no walk in the park, either.) I’m also aware that making a living as an artist leaves little room for self-indulgence: I must be constantly mindful that people need to enjoy looking at what I produce and that some of them need to find value enough in what they see to pay for it with their hard-earned dollars.
|Singly or in groups, the totem-like qualities of stone pillars are always intriguing, but I must say that the process of drilling through their lengths to set up the water flows I almost always include is challenging work. The dancing surfaces that result, however, make it worth the effort.|
It’s a wonderful business, but it’s a business just the same.
As mentioned above, I’m unlike many other artists in that I prefer to work on site- specific commissions for specific clients looking for something that will fit into their homes or places of business. I do some public works as well, but those, too, are always tied to sites and contexts, taking into account architecture, color schemes and the personalities and desires of the clients. These are processes that hold me tightly to a grounded, real-world, completely open approach to what I do.
A Creative Space
I’m quite proud of my studio in Scottsdale, Ariz., which I consider to be a work of sculptural art all on its own.
The building features split-stone construction, a curvilinear shape and beautiful hammered-copper doors. The back of the building features hammered-copper accordion doors that open completely to the desert air and scenery.
It was important to me to have a place to go every single day that would be both fun and inspiring, so I took the time and made the effort (and investment) to shape a building that is both visually interesting and ecologically sound. It was situated in such a way that, during construction, we disturbed as little of the natural landscape as possible – a fact that often frustrated my stonemason, who had to work too often in close quarters with prickly desert plants.
The structure sits under a beautiful ironwood tree with a view of the mountains to the north and a horse ranch to the south. I’m surrounded by a wonderful variety of life that always makes me feel right at home in the presence of the beautiful flora and fauna. It’s so inspiring a place that I named it El Taller del Alma, “the workshop of the soul.”
As I also mentioned at the start, I don’t draw very well, so using my background in computer technology, I develop my designs as three-dimensional computer images based on careful site surveys and detailed discussions with the clients. I choose the stone type, whether it’s travertine, onyx, marble, soapstone or some other material, based on the color palette, veining and the type of visual effect we’re trying to achieve.
A lot of the stone I use comes from quarries near Albuquerque, N.M. Finding just the right raw piece is a constant challenge, and I spend a great deal of time looking for one that has the right “personality” for a given project. In particular, the travertine I often use offers tremendous variations in color, grain and veining in a way that can make it resemble petrified wood.
Once a selection is made, balancing the needs of water flow and its design with the desire to release the beauty of the stone is both the biggest challenge and most satisfying aspect of this type of sculpting. It’s an interplay that is controlled and planned – yet at the same time, it’s not entirely predictable. Sometimes, for example, a chunk will break off unexpectedly. I never attempt to reattach those pieces, but I will often use those incidental cleavages as part of the finished piece.
When it all comes together, I have the sense that the result is as much a work of nature and circumstance as it is the product of my handiwork.
Almost all of my pieces include water, typically as a low-volume flow emerging from the top that trickles and sheets down the sides. Some of my pieces stand in small reflecting pools into which the water flows; others are placed in basins filled with stone, so the water is really only evident on the surfaces of the sculpture itself.
Quite recently, I’ve designed several pieces that have been installed directly in swimming pools – settings that give these pieces dramatic and entirely different sorts of interactive qualities and leave me with interesting sets of technical challenges in marrying heavy stone with pool structures.
In all cases, combining stone with water lends these works a vitality and tranquility that simply cannot be achieved with dry sculptures. Although I have done a very small number of waterless works, my preference is always to use moving water to capture attention and draw the viewer close to a piece with its delicate sounds and almost hypnotic interplay with light.
|I often let stone speak for itself, but in some cases for certain clients in certain settings, I will work the surface of the stone in various ways to create specific looks and sculptural effects. In the case of the paired pillars on the right, the impression is also celestial: They are arranged in the space so the sun rises between them twice a year on the solstices.|
The hydraulic systems for these sculptures are quite simple and seldom involve more than a single valve, but they do require care in the execution. Typically, I get involved in core drilling from top to bottom – several feet in most cases – and the goal is almost invariably to accommodate a tiny flow that starts as a mere bubble at the top that breaks to dress the stone in a thin sheet of water.
Many of my pieces have been commissioned for arid settings, and I love the contrast of water and stone in a desert. There’s nothing new in thinking this way or exploiting the contrast, of course. After all, Middle Eastern artists and cultures have been taking advantage of exactly this juxtaposition for centuries.
And it’s no small point of pride that the gentle flow of water across my sculptures is less subject to evaporative water loss than are standard, multi-tiered, roughly flowing fountains and cascades. In fact, the losses with my pieces are roughly equivalent to what you’d encounter with a low-flow drip-irrigation emitter.
Among the great joys of what I do is the opportunity my work gives me to collaborate with truly fascinating people. Most who choose to spend their money on my sculptures are already art collectors and are in their own ways creative and thoughtful people. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with some wonderful architects, landscape architects and designers and pool designers and contractors.
I’m sure I’m like many other artists in that my greatest joy comes from seeing a sculpture installed and knowing that it brings my clients pleasure.
|I take special joy in installing my pieces inside pools. These projects (including the one seen at the top of this feature) bring all sorts of special challenges of a technical nature, but the level of interaction encouraged in these settings is unmatched and lends special drama and a sense of ‘audience participation’ to the results.|
Even before that, however, there’s a terrific feeling of anticipation when I get to the point where I finally stand a new piece upright in the studio and turn on the water for the first time: All the planning and hard work begins to pay off at this point, and it only gets better when a piece is installed and my clients and I finally get to see how it fits within the setting.
For me, the highest compliment I get is when my clients have receptions or parties to welcome and celebrate the presence of a sculpture as a new addition to their homes. Although there was a time I never could have imagined being an artist, no words can describe how happy it makes me to hear of my clients’ inclination to share what I’ve done with others.
Alan Hochman is a stone sculptor with studios in Cave Creek, Ariz., and Fallbrook, Calif. A native Californian, Hochman’s first careers were in the high tech industry, where he worked as a computer scientist and then as a marketing consultant. He began trying his hand at stone sculpture as a hobby in the mid-1990s and soon found himself fully immersed in learning all about it. By 1999, he completed his transition to his third career, becoming a full-time artist and building his first studio in Arizona. Working almost entirely on commission, he has provided his unique brand contemporary sculpture to scores of residential, commercial and public clients throughout the United States.