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Men and stone - Shawn Williamson

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Shawn Williamson and young men at work on the Rathbone labyrinth.

Recently there have been reports of two groups of disaffected people - unemployed young men who feel uninterested in life and the jobs available to them and older men and women who feel dissatisfied because a day spent in management meetings and pushing paper without seeing any tangible results is depressing. The men who work in stone have a very different experience, which is part of the point of this post.

A few years ago John Benson, a friend who is a landscape designer, said he would put a few stone steps in my garden. We went to choose the stone, and I learned that there were hundreds of rocks with different shades and characteristics. John seemed to know them all and found a stone that would glint a little in the light, a granite with hints of rose.

Back at the house we pulled the stones out of his truck and lugged them to the spot. They were heavy – few things are as dense and heavy as stone – but he carried them lightly. I watched as he prepared the ground with his spade and began to set the stone. He was deft, and absorbed. His hands seemed to tell him things about the stone I would never know, and he easily placed each one, and set them so they would not move. I helped dribble the small gravel that helped to seal them in the earth, and then he was gone with his truck and the stone steps flowed down to the lower garden as if they had always been there, an entrance to the upper garden. They looked cool in summer and warm in winter, they shone in the rain and they were always firm under foot.

America is a country of wood houses, but Britain is a country of stone, stone that has lasted centuries, built by people who understood how to cut it and dress it and build so the buildings endured – for centuries, for a thousand years. It's one of the first things that visitors notice - circles of stone, walls and roads and churches and castles and cathedrals and homes built of stone.

And here is the curious quality of stone – that hard as it is stone seems to absorb the touch of hands, the breaths of those who have lived before us, the pace of their feet wearing the stone. I imagine the unknown builders taking a quiet satisfaction in the work they had accomplished, and Jane Austen or Lancelot Andrewes strolling across Winchester's stone paving.

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Shawn Williamson at work on the 12-ton Herdwick Ram.

Shawn Williamson is one of those working as a stonemason and stone sculptor in Britain today. Sometime around the mid-90s he noticed what the unknown builders had instinctively felt - that there was a soul angle to working in stone. He was asked to work with probationers, young offenders, long-term unemployed, school pupils with learning issues and low and high achievers and teach them the discipline and patience and skill to carve in stone.

Cumbria Rock Sculpture was one of his initiatives. Trainees were tutored in practical stonemasonry, with the objective of individuals producing their own pieces to sell. The teaching and the work progressed quickly. The students began carving everything from stone seats to figures in a variety of stones.

In 2002, the three directors of Cumbria Rock Sculpture Ltd (Shawn and two former trainees) were invited to the US, where they worked on carving projects with American counterparts. CRS by this time was a private social enterprise, with the expenses for the trip paid for from commercial income.

Since 2003 Shawn has continued as Shawn Williamson Art & Craft Training to provide training opportunities within the context of publicly funded arts and craft projects. In 2005 HRH the Prince of Wales unveiled the Herdwick Ram at Cockermouth.

Interestingly Williamson has also published a novel, Caution Red Squirrels, a satire inspired by Animal Farm, and based on his take on the United Kingdom's current political state. It is the culmination of years of trying to get training for young people in traditional endangered crafts in Britain reestablished against a rather strong tide of quangos, bureaucracy and political correctness.

In our opinion these are crafts that could make a go of it commercially, but they need practitioners. Current government philosophy that young men should be trapped in school to learn about multiculturalism and global warming does nothing to give them the skills and knowledge in which they could really find satisfaction and a livelihood.

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The Rathbone labyrinth completed.

To watch a young man or woman attentively creating beauty is a beautiful thing. We hope to bring you more reports about Williamson's work and about other crafts.

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