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Turning Stone into Art

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Barry Baldwin’s studio. Courtesy of Barry Baldwin.

With his lilting English accent, dramatic brows and deep-set eyes and a poetic, almost scripted, delivery of extraordinary—and often, uncomfortably personal stories, one can’t help but wonder: is sculptor Barry Baldwin for real?

He’s served in the Israeli Army—but most of his injuries are from his art. He’s had full security clearance at Buckingham Palace and was asked by Prince Charles to contribute to a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He owns a massive stone yard in England and once had a team of 15 assistants. He’s carved countless faces in limestone, created towering centaurs from bronze—and makes life-size nude sculptures that would make the average person blush.

In his latest incarnation as instructor of stone carving and life size sculpture at Academy of Art University, Baldwin brings to the school an unparalleled generosity and movie-worthy past.

Long before he became a well-known stone carver, restorer of architectural treasures and connoisseur of the female form, he was a self-described poor kid in a mining town in the middle of England.

 

Baldwin’s home life essentially fell apart when he was 14. There was a sibling’s death, a parent’s subsequent insanity, followed by stints with foster families, brief periods of homelessness and creative measures like selling pints of his blood for the cash to make rent.

Though he doesn’t come out and say it, it’s pretty clear that his artistic gifts were his salvation.

At 16, he received a scholarship to Stafford College of Art (“And then my problems began,” he joked), where he enrolled in classes in drawing and painting. When a professor told him he was color blind, he decided to pursue a new medium: sculpture.

But he soon became disillusioned with art school—particularly the emphasis on conceptual, rather than figurative, art. So he left college and went to Greece to absorb the classical sculpture. When he ran out of money, he joined the Israeli Army, which was “a way of getting a bed for the night,” he said.

 

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Barry Baldwin. Photo by Heini Scneebeli.

About a year and a half later, he returned home and enrolled at Bath College of Art. It was there he learned stone carving—at least enough to leave school again when his professor found him a job as a stone carver.

“There are two ways of learning,” he said. “Art school is a launching pad. After art school, I went through this decade of literally learning about stone.”

One early project took two years and required him to work in an arctic suit in winter to complete a 40-foot frieze out of what he called the “hardest stone in England.”  

Baldwin has spent his entire adult life turning stone into art. Ironically, some of the most beautiful surfaces are off-limits: Of the 300-400 kinds of stone in the world, only 15 can be carved, he shared. And for those he relies on a mere four chisels—and a lot of time.   

“Stone carvers in a working community are always the first to start and last to finish—always under great pressure,” he said.

Despite the intense physical endurance the job requires, as well as a specific posture he likens to that of a boxer, Baldwin calls stone carving a “relaxing occupation.”

 

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Barry Baldwin advising one of his students during one of his sculpture classes. Photo by Tyler Gibbons.

But with Baldwin, it’s hard to gauge what relaxing is. At one point, he worked so fervently his arms looked like Popeye’s and his primary mission wasn’t to create, but rather recreate and replace the heads and fingers on sculptures hit by bombs in Belfast, Beirut and Berlin.

“Working in the war zones gave me the great belief and determination in myself. What we do is really important to mankind. We’re healers of the human spirit, we heal those places. We heal the damage,” he said.

The majority of Baldwin’s public works aren’t signed—including the impressive 20-foot doorway on the Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square, London—but they are on tourist maps and viewed by millions of people each year.

 

Baldwin, a father of three grown children and grandfather to six, arrived in the states in 2001. After a year in Los Angeles, he moved to the Bay Area and began teaching at The Crucible in Oakland. A few years ago, he joined Academy of Art University as a part-time instructor, teaching stone carving and figure sculpture at The Cannery.

During class, Baldwin works alongside his students with his own current project. “It’s really important to teach by example. I’m not just talking about it, I’m a hands-on person, really,” he said.

On his website, Baldwin intersperses his own photo galleries with those of his students and it’s clear his mentoring extends beyond his classes. Faisal Alahmad, a Fine Art – Sculpture B.F.A. student at the Academy, has spent many hours working at Baldwin’s home studio in Vallejo.

“Barry is generous with his time, tools and workspace. When I go to his studio to work on my life-size sculpture I feel empowered because of his expertise and knowledge which help me overcome the issues I face with the figure, or whatever project I have,” Alahmad said.

“Barry is a problem solver and I appreciate that kind of input that’s derived from a lifetime of experience,” he added.

Chair of the School of Fine Art – Sculpture Lawrence Noble noted Baldwin’s generosity, recalling a time when the department was awaiting a shipment of carving tools and Baldwin brought in his own collection for students to use.

“Listening to him or watching is just watching a tour de force in action. He has an amazing ability to connect with the students on a real natural level,” Noble said.

“He’s an amazing figurative carver. You can’t go to London without seeing his work. You can’t go to Belfast without seeing the work he did to restore some of the buildings and sculpture there that were bombed by the IRA,” he added.

Despite the raves, Baldwin can be self-effacing. When asked if he has any of his life-sized figures on display at home, he laughed and said, “The last thing I want to see after a certain time is my stuff. I like to get a couple of hours break from it.”

Others, however, are proud to display Baldwin’s sculpture—usually reproductions of his commissioned public works. By taking a mold of an original, he’s able to sell smaller editions to private collectors.

“I’ve managed to survive as a fine artist. It’s tough, of course, but there are some avenues that people are unaware of,” Baldwin said.

But he’s not going to sugarcoat what it takes to make a career out of stone carving.

“It’s a lot easier to become an astronaut,” he joked. “You’ll get paid better, and it’s a lot safer.”

 

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Trafalgar Square Doorway, Keystone. Photo by Heini Scneebeli.