It seems a small studio for a stone sculptor — just 85 square feet, Jonna Ramey says — tucked at the back of the family garage, but it’s brightly lit, even on this dreary Sunday, with a wall of cheery windows and decent overheads. The space is OCD tidy: the business of “a place for everything and everything in its place” has proven an exacting but satisfying exercise for this artist.
More on the studio later.
What’s important to know upfront is that in 2018 Ramey, a California transplant, committed to carve a body of work exclusively from honeycomb calcite (recently declared Utah’s state stone — like the seagull is the state bird) that’s mined in Hanna, in western Duchesne County, on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
“As a stone sculptor,” Ramey tells us, “I recognize that stone is place. Honeycomb calcite is a uniquely Utah stone. I love the challenge of working it here where I live. Working a local stone can be a way of getting to know where you live, a means to come to terms with place.”
It took her three years to finalize her 2018 promise and now 13 pieces from that period can be seen in a solo exhibition, Beyond Beauty: A Conversation in Stone, at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Gallery, Salt Lake Community College, through May 21.
“In its natural state, honeycomb calcite is so beautiful that it’s challenging to create sculpture that allows the viewer to see beyond the stone itself,” writes Ramey in an artist statement. “I work to get past this distraction and explore ideas that compel me.”
Her sculptures seem to arise from a primeval world: an eerie moonrise over the Oquirrhs on one side of a work manifests as a feathered owl on the reverse as the stone shifts color and mood from ghostly white to a soft apricot; two notably voluptuous nudes, strong as Valkyries, emerge from their individual rocks in icy opaque shades of marmalade; Ramey’s “Leaf on the Water” carries a flavor of fall and a clear sensation of floating downriver, while the moving, birdlike “Golden Protector” sits hovering over an orb it shields seemingly lovingly in its arms. 2020. Honeycomb calcite on purpleheart. 14”H x 8”W x 7.25”D.
Born in Lafayette, Ind., 70 years ago, Ramey “lived there long enough to have one tooth,” she quips, before spending most of the rest of her life in California. Her father, whose desk sign sits prominently on a counter, was an earth scientist who ended his career as a professor of petroleum engineering at Stanford. “Me, I carve stone. He would have loved that,” she says with a smile. She attended Stanford, herself, after being a high school kid in Northern California in 1966 during the Summer of Love – “so how could you not be a crazy hippie?” she asks rhetorically. She came to Utah first in 2002 with her wife, Morgan Ray, a poet, then moved back to Sonoma in 2007 or 2008; the couple moved to Salt Lake City permanently in 2014.
Ramey did media for the Migrant Student Record Transfer System in Sacramento, where records of the children of migrant workers could follow them from school to school thanks to a computer housed in Tennessee; she did photography, too, and freelanced in the film business. “I painted Christmas greetings on store windows — my best was a group of witches in a circle on a window of a porn theater. I had a lot of weird-ass jobs but mostly I made my living as a film writer and director. Most of my clients were corporate and most of my training was in educational filmmaking. Periodically, we could afford to make films about artists. Art’s been in my heart forever. That was another life,” Ramey muses. “But all my life experiences formed my life as a sculptor.”
That she came to that at all was a fluke. That she even came to Utah was because Ray’s mother lived here, was ill and in need of constant care. “So, we came out here to take care of her. We happened to see on the side of a bus about the Zimbabwean sculpture at Red Butte Garden — we didn’t even know what that was. We had never heard of Red Butte Garden. It was total happenstance. We needed a break. And those sculptures were screaming, ‘Look at me.’ The Zimbabweans were only here because the Chihuly glass show was so popular that it was extended at the Horticultural Garden in Chicago and they got bumped. And to see someone [carving stone] and to find out you could learn how to do it from them. I come from a history of being a filmmaker and it’s all about storytelling. I learned a sense of texture from the Zimbabweans, too. Storytelling and texture. I wanted to tell these stories in stone. And I’ve been doing it ever since,” she says.
“To use sculpture as a voice as an older woman; and to make art speak to contemporary issues, a type of art that is slow in its nature — for me it is an ideal form. It forces me to distill ideas down to an image or a set of images that are compelling in and of themselves and hopefully says something to somebody else.”
Ramey’s reputation, though not in the field of sculpture, pre-dates our interview. The New York Times ran a piece about the poetry wall Ramey and her wife put up in front of their Salt Lake City home to cheer neighbors during the Pandemic – a new verse posted twice a week by a known or unknown scribe. It first appeared in the Times’ “At Home” newsletter in February and was republished on page 3 of the Sunday print edition in late March with a photo of a poem hanging on a repurposed election sign in the front yard along with an edited version of Ramey’s original letter to the newspaper about her project. In it she explains:
Because he died this week, I went looking on the internet for a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem I had not yet shown. Since the pandemic began, I post poems in my front yard twice a week, Mondays and Fridays. I photograph them and digitally display them throughout Salt Lake neighborhoods via Nextdoor and wider via Instagram and Facebook. Poet laureates of towns, states, and nations, poets long dead, very young poets, poets of every color and identity, poets, poets, poets. People walk by, stop, and read. My wife saw a mom have her son read a poem aloud to her. We watched a woman read “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith to her dog. Three boys on bikes came by and read a poem together. A handful of kids hooted over “Snowball” by Shel Silverstein. Someone thanked us with a note scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk. Before lockdown, a local church group held a Sunday school session about one of the poems. Masked folks have hollered their thanks from 20 feet away or shoved cards through our mail slot. We’re now known as the Poetry Ladies in our Wasatch Hollow neighborhood.
As mentioned above, in the studio there is a precise place for everything. The work counters display a marvelous mascot figure from Zimbabwe and the desk sign that was her father’s – everything else is purely business. Ramey has installed shelving beneath the work counters with cleverly made bins and covers to protect the contents from the rock dust that inevitably fills the air, despite large filter machines. Off to the right, a curtain separates a section of the studio set up for sculpting larger rock.
Ramey spends, on a short day, a couple of hours in the studio. On what she terms a “good” day, “I get lost out here, until Morgan bangs on the door and says it’s dinnertime.” But she always puts in daily studio time. If she has a large piece to work on, she lets her subconscious do the initial foray and sometimes starts with a smaller stone before she approaches the large one. Ramey says she occasionally might have a detail from a previous work that she wishes to emulate in new stone.
When she is working, Ramey sometimes needs to stop and find a base before she can go further with a piece. “I have to find out how this is going to stand,” she says. She thinks about its weight, how it might balance, how the light will come through the work – there are many considerations. “I collect different things to use for bases – this still has the bark on it . . . and here is this beautiful piece of sandstone which just knocked me out. Whatever sculpture I put on it has to stand up to this amazing base. This is a hardwood from Guiana called purpleheart. And I use a lot of pieces of granite. I have all these pieces that I have machinists cut down. So, I love to find stuff, mixing up found objects.”
Ramey hauls out serpentines from Zimbabwe from a bin beneath a counter, then, “Aren’t these beautiful? I have a friend in California who let me buy a bunch of the smaller colors and I use these as bases for the little sculptures – these are so full of little fractures and seams that you have to drill carefully …”
She might use power tools but says, “It carves so fast you have to be really careful because you can make a mistake before you even realize it. The challenge with me with power tools is that when the stone is soft, you can dig in and through well before you know it. Some of the harder stone, like the serpentines, pushes back more than, say, an alabaster will. Alabaster is almost too soft for me. I like something that pushes back. Or some of the softer marbles — I don’t really work marble. I just haven’t had much exposure to it and, at this stage of my life, I really like some of these other stones so I’ll just keep working with them. There’s a lot of stone in the world,” she says firmly.
Ramey turns to her enormous collection of hand tools — “I feel like somebody’s dad with a garage full of tools, but I know every little thing and what I can do with it. I sand a lot and I have an accordion file of sandpapers,” she says, holding it up. “This is my bag of little files and finishing tools.” Only a very few tools are made for stone sculptors and she has had to create some for herself. “Typically, the tools are made for something and somebody else and we cannibalize it,” says Ramey. Since she and a group of friends started learning stone carving from the group of Zimbabwean teachers in a workshop setting, the portable tool bags were a necessity. Then, she proffers a tool in which she especially delights: It came from the late, well-known Utah artist Edie Roberson, who was known to dabble in a bit of everything.
“I don’t have as many artist friends as I did in California,” notes Ramey, “but there are a lot of good artists here and I am slowly getting to know them. I like the range of art here; I like the level in which a lot of people are working. I really respect so much of what’s going on in the art scene; it’s a good place to be creative and bounce off other creative vision.”
This “accidental” stone sculptor adds: “I’m excited for people to see the show and I’m looking forward to feedback about it. Of all the places I could have landed, I’m glad it’s this one.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.