When Cal Poly graduate Laurie Tossy started stone sculpting, she didn’t know that it would eventually become her livelihood. After overcoming a battle with carpal tunnel syndrome that sidelined her for more than a decade, she is back in the studio doing what she loves to do.

“I actually started when I was in college. I have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from before I went to Cal Poly,” Tossy said. “I went to a small school in France, and that’s where I was exposed to stone sculpting. Like most people who have training in fine arts, I didn’t go into sculpting as my livelihood.”

At Cal Poly, Tossy got a degree in graphic communication. She says that she spent most of her time working with other artists, helping them get their work promoted and printed, while doing some sculpting on the side.

“I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and had to have surgery done on both hands. At the time, the doctor said I really shouldn’t sculpt anymore,” Tossy said. “I gave it up for about ten to fifteen years, and only about three years ago seriously took it back up. I started again about seven and a half years ago. I was in New Zealand and I was carving with some people there. I was trying to figure out how I could incorporate sculpting back into my life. Three years ago, I quit my job, and now I work for myself.”

As a result of the surgery, Tossy has had to learn new techniques and exercises to make the sculpting tolerable.

“I have learned how to do certain exercises to help. And that’s one thing I’ve really been working on with other artists, learning some tips on how to survive, because it’s a really repetitive disorder. There’s a lot of vibration involved with sculpting, and I do my sculpting mostly by hand with old fashioned chisels and hammers. Mostly because a lot of the power equipment produces so much vibration, it would be too hard on me. So, between doing my exercises and limiting my time in the studio, it seems to be working okay.”

Whereas many people would assume that stone sculptors must creatively decide what to do with a specific piece, Tossy says that the individual stone usually dictates what she chooses to sculpt.

“Typically, the stone tells me what it wants to do. I really view myself as more of a translator than a dictator,” she said. “So, a lot of times when I see a stone, I’ll know immediately what it’s supposed to be, or have a good idea. Other times, I know I’m supposed to work with it, but I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. So, I’ll take that stone, and have it in my studio. Sometimes, just by sitting with it, working on other pieces, I get ideas. Or, I start sketching and I go back into my studio and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that sketch fits perfectly for that stone.’ So, a lot of the time, it’s on a really subconscious level. But basically, I’m just releasing whatever is already in the stone, because stone sculpting is a subtractive process, and you’re taking away the extra stuff.”

Tossy has found that, much of the time, finding a perfect stone to work with is the most difficult part of the process.

“There’s a couple different ways that I can categorize stone. You can get a rough, more natural looking stone, whether it comes from a quarry, or it’s been found on the surface,” Tossy said. “And then there are some stones that are very precision-cut from a quarry; cubes of stone. If I buy a cube of stone, then that lends itself much more to a preconceived idea, and then evolves from there. If I go with a more naturally-shaped stone, then I really am much more influenced by the stone itself, and what’s in it already. But sometimes, even with the cubed quarry stone, there will be a flaw or something about it that makes me change my idea about the piece. So, they’re always evolving. Even if I have a sketch beforehand, it’s more like an idea. Kind of like an outline for a story, the storyline might change a little bit along the way.”

After graduating from Cal Poly, Tossy took a job in Loveland, Colorado. She has since worked in the printing industry as well as local government. She converted her basement into a studio, and now spends most of her time sculpting and attending various shows.

“I was recruited from Cal Poly to go to a company in Colorado, and I just love it there, and so I’ve stayed,” she said. “My studio is there, in my basement, so that kind of limits the size that I can work on because I have to be able to carry the stones up and down the stairs.”

Tossy was recently involved with the Sixteenth Annual Loveland Sculpture Invitational Show & Sale, in her hometown. According to the show’s Web site, “over 340 artists from across the nation display over 3,500 sculptures.” Tossy included three of her own sculptures in the show.

“I had a variety of pieces in various stones. One was a green marble from Utah and it’s actually got a lot of white in it, with green striping. That piece is called ‘I Know Dogs Go to Heaven Because I See Them in the Clouds.’ It had this white and green dog face, actually there were multiple dogs, and it was on a steel rod and pinned onto a green piece that was shaped like a mountain. So, it was like looking at the clouds over the mountain.”

The Loveland Invitational isn’t technically a competition, but artists display their pieces in an attempt to attract potential buyers and showcase their artwork.

“It’s not a competition. There were about 350 artists and there were eight different huge tents; you have many different artists in each tent showing their sculptures,” Tossy said. “Plus, there’s a large common area for people who have life-sized or monumental-sized sculptures. It’s all set in a park setting with a view of the Rocky Mountains. People come from all over the country, and others come from all over the world, to see this show. I talked to a lot of people who come to the show almost every year, and schedule a vacation in the area because it’s such a unique show.”

Tossy isn’t planning on entering any other shows in the near future. Instead, she is sculpting, and working on her Web site.

“After the show, some of the pieces go home with their new buyers. We bring our pieces back home if they aren’t sold,” she said. “Loveland has a great history of buying sculptures for the community. Typically, they buy the monumental-sized pieces and install them in various places in the community. For me, my pieces are now back home, and I’m building a Web site so that I can exhibit them. It’s www.successinstone.com, and it’s very much in progress. The computer is not my first art form!

“Basically, working with stone is just such an incredible thing because it’s a natural product. I’m working with things that are thousands, if not millions of years old. One of the most exciting parts is the happy accidents that come along the way. You know what color it’s going to be, but you don’t know where are the variations color are going to happen. Sometimes, I end up getting these beautiful color variations exactly where they’re supposed to be.”

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