New Life in Stone

Stonemason and sculptor Jonathan Shor looks for the hand of man in the rock.

By:Ilene Dube
   It’s cold outside. It’s cold inside, too, in the studio of Jonathan Shor. But not for long — he gets the fire going in his stove, and soon the temperature is just below 60. Wearing a wool sweater and cap, Mr. Shor seems warm enough as he offers to make tea.
   Outside this wooden shed on farmland in Hopewell, the sounds of power tools carving and polishing stone can be heard; magnificent pieces of stone, like sculpture themselves, bask in the sun. Mr. Shor is at work on a birdbath, a large triangular-shaped piece of diabase that is rough around the edges but shiny black in the trough. Petroglyphic arrows and other symbols are at the tricorners — Mr. Shor says these were inspired by the symbols used with construction equipment and backhoes. There are set-in handles in the side — Mr. Shor has included these as a joke, because no one would attempt to pick up this giant slab.
   So how does the 32-year-old sculptor move stone into his studio, around it and then out to galleries and sculpture gardens?
   Looking up, there is a square chasm cut into the ceiling, and from the dark space an orange hook dangles on a chain. Not for hanging doers of evil deeds, the chainfall is a mechanical pulley for moving heavy objects. In addition to this and bars, levers, furniture dollies, ramps and handtrucks, Mr. Shor has plans to build a gantry crane.
   Between installing the wood stove, stoking the fire and finding and moving heavy rocks, it’s hard to imagine there’s much time left over for carving.
   Some of Mr. Shor’s functional pieces and benches have been attracting attention at the entrance to the Herban Garden, at the intersection of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place in Princeton. Herban Garden designer and former Writers Block guru Peter Soderman invited Mr. Shor to exhibit his work there.
   The piece he’s working on now — in diabase from Cherry Hill Road in Princeton — weighs about 240 pounds, he estimates. "I usually have an idea of what I want to build but am open to the stone’s suggestions," he says. "My ideas change along the way because I listen to the stone. But I always start with a picture, and may go out in search of a stone to fit that picture."
   Getting the stone can be half the fun. In and around his studio are piles of stone from an old bridge taken apart in Perth Amboy. "I bought two loads," says Mr. Shor. "People know I’m into stone and tell me" about finds like this. Or sometimes he may be driving and see something along the road.
   "I love to use stone that has been walked on and touched, that has some other incarnation," he says.
   Mr. Shor has only recently quit working as a stonemason to become a full-time artist. He says so far he’s making a living on works he’s sold — benches and sculptures sell for $3,000 to $5,000 — and is building up an inventory to have a show in spring. He has sold a bench and a fountain to urban designer Anton Nelessen for his Belle Mead home on River Road, and he and Mr. Soderman hope to build a fountain for the Princeton Public Library plaza. Mr. Shor also is working on stonework for Yuki’s Garden, which Mr. Soderman designed and built at Princeton Montessori School.
   "I try to be careful of how it will weather," he says of his sculpture. Most of his works are too large to be used indoors, so he designs them to be impervious to the outdoor elements. One piece he’s working on now will have a base made from COR-TEN steel. Often used for bridges, the material oxidizes to form a patina that takes on a "deep purple-night color," says Mr. Shor.
   Finding names for his work has been the most difficult part, he says. For the piece with the COR-TEN steel, he’s toying with "Enveloped" or "Enveloping."
   "But that sounds too heady," he says. "(The piece) has a warrior theme, a helmet feel with a hulking base and a shark fin. It will probably end up with a title that has to do with soldier."
   Mr. Shor’s path has taken some twists and turns in his 32 years. He left SUNY New Paltz, where he was studying sculpture, clay and wire casting, after a year to become a shoe salesman. Then he met his future wife, Amy, a Waldorf Education teaching student, and the pair fixed up a 1966 VW microbus to travel along the East Coast to Florida until the money ran out. Mr. Shor was inspired by an uncle who had done something similar and sent him illustrated letters when he was a child.
   For his next adventure, he and Amy’s brother fixed up a school bus, using the tops of two VW buses, sawed off, and added to the top of the school bus, and outfitted it with a stove, sink and built-in bunks. Electric-Kool-Aid-Acid style, they followed the Grateful Dead for half a year.
   Once a nomad, always a nomad, so Mr. Shor next traveled cross-country by foot and with one thumb stuck out. But all good things must come to an end, and for those who are lucky like Mr. Shor, new good things will come along. He was given the opportunity to apprentice to a stonemason in Santa Fe, N.M. After a year, learning to set stone and build walls, archways and aqueducts to take water from arroyos for irrigation on an estate where money was no object, he moved to Sandpoint, Idaho. There, Ms. Shor had her first Waldorf job, and Mr. Shor built patios, steps and walls.
   After the couple’s son was born, they moved back east and eventually settled in Princeton in 2003 when Ms. Shor was offered a job at the Waldorf School of Princeton. The couple has two children, Mason, 7, and Fable, 5.
   Along the way, Mr. Shor says he "recognized the power of completely altering the shape of stone. In Santa Fe, I was bringing out the quality of stone but the hand of man was not evident." He was commissioned to carve a 17-inch-diameter granite sphere by his acupuncturist, and that was how it came full circle to him that he wanted to be an artist.
   Before parting, Mr. Shor says his wife, who employs storytelling as a Waldorf teacher, told him he must tell this story: "My father took me to the library when I was 4 or 5. I was playing on the slide — well, what I thought was the slide — and my father was reading a book he’d checked out. I said to my father, ‘This slide isn’t very good.’ ‘It’s not a slide,’ my father said. ‘It’s sculpture.’ That’s the day I learned what art was."
Jonathan Shor’s sculpture can be seen just outside the Herban Garden, Paul Robeson Place and Witherspoon Street, Princeton. For information, call (609) 651-6236. Jonathan Shor on the Web: