Feature: Chinese stonemasons help create Danish art

08:48, November 01, 2010      

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Danish artist Claus Norheim Oerntoft has worked as a sculptor throughout his life.

His latest assignment is for the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, who has asked him to create three large granite sculptures for the castle garden in Marselisborg.

The sculptures are still on a model plane, but in a few months the full-scaled models will be sent to China, where Claus gets the rough cut work done in solid granite.

His sculptures are as dramatic as the nature he lives in -- far up in the northern Jutland, and actually as far north as one can go in Denmark. He was friendly and smiling, and he talked with enthusiasm and zeal about his work -- the large granite sculptures.

"I do not have the same strength as I had when I was quite young. Twenty years of working with carving in the granite has taken its toll on my arms, so I am no longer able to perform the rough part of shaping the stone. This I get done with the help of skilled stonecutters in China," Claus told Xinhua in a recent interview.

During the course the artist travelled to China himself to ensure that the work progresses as he wishes. And he was thrilled to work with Chinese craftsmen.

"Here in Western Europe we have very few stonemasons left in the traditional sense. In China on the contrary I can contract with a crafts master one day and the next morning work is in progress. And I can be sure the job gets done conscientiously and professionally," Claus said.


When the rough cut sculptures sent back from craftmaster Kang of Xiamen, southeastern China, Claus was finetuning the sculpture with the details that give it its final appearance.

In this way it gets the expression that Claus has been working toward during the entire process, which takes about a couple of years. The inspiration comes from nature and often characters from the animal world,but in the artist's interpretation.

Claus said, "It all starts with where I get a job from somewhere. It may be a city or a company - or the latest from the Danish court - seeking a sculpture at a specific location. Then I go and think for months before I start making some sketch drawings, which bring me closer to creating the image that arises in my mind. The sculptures I'm working on for Queen Margrethe II is inspired by the Danish coat of arms, consisting of nine lions."

When the drawings are ready, Claus forms a model of the sculpture in wax in a very small scale. Then he forms a plaster figure in scale 1-5. Then a bit bigger one in scale 1-3.

From this model he is casting an iron skeleton as the foundation for a model of the sculpture in scale 1-1 also in plaster.

Based on this full-scale model is created as a mold, so the sculpture can be molded into fiberglass, making it much easier to transport on the long road to Xiamen and Chinese stonemasons.


Then it is time to choose the granite to make the actual sculpture. Claus uses either granite from Denmark, Sweden or China.

He hasn't yet decided what kind of granite will be used for the three lions to Marselisborg castle, but it will probably either come from Denmark or from China.

Claus said, "But in general it's no problem with the long journey. Not even if I chose a stone that does not come from China. It makes the course a little more expensive if a stone is to sail from Denmark to China and back again. Typically a block of granite is weighing around 8-10 tons. But it is shipped in containers and the fiberglass model can be sent by air, so that's no problem at all."


It is not because Chinese craftsmen can do the job much cheaper than stonemasons from other countries, for example Sweden. Claus chose quite deliberately to get the work done in China because of the high standard of the work there.

He said economy plays only a minor role. "The main thing is that I can trust that I get out the work done the way I imagine. As an artist I have rather high demands on the quality of the job done. And if they are not met, I can't hand my work on to the one who ordered it in good conscience. Although others might not immediately see any minor errors, it is unavoidable that the unconscious will influence the viewer. And for my part I can't live with knowing that it is not definitely in order."

The darkness closes in slowly over the courtyard to the farm, where Claus lives with his wife Bente and their youngest daughter Sigrid. Before it gets completely dark, there is just a detail on one of his sculptures that has to be corrected by his hammer and chisel.

It is not hard to see how tiny details makes the difference between being a skilled craftsman and a creative artist. Still, without Chinese stonemasons, the artistic work may never have come true.



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