Well Red

By Lawrence Stoller

I was treasuring, hunting my way around the vast pavilions of the Tucson gem and mineral show(s) in 2006, absorbed in the endless search for tantalizing minerals.  As I wandered through halls and tents, the years blended like the many faces of crystal importers and merchants from remote locations across the globe, like, Brazil, Madagascar, Russia, Afghanistan, and China.  Many exotic minerals and gems that pocket the upper crust of our Earth are transported here to barter and trade for.
I entered the tent of a Brazilian man whom I have known for years.  We exchange greetings, fumble over small talk, until finally he says in a lowered voice “Lawrence, I have something for you”.  Encoded in that phrase is a signal that transcends centuries of clandestine dealings – “game on”.
The churning of a Pavlovian response begins, my pupils widen, and the moment gets bigger. I mentally salivate with the anticipation of spying naked treasure.  But at the same time I assume a defense posture, protecting the boundaries of my good sense and pocket book. There are diametrically opposed feelings that mix in my mind; the possibility of collecting something spectacular, blended with the dread that I may like it so much I “must” buy it.
So he takes me in the back room and pulls out a nearly black, opaque, chunk of quartz.  I am immediately relieved and disappointed at the same time.  It doesn’t look like my kind of rough, lightless and lifeless, unattractive.  The meter on my interest level flat-lines.
He walks me and the chunk over to a bright white halogen light and holds it over the beam.  It glows red.  My head spins, realizing I have never seen that color of vibrant ruby red in a large quartz crystal.

The words “How much.” wiggle out between my clinched jaw.  His price knocks my head back like a counter-punch.   Certainly it can’t be that expensive, he can’t really expect to get that much for a black crystal…  But he is not budging on the price.  Now I am in trouble.  A choir of disparate voices joins a raucous debate in my head:
“Don’t even think about it, it is too expensive”, followed by “that is unbelievable, the color can’t be real, but it is”, “you have to find a way to buy this”, “you can’t be serious”, “offer him much less”, “it will be a completely unique sculpture when finished”, “you will never make your money back”, “I’ve got to have it”…  All the while my passive face masks just how serious I am about paying his price.

When I got the black smoky chunk back to my studio I began sizing it up.  I paid for the promise of red.  But I knew that to fulfill the promise of this sculpture it was going to demand a far greater price.  And the medium of exchange demanded that I invest myself in a way I never had before.
An exploratory face cut creates a window in the craggy broken surface, allowing my eye to glimpse the heart of the dark crystal.  After several saw cuts I begin to navigate the visual interior of the crystal.  Holding the chunk over a bright light, turning it to every angle and in all directions.  The dazzling red color appears and quickly disappears; elusive, as if trying to hide from me. A red apparition, momentarily darting across the interior walls before vanishing.  I turned the crystal over the light, but couldn’t capture and control the color.
The challenge was to facet and align the angles of the quartz to ignite the smoldering red ember inside.  I needed to create a house of mirrors, to pin point, activate and reflect a vector of light through the smoky crystalline lattice that would slow the light resonance to the spectrum of red. And then to bounce that red beam off precisely angled faces so as to fill the sculptural vessel with this burgundy radiance.

So the process went, cutting, grinding and carving into the dark night of the crystal, trying to release a sliver of trapped light in this black hole of matter.  I was frustrated because I am used to the process of “revealing a crystal” being immediately gratifying; make a cut, see the light, make another cut, marvel for a bit, cut and polish and it is only a matter of time before the wonder of the crystal is in full bloom.  With this one however, it seemed that no matter what I did it was not going to surrender the light of dawn I knew was in its core.
Unfortunately, there were no new lapidary tools I could employ to help me create the desired result.  I used saws, lap wheels, carving and polishing tools of various shapes and sizes. I used nearly every tool in my arsenal, to take away material in hopes that the absence of the crystalline matter would allow more light to penetrate and escape the crystal.  This only proved that the result I was seeking would not occur as a function of tools alone.

Each time I took the carving in my hands I descended into the emotional vortex of the Unknown.  The Unknown has its own rules, which by definition are unknown.  So when you are in the Unknown, but haven’t surrendered to the fact that you are in the Unknown, there are no telltale indicators of how to proceed. I was lost.  And every time I worked on the piece I reinforced my apprehension that the promised land was nowhere to be found.
There is a famous passage from Dante’s Inferno, which refers to “the dark wood” of life; a place where “the true way is wholly lost”.  When one enters the “dark wood” of life, everything you perceived to be right and true, no longer is.  Once trapped there it can be quite frightening.
This crystal became a microcosm of “the dark wood”, a place I would reluctantly visit over the next 5 years, trying to find my way; but to no avail.  There is an anxiety that goes with being lost that propels you forward. My metaphysical mission was to go through the narrows of doubt, fear and frustration, to find the “red” light of certainty.  Moments of salvation came only when I would surrender to the freedom that exists in “not knowing”.
If I hadn’t paid such a dear price for the raw crystal, I would have put it back on the inventory shelf, leaving it for some ambiguous future to deal with.  But this red ghost haunted me.  Initially because I felt a responsibility to get my investment back out of it.   Beyond that it seemed that every remedy I carved into this piece only helped shape it into an effigy of doubt.  But the crystal had it’s own volition and destiny, patiently waiting for me to align with it, rather than the other way around.
Every few months I would pick it back up. Hold it to the light, try and plot my longitude and latitude only to conclude once again I was adrift.  I would force myself to cut a new groove or face in hopes of creating some reflection of truth.

Finally my breakthrough came.  I had convinced myself for five years that the crystal had a prescribed orientation, i.e. a front, a back, a top and a bottom.  I was operating under the assumption that the red color would appear as a function of my carving and shaping of the crystal.  It wasn’t till I turned the almost completed sculpture upside down and backwards, that I found the angle of light refraction focused so as to reverberate the smoky zone at the precise spectrum resonance to fill the crystal.
Finally, blood was pumping through a beating red heart.

I once was lost, until I found
that right side up is upside down.

“Well Red”



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