Duluth artist sets Northland in stone
Sean MacManus recreates Lake Superior and the environments around it.
DULUTH — The wind catches small puffs of dust as Sean MacManus chips away at a piece of slate. He stands in the alley behind his home in goggles, gloves and a respirator mask — garage door open.
MacManus secures his chisel behind his fingers, and hammers down before brushing the buildup onto the alley’s snowy gravel. “Anything that makes dust and dirt happens in the garage,” MacManus said.
The Duluth carver operates MacManus Stoneworks from his Kenwood neighborhood home, where he recreates Lake Superior and the environments around it, as well as original designs and traditional Gaelic patterns in limestone, basalt and soapstone.
The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council previously awarded two grants to MacManus to attend the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in Rutland, Vermont. Around the Northland, his work can be seen in Carmody Irish Pub’s fireplace, on sale at Mocha Moose in Larsmont, and gracing various homes.
Posters from his previous art fairs — along with his completed woodwork and some unfinished stone pieces — decorate his outdoor workspace.
You can hear him hammering from the sidewalk, and watching the flakes drift away from its earthly foundation feels primal, mindful.
“Carving for me has been a therapy,” he said. “I use meditation to work things out. … I've been perfecting my act of meditation with a hammer.”
MacManus started as a laborer for a stone mason, restoring 19th century buildings in Marquette, Michigan. From there, he was invited by the local union to study stone work with bricklayers. "The instructor sat me down with a piece of limestone, showed me how to work a chisel and let me go. The next day, we were carving together," MacManus recalled.
Years after, he moved to Duluth with his wife in 2001.
He has several pieces in the works: a 3D image of the Sawtooth Mountains; a 27-by-43-foot piece of Duluth-Superior before they dug the canal; and he’s — literally — chipping away at several slabs of the big lake. “Stones absorb a lot of energy and time,” he said.
MacManus often starts his process with a sketch of the Duluth harbor area. He’ll sometimes reference maps to accurately depict waterways. He is still taken with the art of the landscape — and with trying to mimic it. “The rivers and the creeks form designs and patterns in the stone, as they all lead to Lake Superior,” he said.
For some carvings, such as a current portrait of a wolf, he’ll sketch on carbon paper, cut it out, fit it onto the stone, and trace it as a guide.
MacManus gets materials from stone yards, schools or the outdoors, and he has a host of chisels that produce different effects, like a tooth chisel for texture and a gouge chisel for a water effect.
MacManus likes to allow a stone’s natural face to depict land masses and for smoother effects, such as a portrait he carved of his wife, he sands it with an emery cloth.
Knowing how far down to carve is a learned skill, he said, and there are different stressors that affect the stone. (MacManus lost two before the News Tribune’s visit last week.) It’s a part of the craft MacManus was introduced to early on.
He relayed a lesson from his instructor: If you’re going to make something, make 10. Six might come out, and you could end up with two perfect ones.
After watching MacManus hammer his chisel across the slate, one, two, three times, the News Tribune asked about possible hazards of the work. To that, he simply replied: “Ice and epsom salts are your friends.
“You hear it does catch up to you; I’ll wait for that to happen.”
To see McManus' work, search for "MacManus Stoneworks" on Facebook .