The Carvings of Clark Ashton Smith

Dennis Rickard

CLARK ASHTON Smith's life was intimately connected to rocks and minerals, so it is not surprising that he sought to use them as a means of expressing himself. As mentioned earlier, he spent most of his life on Boulder Ridge, which received its name for the scattering of large rocks covering the length of the ridge. Auburn itself is situated in California's Mother Lode gold mining belt, and is a short distance from the spot where gold was first discovered in the state in 1848. There was an "alleged" gold mine on his grandparents' property-the "Old Gaylord Mine"- and Smith even worked for a time as a hard-rock miner. Although he once wrote that the romance of California gold mining failed to get under his skin, these influences show in his writing, which make frequent reference to gems, precious metals and geological formations. He was. apparently familiar with all of the rocks and minerals of the Auburn area.

According to George Haas, a probable spur toward Smith's first efforts at rock carving came as a result of visits to Crater Ridge, located near Donner Summit northeast of Auburn. This spot served as the locale for one of his best-known stories, "The City of the Singing Flame." (On picnics here with the Sully family of Auburn, he noticed that there seemed to be strangely carven or eroded rocks among the rubble covering the wind-swept ridge. Some were oddly suggestive of faces of weird creatures, or, as he put it, "fragments of primordial bas-reliefs, or small prehistoric idols and figurines. . . ." He sent several pieces of this rock to Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island, including one that he christened "The Wizard Eibon." Lovecraft was intrigued by the rocks, and wrote back to say that if he ever came to California (which he never was able to do), the first thing he wanted to do was to walk out on Crater Ridge "amongst the pre-human reliquiae."

Whether or not his visits to Crater Ridge gave Smith the "inspiration" to begin doing carvings out of rock, his first efforts were begun at about this time. He was visited in 1934 by E. Hoffmann Price, a fellow contributor to Weird-Tales and many of the other pulp magazines. Smith (or rather, his mother) showed Price a number of paintings, and some of the carvings that Smith had started doing that year or soon before. Smith told him at the time that a story would sometimes suggest a drawing or carving, or again, it would be the other way around. In 1939, Price again visited Smith in Auburn, and the two drove to the locality, about ten miles from the cabin, where he got most of the rock used in his carvings. This was the Kilaga Mine, which was owned by his uncle, Ed Gaylord - the "ga" in Kilaga. It was an inactive copper mine and mineral water spring, outside the town of Lincoln.

The type of rock that he picked up from the tailing piles at Kilaga was referred to by Smith as talc, though that term is probably not technically accurate. The material is more likely a soft and somewhat friable sulphate rock. The rock dug from this mine displays wide variations of size, shape, coloring (white to yellows, reds, greens and blues- both solid and in thin veins) and hardness. Most of it was soft enough to permit carving and shaping with nothing more than a jack knife. This was his primary source of material until the mine changed ownership years later. After Smith married and moved to Pacific Grove, he discovered a new source. In an old-roadcut between the upper Carmel Valley and Salinas, in the hills above Monterey, he found an outcropping of "a sort of diatomite" in a thick exposed vein. This is a white, chalky material, Often containing small fossil shells, that was even softer than the talc he had been using.

Though most of his carvings are from these two types of rock, he used a great many others. A pinkish, veined rock that he dug out of a railroad cut in the Clipper Gap area (near Auburn) was employed in some of his earlier works. He also made occasional use of picrolite, basalt, andesite, sandstone, marble (from pieces given to him by a friend), porphry, dolomite, and even clay. Some of these harder varieties required hammer and chisel, but he did only a few in this manner, preferring the more easily worked rock. Some of this rock came from deep underground and was picked up from tailing piles of mines. Others were found on Smith's frequent walks around the area. Rocks were chosen on the basis of coloring, heft (including the ability to hold it in his hand while working on it, explaining the small size of most of his pieces), and by what the shapes of the rocks would suggest to him. A rock might have sat on the stone wall around the Auburn cabin for years until he got the urge to work it. He apparently did no carvings in anything but stone. Stone provided a free and easily available medium, which was of no small importance to Smith.

The carvings which were soft enough to be carved with a knife were roughed out to an approximation of their final shape with a large, pearl-handled countryman's jack knife (with a 4' main blade) that he carried around constantly and used for a multitude of purposes. He would then do the finishing work with a smaller, red-handled penknife. Some pieces were given a further stage of sanding or polishing with emery cloth, but only in rare instances was this done.. The entire process produced a great deal of fine dust, so he did his work under the trees outside the Auburn cabin, where he also did his writing and sleeping when weather permitted, and in the small, fern-ringed patio in Pacific Grove. The diminished daylight of the winter months caused his output of carvings to fall off for a while each year.

The pieces carved of talc or diatomite required firing- to harden and give a sort of finish to them. To accomplish this he would place a carving in a large tin can and pack dry sand completely around the piece. He then would place the can in either the wood burning kitchen stove in Auburn or in the fireplace of his Pacific Grove home. A few hours later the carving would be completed, or, as happened fairly often, shattered by the heat. Much of the rock that Smith used was hydrated or minutely fissured, so a great many of the carvings were broken at this stage and had to be discarded. Even after successful completion, many carvings were so brittle that minor bumps in ensuing years have broken them.

Smith probably discovered this process through much trial and error. On selected sculptures, he would vary this method slightly by packing them in the can with straw instead of sand, producing a dull, fire blackened finish. On pieces packed in sand, firing would sometimes bring out surprising combinations of colors in the rock, including delicate blues, greens and pinks. This is especially evident on the diatomite carvings.

Most of the carvings are signed on the bottom in a rather unusual manner . It consists of the letters K and C , with the K facing backwards. According to Smith, the turned about K stood for both C and K in our alphabet. The inscription, then, stands either for the initials of Clark Ashton, or for the nickname given him by Lovecraft, "Klarkash-Ton" (Lovecraft was "Eich-Pi-El"). This inscription was incised on all of his carvings, excepting those which he forgot to sign before firing, and a few early ones that he signed simply CAS , which was the way that he signed his paintings, although it was usually done in interlocking letters.

Smith's earliest ventures into sculpting were done, as he told an Auburn friend, Ethel Heiple, "just to get a rest from words." As with his painting, he did a great deal of experimentation in the types of media he employed, subject matter and approach. Again, his own unique style was quickly developed. The majority of his carving work consists of figurines, busts and heads of human, sub-human, pre-human, extra-terrene, mythological, archetypal. and imaginary creatures. However, he occasionally carved other more functional items. He made a number of smoking pipes, with the bowl and mouthpiece carved from talc into imaginative faces and designs. The pipe stems were made from pieces of rare black bamboo. He did a few small trays, bow]s, dishes and containers that were

carved plainly or with flower designs or other patterns suggested by the grain of the rock. He also made a few pairs of bookends, at least one candleholder, a letter opener (with a carven talc blade and a bamboo handle), and several pieces designated as ash trays and paperweights. Smith took an interest in jewelry, as well. He did many small pieces designed as lavallieres, pendants and medallions, most of them pierced to enable them to be worn on a cord. These were generally done in a somewhat different vein than his other carvings, and dealt with less bizarre subjects. They featured simply! but beautifully carven flowers, female heads, a butterfly, a kitten's head, Pegasus, a cabalistic seal, and so on. These items were usually made specifically as gifts for friends, and not for the more general consumption for which his figurines were intended.

As with his paintings and carvings, Smith probably carved several hundred figurines, and if the broken ones are considered, a great many more. Very often, he carved more. than one of the same name. In some cases this was because he did several studies of the same being, as with his literary creations the sorceror Eibon, the Inquisitor Morghi, and amorphous, sloth-like Tsathoggua. In other instances a customer might request a carving similar to another he had done. Some carvings were just given descriptive names, like "Plant-Animal," which he felt best suited more than one finished piece. Again, he had "generic" titles. Small grotesques were sometimes simply called "goblins," and larger, indescribably- featured beings often became "nameless entities." For the vast majority of his works, however, Smith concocted original and eerily poetic titles befitting and crowning the carvings themselves.

A glance at the checklist of the CAS carvings at the conclusion of this booklet will show the variety of influences that were involved in his sculpting work. The mythologies and superstitions of many cultures, especially Greek, Roman and Indian are represented here, and many seem to be inspired by the actual art of ancient civilizations in Africa, South and Central America, Polynesia and the Near East, yet the appearance of any of his works would deny classification into any historical epoch or national origin. Other influences include outer space-as with "Moon-Dweller," "Martian God" and "Venusian Swamp-Man," a wry sense of humor (as in the descriptions of "The Sexologist" and "The Puritan"), and drugs and "philtres." Although, of course, it is extremely unlikely that Smith ever had any direct experience with hallucinogenic or narcotic drugs or was in close contact with anyone who had, this is nevertheless a minor but recurring theme that exists in his prose ("The Plutonian Drug"), poetry (his longest and most famous poem is entitled "The Hashish Eater"), painting ("The Spirit of Opium"), and carvings such as "The Hashish Demon."

The two primary, and, to a degree, interconnected influences on his carving work, however, were the story cycles and Cthulhu mythos of Smith, Lovecraft and others of their circle, and Smith's own unplumbed imagination. A great many of his carvings are based directly or indirectly on the pantheon of gods, demons and elementals that form the basis of so many of their stories. Representations of these beings in Smith's carvings include great "Cthulhu" himself, "The Hound of Tindalos" from the story by Frank Belknap Long, "Shub-Niggurath," "Azathoth!" and Smith's major contribution to the mythos, black "Tsathoggua." Many more are people and beings from Smith's story cycles. From sorcery-ruled Zothique, Earth's last continent in the dim and waning future, he has carved "The King of Zothique," "Thasaidon" and "Terminus from Zothique." The legendary island/continent of Hyperborea (literally, beyond the north wind) was the source and setting for that infamous heretic, "The Sorceror Eibon," his arch-foe, "The lnuuisitor Morghi," and "Hyperborean Cat-Goddess," "Hyperborean Totem-Pole," and "Hyperborean Snake-Eater." The range of space and time that is represented in these carvings is truly boundless. Here are beings from Atlantis and Lemuria, and images of both the earliest and most advanced forms of life in this and countless other spheres. It is easily seen that the fullest enjoyment of any of the forms of artistic expression that Smith used would be gotten from treating them in conjunction. Perhaps an enterprising publisher will someday become cognizant of this fact and issue a volume of Smith's stories and poems accompanied by reproductions of appropriate selected , carvings and paintings.

As mentioned earlier, a large factor in the unconventionally imaginative nature of his artistic creations was the visions which he derived from the outre and nightmarish dreams. George Haas related an uncanny incident connected with Smith's carvings and dreams in a memoir in In Memoriam: Clark Ashton Smith. The first carving that Haas received from Smith was a rather large andesite sculpture that is somewhat different in appearance from most of his other works. It stands about eight inches high and five inches across at the base. Entitled "Ialdabaoth" for the demiurge of Anatcole France's "Revolt of the Angels," it is a bearded head that reminds one of ancient Sumerian or Babylonian art, with perhaps a trace of Polynesian influence, as if it were a temple carving from Angkor Wat. Its aura of intense age is accentuated by the growth of lichens covering the piece as a result of having teen exposed to the elements for several years. It was purchased in 1953, and was sculpted about ten years earlier, spending the intervening time on the stone wall around Smith's cabin.

In 1958, Thor Heyerdahl published Aku-Aku concerning his recent expedition to Easter Island. The book talks of secret family burial caves deep under the island whose existence was unknown to anybody but the families involved until they were revealed to Heyerdahl in 1956. These caves Were filled with hundreds of small stone carvings which are dissimilar to the large, enigmatic carvings on the surface for which the island is famed. There is a double page color spread of photographs of some of these statuettes following page 304 of the hard-cover edition of the book. In the loswer left corner of the first of these pages, there is a carving that bears a startling resemblance to "laldabaoth." The only real differences between the two is that the direction of the parallel ridges forming the beard is back and forth on Smith's piece but up and down on the other, and the Easter Island carving has long ears close to the head, whereas "laldabaoth" has flattened areas on the sides of its head that give the impression of ears having been broken off. All other details of bald; rounded head, slightly flattened and flaring nose, eyes, gaping mouth, the approximate size and type of rock and its texture are almost identical. When Haas showed CAS the picture in 1958 and asked him if he had been secretly working on Easter Island, Smith told him that when he had carved that particular piece years before, he had been having a series of vivid recurring dreams in which he found himself deep underground in a small cave filled with hundreds of small stone carvings similar to the one he carved!

The production of carvings was a serious and dedicated career for Smith. In a short autobiography for The Science Fiction Fan, August, 1936, he stated that he had already begun to "find the making of these [sculptures] far easier and more pleasurable than writing." He had never made a great deal of money through his writing, and probably hoped to make a better living through the sale of his carvings. At least any money gotten from them would be more immediate than the dreary process of submitting and re-submitting his stories to magazines, then waiting to hear his fate. If this was his hope, however, he was probably disappointed, because he was never to become even moderately comfortable from this means alone, and had to supplement his income with more menial jobs.

This is not to say that he was not able to sell his works. Many friends and associates of Smith's, as well as collectors and h-is fans bought nearly all of the pieces that he did not give away. Lovecraft owned a few; among them were "Cthulhu," "The Outsider," and two heads that he referred to in a letter us "the semi-insect king and the beak-snouted entity." Fellow writer and a co-founder and director of Arkham House Publishers, accumulated the largest collection, numbering about forty, of Smith carvings. Derleth paid tribute to Smith's sculptures in a 1947 short story, "Some- thing in Wood," in which a collector of unusual and bizarre items, including a number of CAS carvings, is destroyed by an octopoid Wood carving that he acquired to balance his collection against "the strange and wonderful imagery of the Smith sculptures." This story mentions in particular the tentacled "Elder God," one of the carvings pictured on the dust jacket of the Arkham edition of Lovecraft's "Beyond the Wall of Sleep." Smith circulated boxes of some of his carvings to distant friends, who would buy pieces that they desired, in the '30s. Visitors to Smith in Auburn or Pacific Grove usually bought one or more of the ones that he had on hand, while others were ordered by mail and sent to various parts of the country and the world. Some people, no doubt, bought a few carvings as a sort of favor to Smith, knowing that this was an important source of income for him and that the money was needed. For many of these people, Smith was, and always would be, a writer of prose and poetry. The purchases that they made, for whatever the reasoning behind them, proved to be fortunate investments.

For a short time, Smith attempted to widen his business of sculpting by making and selling plaster casts of a few of his carvings. A small advertisement in The Science Fiction Critic for March 1937, listed the following casts and prices:

Tsathoggus relief 40¢
The Dog of Commoriom relief 30¢
Unicorn relief 30¢
The Sorceror Eibon head 60¢
The Moon-Dweller head 50¢
Double-Faced Demon head 75¢
The Harpy figurine 75¢

These casts were well-made representations of the original carvings, and some of them were slightly glazed or painted-the casts of "The Harpy" were lightly painted blood-red wound the open and fang-rimmed mouth-while others were. left as plain plaster. It is not known how many casts were made altogether; but they apparently did not sell very well, and these are the only ones that he did.

Smith did gain a certain amount of recognition for his carvings. They were featured at an exhibition at Gump's in San Francisco in 1939 and 1940. In 1956, he was honored by the Carl Cherry Foundation in Monterey. Both carvings and paintings by Smith were on display from May 28 to June 2, and on the final day of the showing, Smith gave a reading from his long, blank verse poem, "The Hashish eater." There were other exhibitions of his art works through the years in Auburn, Sacramento, New York, and other localities. A few selected CAS carvings were featured on the dust jackets of three Arkham house books: Beyond the Wall of Sleep (as mentioned), and Smith's Lost Worlds and The Abominations of Yondo. The pictures for the latter were taken by the nationally famous photographer, Wymm Bullock. In addition, the jacket of Smith's Poems in Prose from Arkham House, which was drawn by Frank Utpatel, was based on a number of Smith carvings. Further, there arc two photographs, one of Smith with a painting and a few carvings and another of a group of sculptures, in Lovecraft's Selected Letters: II, again from Arkham House.

Nevertheless, Smith's sculpting work did not provide him with an adequate living. Carving these pieces was a time-consuming process, and they could only be done one at a time. In a 1955 letter to George Haas, Smith discussed the financial returns from his line of work: "Because of the increased cost of production, photographs, fuel, etc., I am having to up the prices somewhat. Even with the increase, I doubt if these prices give me more than a dollar an hour for actual time spent." The prices that he asked for his carvings, both before and after this increase, ranged from $4 to a high of around $17, which gives an idea of the length of time required to complete them. Today, some of his carvings command upwards of $150. It is regrettable, but almost axiomatic, that an artist must die before his works receive that financial appreciation that they deserve, especially in, cases such as this one where the money was so sorely needed by the artist.

Smith's carvings have a quality of their own. The very fact that they are so unusual and unlike any other artwork of their type causes them to become immediate attention-grabbers, and yet they continue to demand one's regard on any subsequent viewing. It is a difficult matter to look upon any of these carvings without reaching out to pick it up. The raw material for the pieces was selected partly on the basis of the feel, weight and shape of the rock, and the finished products provide nearly as much enjoyment through the sense of touch as through sight. Many of them make one half-believe that they are relics of lost civilizations, yet it is not possible to consider them as derivations from any kind of ancient art; they are examples of "Klarkash-Ton's" particular brand of creativity. They show his skill at depicting fantastic and bizarre meldings of reptilian, canine, avian, piscine, humanoid, octopoid and nameless other features into unique works of art.

It could perhaps be argued that had Smith received formal artistic training, he might have channeled, perfected and polished his creative energies, and perhaps have come to be considered as a "major artist." The dangers, however, would probably have far outweighed the advantages. Smith was too sensitive to benefit from any kind type of imposed training or instruction, and it would have been a matter of cutting down on his own natural quest for experimentation and the freedom to develop his own direction, and it would almost certainly have been a deterrent to the "mordant" bent in many of his works. But this question is academic, and happily so. Of late, more and more people are being introduced to his poetry and prose. Hopefully, this small tribute to the other side of his creative talents will help to bring some recognition to the paintings and carvings of Clark Ashton Smith.

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