Listening to Rocks: Learning the Art of Stone Sculpturing

I recently met a group of fascinating people who teach stone sculpturing in the area where I live.

Following is an example of a Profile Feature Article. A variation of the article with a more commercial angle was published on

In the sleepy city of Wageningen, Netherlands, more than one thousand people have signed up to chisel away their summer holidays. Lizelle Smit meets these extraordinary people and the man who teaches them to listen to rocks.

The man and woman walk toward the large pile of rocks. They stop to inspect a few. He points out some details on the grey boulders, dabs one with a smudge of spit, taps another with a chisel. They talk at length. Eventually the woman loads a rock onto her cart, discards the others and pushes her new find towards her workbench. She looks relieved. Her new choice is softer, which means a few days less hard labour. I’m relieved for her and it’s not even my project.

The man walking with her is Master Gunja, her sculpting teacher. Or rather, as he explains, she is one of his clients. Master is a 31 year old Zimbabwean sculptor on his third visit to the Netherlands. Each time he visits, he stays for about three month, teaching hundreds of Dutch people how to speak Rock.

“When I see a stone, something is already in the stone talking to me. It says “I am an owl”. Or “I am a hippo”. I show my clients how to listen to rocks”. He smiles warmly, looking younger than his 31 years. Yet when he talks about his art he seems older, wiser.

I ask him if sculpting an image from solid stone is hard work physically. “No, not really,” he says. “The hard work comes from engaging with the stone. You have to think of nothing else. You have to clear your head and listen to the stone. It will tell you what to do. It will say “Cut me here, cut me there”. You cannot fight with the stone. You are taking away from it.”

He points out that stone sculpturing is one of the few art forms where an artist creates by taking away. Most art is created by adding elements together. He likes that aspect of it, he says. He has since he was a little boy.

Master has been making stone sculptures most of his life. He was taught by his father, well-known Zimbabwean stone sculptor Enos Gunja. Enos was one of the founders of the Tengenenge Sculpture Community in Zimbabwe, a cooperative that creates a livelihood for many Zimbabwean families today.

When he was 6 years old, Master made his first sculpture. He had been assisting his father with filing and polishing long before then and had already mastered the basics. He tells me that his father, who is also a much-respected story-teller, still enjoys recounting the story of his son’s first attempt.

It was a woman’s head featuring a proud mane of long, flowing hair. The shy boy had seen the tourist when she visited Tengenenge. He was instantly inspired; fascinated with her and her culture. He saw her likeness in a rock and brought it to life.

Master laughs as he recounts the memory. “I told his father “I like these people”. I told him that I will learn about them and how they live. Now here I am, experiencing their culture first hand.” He sold his first sculpture for Z$10. But more importantly, he was sold on sculpturing.

But sculpturing isn’t his only passion. He enjoys people and especially group dynamics. Which is why his sculptures often feature several figures in one sculpture. “I am inspired by the group,” he says. “I believe sharing can only happen when you’re in a group. And I believe that is how you learn. By sharing.”

Sharing his knowledge with others comes naturally to him. He seamlessly instructs, guides and supports his group of fledgling sculptors. Most of them have never held a chisel before this day, let alone created something with it.

Like his father taught him, he has also taught his son. I ask him if his son has his talent. “Yes”, he beams. “Because he can create something that sells. This is important. To make something other people will want.” For him it is not only about art. It’s also about creating a living in an exceptionally difficult Zimbabwean economic reality.

Master also believes everyone can make a sculpture. All you have to do is listen. And in today’s crazy society, quieting one’s mind to listen seems like a very difficult thing to do.

Maybe swinging a chisel is as good a way to meditate as any.