Attaining My NVQ Level 2: at The City of Bath College

Odd as it is now to recall, but a full twenty-one years it has been since the day that I finally squared the block while attending The City of Bath College, England, and thus earned a chance to attain my coveted NVQ Level 2.

For a diploma it may not be much to look at, but man did it change my life.

slide left and right to see the front and back of the card

NVQ stands for National Vocational Qualification

This drab looking, credit card sized bit of plastic was to serve as my ticket into the ancient world of stone carving. Eventually enabling me to carve just about any kind of carveable stone that comes my way into just about any shape you can imagine, and more than a few that I bet you can’t.

Taking on The NVQ Challenge

Squaring The Block with Hand Tools

Or, sheer mind over matter

As an initiation ritual, squaring a rough-old quarry block into a near perfect ‘cube’ proved quite as taxing as it sounds. Actually, it needn’t be a perfect cube per se, more of a rectangle, but all six sides had to be perfectly flat, with every angle and corner spot on.  Plus, for good measure, all I had for tools would have been easily recognized by any Medieval mason. Yet, even to this day these humble, ancient tools serve at proficiently today as they did way back then.

I use them as I would any other of my arsenal of tools – they’re handy, convenient and often way quicker to use than even my favorite air chisels, spinner pads and the amazing semi-flexible silicon carbon disc that I’m prone to rave about to anyone willing to listen.

Face to Face with Destiny: Me against the quarry rock

And so, this was how it was going to be. Fine, I could handle it – for such a chance to attain my NVQ I could even respect such a noble tradition. I mean, if I can’t “cube” a simple little rough quarry block like this, then what sort of lousy Banker Mason would I likely make anyway?

So into it I threw myself, taking rest-bites only long enough to watch and study the actions and practices of the dozens of students around me – how they placed their feet, swung the mallet, or glanced a certain blow to on any given tool. Thus armed with just a few hand chisels plus various straight-edges and angles, along with well my own rather strenuous endeavors – which where strenuous indeed I can tell you, I set off to accomplish an 800 year old tradition and set my sights on the finishing line, where my block would take its place in masonry history and I would… well, at least begin to attain my NVQ Level 2, the benchmark achievement of any professional Banker Mason. Yep, that would be me alright. All I had to do was square that one single block of stone, that’s all (I kept telling myself).

It was me against a freshly sourced quarry rock: and yes, it was rough, tough and quite a shock to the system I can tell you.  I don’t have too many pictures from my time spent squaring the block, but during that time-honored ritual I learned what every Banker Mason in England has learned all the way down through the ages – back to the days of the mighty cathedrals – did I really want to do this for the rest of my life? 

Martin Cooney, Phoenix Masonry

This seemed an awfully hard, nay brutal way to make a living, but I just kept telling myself that this is A TEST not a chore; for that was indeed the last block of stone that I squared with hand tools, I can tell you!  Brutal does describe the process, for a novice like me to systematically work all six sides, square every face to every other face, and some how make it to the finishing line without losing my mind. It was like the Rubic’s Cube from Hell, but on I went day after day, week upon week. It seemed an endless and at time fruitless task as slowly my block diminished right before my eyes, one chip of stone at a time.

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Point of no return

But once my cube was inspected for a final time and at last accepted and I shook the hand that had shaken every masons hand… all the way back to cathedral times, well, I  you could say I was somewhat hooked.  To achieve what I did with hand tools taught me a great deal about not only the act of carving the stone, but of the mysterious properties of stone itself. Hand tools have a habit of uniting the two in a way that modern tools wont and never will. For in squaring that block I think I learned more about myself than at any point in my life, and all of a sudden I had a brand new future to look out on. And what a ride it has been in the 21 years since.

No ‘lost art’, but a useful skill on which to call in an instant

Always there will be a place for hand tools and hand tooling in any professional carver’s workshop, now and into the future. I myself still have a great use for them as they quite often prove the quicker and more convenient option over their electrically or compressor powered rivals; but these days, it is fair to say that the bulk of my work is achieved by means of an arsenal of power tools. Suffice to say that such awesome machinery, to those who squared the block some 800 years ago, would I suspect quite make their ancient mason’s head spin.

Electric Kit, is It !

I think it true to say that the array of what I call my ‘electric kit’  – diamond blades, spinner pads, polishers and the like – allow me to remove more stone faster than any gang of a dozen or so men could have achieved a century, or perhaps even a few decades ago.  Which means that, compared to ancients Banker Masons, I can get through a whole lot of work in one lifetime – a task that I am thoroughly enjoying to this day. But more than that,  I am able to carve in a way that the ancients would have their heads shaking and eyes blinking in sheer disbelief.  I can only imagine their expressions as I tore into block after block, cutting through stone like butter, or so I suspect it would have seemed to them.

But it is not just the speed in which I cut the stone that would amaze my ancestral banker mason workmates, it would be just how fast and easily I am able to leave a finished surface behind.  Plus, and perhaps more importantly, given my chosen style of sculpting stone, what would truly amaze them is just how astonishingly thin I can carve the stone without compromising its tensile strength and structural integrity.  For with the tools they had no one could carve marble so unbelievably thin that light beams right through it, and in doing so spotlights hues, colors and swirls quite invisible to the eye otherwise.  With the tools that they had at hand – basically the same few hand tools with which I cubed the block at The City of Bath College – they would in no way be adequate in removing so much stone from such thin, thin walls.  The stone would have just been shattered to pieces by all of the pounding.  But with my trusty Electric Kit at hand I am able to carve for hours and produce an abundance of work compared to the output of Medieval banker masons, and/or sculptors.

And so, all things considered, perhaps it is not surprising that given the tools I have at hand my work does not resemble that of previous stone carvers.

The fact is that my sculpture, my carvings and designs, are forward looking and contemporary rather than traditional, even though they stem from the same long history of banker masonry, with its structural integrity, proven practices and long, long history of success.  Which is why my work is distinctive and probably unlike anything you have seen before – which is a comment I get often.  It is also why it is so well balanced and practical to own; a subject dear to my own heart.  For perhaps the most radical aspect of my work is how I manage to carve quite large dimensional sculpture yet have it weigh so little that I can simply pick it up and move it around with relative ease.  I mean, I am not a giant or a weightlifter or anything, but if I can pick it up and walk it around then….

“Light, portable and carved for full immersion in the real world”.  That’s my slogan and I am sticking with it.  The truth is that I hate the weight that plagues the stone industry.  Its not just difficult and awkward to manage, it can even be dangerous!  Marble weighs in at around 175 lbs for every cubic foot.  Think about that.  My sculpture – that is, practically everything you see in my gallery pics – is so light that I can pick it up, as I said, and move it around with relative ease.  Now, take a look at some of the dimensions that we are talking about and do the math, as they say.  Owning a piece of my work requires no heavy lifting gear, there’s no need to protect your floors as you move it from one room, or situation, to the next: simply hold the carving as close to your body as is comfortable – hug it in other words – and simply walk it to any place you wish, or get someone you trust and have faith in their strength to do it.  That way you will be able to display your treasure in any location you wish.  Think about that the next time you see a stone sculpture.  Ask yourself how much must that way?

Yes, I remove as much unnecessary stone as I am able, yet when its gone its gone, and what you see is but a fraction of the original block in most instances.  The majority of the stone is swept up off the workshop floor, leaving the actual work of art itself to be, as I said, simply picked up and walked around with ease.

In Conclusion: The NVQ and Me – what it has meant to me in the years since

It always proves quite tricky extracting something out of your life and wondering just how it would influence and change any and everything else. Indeed I think it quite impossible. So I will tell you just what that little credit card sized diploma meant to me back then: a new horizon of possibility. Now I was free to enter the big league and carve alongside men that had been carving for decades. In fact you could say that my real education in Banker Masonry was merely about to begin.

The Phoenix Masonry Crew, 2003

I owe a great deal of debt to a company called Bath Stone (who by strange coincidence actually owned the Yule marble quarry for a while) for giving me my first chance to make a pittance carving windows, lintels and doorways for the near completed ‘New’ Roman Baths, and so it was a lot of hand tooling, as you might imagine with a historic project of such high profile, allowing me to hone my new found carving skills. And when that work began to run out towards the end of 2001, I moved over to Phoenix Masonry, where I earned a slightly higher pittance churning out pallets and pallets of masonry destined for high end bank and financial institutions located within London’s booming Old City. Here I learned to swing a grinder around like a pro, utilizing all sorts of spinner pads, flat cutter (or ‘flush’ cutters as the say here in the states) with confidence and ease – skills without which I could never have carved any of my fine art and masonry work. Basically that means everything you see in my portfolio.

But to both companies I owe a debt of gratitude that in taking me on – as a sort of apprentice I suppose – I was able to take it all under my belt and really, really get to know how to carve stone accurately and with speed. And when I left Phoenix in the Summer of 2003 I felt ready, willing and able to take on the world, it was these skills, and this experience that I brought to Aspen and The Roaring Fork Valley, 18 years ago.

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Finally, what was it that I actually achieved in order to attain my Banker Mason NVQ Level 2 at The City of Bath College all those many years ago? Well, aside from all of the safety lessons, the field trips to various quarries, the history classes, terminology, tool names and usages on which we were tested, what I gained most was the confidence to take on any project that came my way – however large or small, complicated or simple, and accomplish exactly what I set out to do. And all that confidence I can testify that without cubing that stone – none of it would exist.

Four NVQ Level 2 Banker Masonry Test Pieces, City of Bath College, 2001 by Martin Cooney.

Above are the masonry test pieces that I would go on to carve, again with hand tools, after finally squaring the quarry block. Note the pediment springer (for that is what it is called as it springs the arch off the column, or pediment) to the right of the picture? Well, that was the first such piece to be carved in NVQ history, as the powers that be decreed that the course was ‘getting too easy’ (with hand tools?) and that a more difficult piece needed to be added to the curriculum in order to put thing right. I heard this news just as I thought I was through and done with the course, but no, I had one more (huge, as it turned out) hill to climb, and instead found myself working on this extravagant piece of classical architecture. I even carved it right alongside the course leader, Darren, who plotted and strategized with me on how to carve the arches, the raking section and all the complications a complicated carving like this necessarily demands. Not bad for a newbie. I also carved a few decorative pieces to achieve an additional credit in sculpture, though few pictures of them now survive but those shown below.

And so, you see, my NVQ Level 2 is far more than a formality along the way, it simply turned my world on its head and life has never been the same since.

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I’ll leave you with a little slideshow revealing something of the range I am able to carve thanks to my formal training as a fully qualified and experience Banker Mason turned Sculptor using the very hand that shook the hand that shook all the way down through the ages to the hands that built such mighty buildings the majestic cathedrals of medieval England.

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  • Maypole, Colorado Yule Marble Sculpture by Martin Cooney
  • 'Maypole', 'No Strings Attached', Autumn of 14 Collection
  • 'No Strings Attached' Hand Carved Marble Bowl by Martin Cooney
  • First Pictures of Maypole atop New Plinth, 15 September 2017 Aspen Colorado
  • Maypole marks the time of day in the new fallen snow. Sculpture Garden, Woody Creek CO
  • Maypole marks the time of day in the new fallen snow. Sculpture Garden, Woody Creek CO
  • Maypole marks the time of day in the new fallen snow. Sculpture Garden, Woody Creek CO
  • Maypole marks the time of day in the new fallen snow. Sculpture Garden, Woody Creek CO
  • 'Birth of a Guin', 1314 Winter Collection, Colorado Yule Marble Sculpture by MARTIN COONEY
  • 'Birth of a Guin', 1314 Winter Collection, Colorado Yule Marble Sculture by MARTIN COONEY
  • 'Birth of a Guin', 1314 Winter Collection, Colorado Yule Marble Sculpture by MARTIN COONEY
  • 'Birth of a Guin', 1314 Winter Collection, Colorado Yule Marble Sculpture by MARTIN COONEY

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Attaining My NVQ Level 2: at The City of Bath College

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thanks for visiting martincooney.com

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Martin