Lessons learned listening to ‘Silence’ at Grounds For Sculpture

Before Ayami Aoyama carves into massive pieces of rock, she begins by simply listening to what the stone has to tell her. In viewing her work on view at Grounds For Sculpture through September 18, aptly titled Silence, a visitor would be wise to listen to the stone along with her.

“Ayami’s sculptures resonate with the natural world,” says GFS Curator Tom Moran. “Her contemplative works are imbued with… imagery she has unleashed from a Pandora of possibilities… she is able to recognize the moment when she has essentially unlocked the form she is seeking.”

Looking at these weighty works in stone, I can’t help wondering how the artist transports her enormous rocks from here to there. Some weigh more than a ton. “There are tools,” she says, such as a chain hoist. “Some guys try to muscle it, but I listen and approach it gently.”

Working from her home in the Harbourton section of Hopewell, on five acres she shares with her husband, artist Rory Mahon, Aoyama calls her studio”a junkyard of brick, wood, stone and mirrors.” There is a foundry Mahon built on the property, with an air compressor that helps to power a hammer. Aoyama acknowledges that accidents happen, and the couples’ two young sons, who occasionally help out, are taught appropriate safety measures.

Summer is Aoyama’s favorite season, because the long hours of daylight mean she can get more work done in her outdoor studio. During shorter days, by the time she gets home from work she may only have 30 minutes of light, but now she gets a full two hours before she has to go inside to cook.

Water is inspirational, she says, and is part of the process for polishing. “Water makes the stone shinier, and you can see more grains and patterns that are always there but the water brings out.”

One of the water-inspired works at GFS, “Water Crystal,” spins on a custom-made lazy Susan; it is made of a French blue granite. “I wanted to present the stone as weightless, to be kinetic and to show its freedom,” she says.

Aoyama is a supervisor at Antiquity Stone in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which does the fabrication for Jeff Koons’s sculpture. “His work is very precise, the opposite of what I do,” Aoyama says. Before she took that job, she was senior staff sculptor at the Digital Stone Project in Mercerville, and before then, a sculptor and instructor at the Stone Division, across the street. While at the Stone Division, she repurposed parts of stone that were cut off from clients’ work to use in her own.

She likes to contrast smooth shiny surfaces with rough and raw edges to show the beauty of the material and compares it to the masculine and feminine in the rock. “You can see clear patterns inside. I enjoy pounding it, cutting it. It smiles to greet you in the sunlight. The broken edge has a raw powerful feel, like the Earth is broken. For me, the first cut is rich, like a baby speaking its first word or contact with an alien—the curiosity for the material keeps me going, discovering new things.”

Born in Aichi, Japan, Aoyama grew up surrounded with myths and stories that fueled her. “I grew up in a dreamlike old castle town,” she recounts. “The castle used to be an orphanage and spirits of the children were everywhere. The next door neighbor swept every evening at the hour the children’s spirits were to have come. I was always feeling these encounters.”

She adheres to the Japanese proverb, “Eight millions gods dwell in everything.” It explains her belief in the forces in the stone.

“There’s a god for everything,” she says. “For stone, for the kitchen, for the bathroom, even a needle. Stone sculpture is something beyond me. When I finish a piece, there is some kind of spirit, a character beyond my reach.”

As a painter, Aoyama came to the U.S. in 1996, studying at the Art Students League in New York. While there, she became interested in stone carving, inspired by the work of Isamu Noguchi. Sculptor Jonathan Shahn was teaching clay modeling in the classroom next door. He observed how passionately she worked and recommended the apprenticeship program at the Johnson Atelier Stone Division.

The Madonna theme emerges in several of her sculptures, including one titled “Madonna” in Italian premium carving marble. “I knew if I carved into the white I could bring out the pink warmth,” she says. “It had something hidden, pink crystals like someone’s heart. I could guess from the outside.” She saw in it the pureness of a female and a womb-like container. “I only know Madonna as a stylistic image, not religious.”

“I’m lucky to have this exhibition,” she continues. “Stone is so heavy and involved, you can’t just go and place it like paper. I have so much gratitude for the stone. With this show I am saying ‘thank you.'”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal