A study by creative software company Adobe polled more than 5,000 working adults in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan and revealed that more than 75 percent of those employees felt as if they weren’t living up to their creative potential.
Even workplaces as diverse and innovative as Google can struggle with this conundrum — which is why the company allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their work week on projects that ignite their creative passions.
It’s little wonder, then, why so many experienced workers are leaving more lucrative jobs to establish their own creative endeavors or take up a creative side hustle. This month, South Sound Business talked to four such individuals who enjoy working creatively so much that they augmented, changed, or steered their careers in a direction to do so.
Set in Stone
In the late 1800s, the discovery of sandstone in the Tenino valley brought economic prosperity to the town, as it supplied material to construct sturdier and more permanent buildings across the state. Today, the Tenino Stone Carvers keep that history alive by continuing to practice the rare and traditional craft of stone carving.
Keith Phillips leans over a piece of Tenino sandstone, tapping steadily on the base of a chisel with a wooden mallet. His brow furrows as the chisel’s sharp nose chips away at the stone and deepens the braided details in the Celtic cross he’s working on. He seems not to hear the chatter of his fellow carvers and apprentices as he works in the back corner of his shop — The Shed — in downtown Tenino.
“When I get into a project, the whole world can just pass by. I like it all,” Phillips laughed when asked what he likes best about the unique craft that is traditional stone carving, which he has been practicing for more than 30 years.
The 72-year-old master stone carver is in the shop six days a week — a level of dedication that, by his standards, qualifies as “slowing down.” In many ways, Phillips’ talent and work ethic — and his willingness to teach himself the craft of stone carving via trial and error when he first discovered it in his late 30s — have been part of what has fueled a renaissance of Tenino sandstone decorating the city that once served as a hub for stone carving in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“When I came here in 1989, Tenino’s city council had just passed an ordinance that, for new construction, a certain percentage has to use Tenino sandstone,” Phillips said, referencing the ordinance created to pay homage to Tenino’s history. The city was largely built on the success of three sandstone quarrying companies that, at their height, employed hundreds and defined Tenino until their demise in the late 1930s. “I came here, and all the new businesses were wanting some piece of Tenino sandstone carved for them. So, I did one for the drug store and the grocery store and the church, the dentist, the doctor. And off to the races.”
It’s easy to believe Phillips has been honing his craft his entire life, when watching him lovingly chisel the stone. But actually, he stumbled across the art form at 38 while studying medieval English agriculture after graduating from Central Washington University in 1979.
“My dad was from Tenino, and his birthday was coming up,” Phillips said. “(I was studying), and I came across a book with a picture of a merestone — a property marker on acreage in England. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I can make that for my dad.’”
Phillips made a trip to Tenino, where he knew he could find malleable sandstone to carve the merestone because of the town’s three former quarries, where remnants of rejected boulders from decades past still can be found.
“One thing led to another,” Phillips said with a boyish smile and a shrug. “I made (something) for every member of the family, and for friends. And then I came down to Tenino and became a night watchman at the quarry so I could do it all the time.”
Stone carving is not an easy craft to hone, especially alone: It involves sawing, grinding, and moving large pieces of stone as well as studying traditional methods, which is best done under the apprenticeship of a master stone carver. Unfortunately, because the craft is in large part considered antiquated — and the work laborious and customers particular — there are few master stone carvers left, especially in the U.S.
So Phillips taught himself, with occasional guidance every now and again from old stone carvers who were still in the area. Apart from that sporadic advice, Phillips worked alone for decades — six and seven days a week — on projects including restoration work on the dome of the Legislative Building at the Washington State Capitol after the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, the Washington Temple of Justice, and Stadium High School.
And in 2014, after years of wishing he had a group of carvers to work alongside him, like the original carvers of Tenino had, he finally got an apprentice of his own.
“I took the bike trail out here (from Olympia) to check out the museum, and they told me I had to go meet the stone carver,” said Ed Salerno, 33, whose initial love of stone carving was as accidental and fortuitous as Phillips’. “Keith put out a piece of stone for me to try (carving) on — he likes to share stone carving with pretty much anyone who comes through the door.”
Phillips’ passion for stone carving was contagious and made Salerno excited to continue learning and practicing. He said that the rest is history: There were projects he could work on that he could be paid to do, and the work has stayed consistent and busy. And over the course of almost five years, there’s been plenty for Salerno to learn.
“It’s a totally unique skillset, and often the subject matter is new to you every single time,” he said. “If someone wants a carving of a horse, you have to go study horses’ sculptural anatomy. That’s in addition to knowing the tools you’re using and the stone you’re working with. It’s a combination of a lot of skills, and always using traditional methods.”
To continually hone their skillsets, stone carvers have to design their own projects to practice techniques they want to improve. Forty-two-year-old Dan Miller, who started working with Phillips and Salerno two years ago and with them acts as a managing partner of the Tenino Stone Carvers, recently made a bee bath from granite to practice the technical process of carving an octagonal shape and a shallow bowl.
“Apparently, bees need something to drink,” Miller said with a smile. “If no one is going to commission me to do something like this, I have to come up with a project myself to progress my own skillset. I’m not necessarily aiming to sell it; it’s just a technical challenge because of the shape. And it’s an effort to help the bees.”
Miller commutes from West Seattle a day or two a week to work alongside Salerno, Phillips, and other carvers who work in The Shed on a more casual basis. Originally from the U.K., he studied traditional stone carving at York College in England before moving to the States in 2010. He had a hard time finding traditional stone carvers to continue his apprenticeship under, he said.
“There are a lot of stone masons, but there aren’t really any traditional stone carvers like Keith with the kinds of skills he has,” Miller said. “I saw a video of Keith rolling out this sundial” — he gestures to a gorgeous, classic piece at the edge of The Shed with intricately hand-carved detailing — “and I knew right away that he was the guy I had to find. I thought I’d be coming down here as a hobby, just every so often. But these guys are really welcoming, and I’ve just been addicted.”
Salerno and Miller agreed that the success of the Tenino Stone Carvers is thanks to both the skill and passion brought by Phillips and the support and history of the city of Tenino.
“We have a really special thing here, and it’s made possible by the Tenino community because people have been super supportive of what we do,” Salerno said. “If any one of us tried to be professional carvers in any city that didn’t have this historical connection, it would be hard.”
In Tenino, though, this echo of the past reverberates loudly as three people — sometimes fewer, sometimes more — tap away at stone side by side in the small shop, dressed in traditional aprons and ties, the world disappearing around each of them. Wandering into The Shed feels like stepping into another place and time, where tools are simple, but designs are complex, and where finesse, patience, camaraderie, and commitment create impressive pieces of stone art.