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Publication Date: Friday Aug 13, 1999

Sculptor taps into the unconscious

Peninsula resident finds beauty in stone

by Kendra Behling

His hands are coated with a dark, dirty film. The lines on his palms are etched with black dye. The crevices around each fingernail are rough and cracked. These are the hands of an artist, the hands of Redwood City sculptor James Stoval.

For Stoval, sculpting is just "what comes naturally," he says. Smooth and modern, his pieces can be found around the Bay Area as well as with collectors throughout the United States and Europe.

One of Stoval's more prominent works sits in the front yard of a home at the corner of Cowper Street and Lincoln Avenue. The 4,000-pound sculpture is in the shape of a Chinese coin--a circle with a square in the middle--and Stoval further distinguished the piece with a concentric heart around the center square. The Italian title of the piece translates to "doorway of dreams."

"Carving into stone is what I call positive violence," Stoval says. "It lets you tap into the unconscious and free a certain spirit."

Stoval appreciates being able to use his artwork as an avenue of expression. The most rewarding aspect of being a sculptor, Stoval says, is "being able to enjoy others enjoying my work. Enjoying the interaction of that moment is an amazing, whimsical experience."

Stoval, who is in his 50s but declines to give his exact age, began his sculpting career in the '60s, after serving a 25-day jail sentence in Santa Cruz. He had been sentenced for possession of 3 grams of marijuana.

"My prison experience didn't consciously make me think I wanted to be an artist, but it was more of a feeling. I knew I didn't want to do that again, so I decided to get high on something else," Stoval says.

Being given some stone and a chisel while spending his 21st birthday in jail helped Stoval move in the right direction.

"It was a creative wake-up call for me," Stoval says.

Since discovering his artistic talents, Stoval has created numerous sculptures for private homes as well as public arenas. He recently created a multimedia piece made of wood and stone for Palo Alto's Harmony Bakery, and he plans to create a heart-shaped sculpture for the bakery's front lawn on Middlefield Road.

Stoval has two pieces displayed at the Menlo Park Civic Center, including one entitled, "Raul Where are you?" The work is a monument to Raoul Wallenburg, the Swedish businessman and humanitarian who saved more than 100,000 Jews during World War II.

Some of Stoval's other sculptures can be seen at the Redwood City Government Center, where a large marble piece entitled "Shalom" stands, and at San Francisco City Hall, where his sculpture "Madonna" is displayed.

While a sculptor by profession, Stoval also dabbles in antique restoration, high-end home construction or "anything else dealing with good aesthetics."

Stoval says one of the best parts of his work is creating monumental sculptures for outdoor display.

"There I get to share it with so many people--share the beauty," he says. "If you reach just one person with your work, then your statement is complete."

Stoval is currently restoring a sculpture created by Benniamino Bufano in 1955. Twelve feet tall, the piece depicts a giraffe reaching up to the trees.

"The giraffe is typical Buffano," says Stoval, who recently acquired the work. "He loved to do animals and children, because they are believed to be closest to the supreme being."

The sculpture is made of lead hammered over wood. Stoval hopes to find a sponsor interested in making bronze casts of the work and displaying them in public parks and businesses.

"It's important for me to enjoy my work and enjoy myself. It would be fun for me to make bronze casts of the giraffe, for other people to enjoy," he says.

Another work in progress, now residing in Stoval's front yard and work space, is a 6-foot female torso being created for a European collector. For this sculpture, Stoval finds inspiration in a friend who comes to play the violin and model for the piece. Some of Stoval's sculptures are scattered around his house. One in particular portrays an intimate, intertwined mother and child.

"The idea of a mother and child is so nurturing, so universal," he says. "Creating that was exciting. It's a labor of love. I just keep adding what I can add."

Stoval says his art is a personal and gradual expression. He says that, occasionally, writing a poem before he starts a sculpture will help inspire him and jump-start the expression of an idea he eventually will mold into stone.

Stoval hopes to expand his career and to teach people the art he so enjoys.

"To teach people how to get high through the creative process would be an amazing thing to share," he says. "I would love to help people express themselves in a nonacademic way."