I have always been amazed at artistic people, particularly those who can make beautiful things with their hands. This is probably because I have very little artistic ability, and no creative instinct. I would never know what to make, or have the patience to make it! One place I find such awe-inspiring work is Zimbabwe. There, roadside markets of hand-made crafts are a popular attraction, and the most commonly sold items are sculptures made of soapstone.
Soapstone is a very soft stone, making it easy to chisel and easy to polish into a dark finish. Popular soapstone carvings are African animals, figures of families, or candle holders. At home I have 2 sets of soapstone bookends made to look like rhinos or giraffes, and in my office I have a much rarer piece: a United Methodist cross and flame!
One day last month I found some men working on soapstone sculptures which would later be sold. I asked them to show me the process by which these pieces of art are made. First, they showed me a light gray piece of rock – soapstone in its original state, an abundant rock in southern Africa. They take a hammer and chisel to that rock to create the rough figure of whatever it will be: an animal, a family or something else.
The next step requires a file and maybe some sandpaper to create smoother surfaces and greater detail. But it still looks unfinished. So the artist heats up the stone over a fire, then applies black shoe polish with a brush and cloth. The heat allows the stone to accept the polish more easily. When it cools, the product is finished.
Every time I go to Zimbabwe, I bring soapstone carvings back. To me, they are a visible reminder of two things. First, Zimbabweans sitting on the side of the road with rocks and tools in their hands create beautiful works of art in a way I cannot. I may have more money or more education than them, but they offer the world something I will never be able to give.
Second, these carvings remind me how God sees us: not as the ordinary rocks we are, but as the beautiful creations we could be. God takes a hammer and chisel to our shapeless forms, then files us smooth and warms us over a fire before the final step of polishing. Once we are polished, God gives us to the world as a hand-made creation, beautiful and unique. As Isaiah 64:8 says, “All of us are the work of [God’s] hand.” Not only that, but all of us are also beautiful in God’s sight.