Meghan Shogan Carves a Career Path Through Solid Rock
With hammer, chisels, and steel brushes in hand, the Austin artist is on a trajectory in stone
Meghan Shogan is a stonecutter. Hammers, chisels, calipers, steel brushes against rough raw rock: Shogan carves stone for her art and she carves stone to make a living and sometimes those two areas overlap.
Imagine a Venn diagram that's more than half marble, more than half limestone, and there's Shogan in the middle – working in her East Austin studio in the relative wilds behind Callahan's General Store, dusted with rock powder, chipping and scraping away at a chunk of inorganic material that was around before dinosaurs walked the earth, turning more of this planet's base matter into creative gold.
Shogan ran Vault Stone Shop, on South Congress Avenue near St. Elmo Road, for a while – from May 2018 until April 2021 – using the venue as her residence and base of operations, hosting the works of other local artists in the intimate space even as she plied the dirtier part of her painstaking trade elsewhere. The gallery officially debuted with the East Austin Studio Tour of 2019, and then ... Well, then came COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, as we recall all too well, and the stonecutter and community champion pivoted to displaying a series of group shows – with the works visible through Vault Stone Shop's huge front windows.
Paintings and drawings, etchings and prints, even the odd more-than-two-dimensional object, adorning the gallery's vestibule for public walk-by pleasure. Works by Navasota Sering, Saul Jerome E. San Juan, Darcie Book, Virginia Fleck, Ender Martos, Jade Walker, Valerie Chaussonnet, Steef Crombach, Jeffrey Primeaux, and others, all arrayed for graphic impact and providing a respite from the relentless Zoom-restricted exhibitions of embodied creativity. Month after month after pandemic-masked month.
And here we are now, in the Second Year of Our Plague, with a continuing struggle against virus variants and only a hope of eventual return to, ah, normalcy. And Vault Stone Shop is gone, shuttered and sold, with Shogan having found new living arrangements and continuing to trip the light rocktastic out there in the bucolic hinterlands south of the river. She's working on a major residential project for some wealthy clients, currently, coaxing solid matter into precise forms required by structural imperatives. She's trying to make time for her own lithic expressions. Whether for art or money, she's doing what she's done for decades.
But – how did Shogan's chisel-wielding journey through solid earth begin? What is it that pulls a woman into the arduous realm of stonecutting in the first place?
"A lot of people ask me that," Shogan says. "I just – I didn't know what I wanted to do after high school in Pittsburgh. I wanted to do art, but my family wasn't very supportive of that. I actually went to SCAD for one semester, before I freaked out and quit. I felt like I didn't belong, like it was all art kids – and I wasn't from that background. I'm from a middle-class family, and they weren't super artsy – my family's all engineers or steel mill background – and I felt like I didn't fit in. Like I wanted to do something that wasn't art. So I kinda freaked out and quit and just worked for a while."
But even that work wasn't in stone – or set in stone.
"I moved to Arizona," says Shogan, "and was doing a bunch of cool outdoor jobs – trail-working and stuff like that. I did one season of firefighting and decided that I really liked hands-on stuff. And then a friend of mine told me about a college in Charleston, South Carolina, where you could learn traditional building trade. And I was really interested in old buildings and architectural history and ancient monuments and things like that; I was interested in stone. And they have all kinds of programs – you can pick from wood, plaster, stone, metal. So I ended up going there."
Charleston's American College of the Building Arts is where the woman who more recently carved a book out of Texas limestone first hit the literal books, and where she literally hit the rocks.
"They try to give you everything," says Shogan. "There's just one path, not a lot of electives. It was a really teeny tiny school – I was the third class that they graduated, and we had five people graduating. We learned drafting and computer-aided design. We did business classes. We did, like, building science in general: construction management, math, all that stuff. The stone focus of it was mostly workshop stonecutting."
And that's called masonry, right? Not like the mystic fraternal order or whatever, but actual stonemasons?
The artist nods. "So, for a piece of stone that's going to go on a building, there's two different kinds of masons: one who would make that stone, and one who would install it. But at school we did a lot of brick- and concrete-block-laying, a lot of concrete work and stuff, too. And, back then, the college didn't have any power tools. We did it all by hand for four years." Following which, Shogan moved to France, where she joined a cult.
Well, kind of.
"There's this thing called the Tour de France," says Shogan, "and it's not the bike race. It's a trade school situation, where you leave home when you're a teenager and, instead of going to normal high school to do academics, you do this. It's super hardcore, and a lot of people quit – they don't like the lifestyle, because you have to leave home and go live in boarding houses. It's very old-school and weird – the French people consider them a cult. The students spend a year in a different city every year, in a boarding school, and they go around and work during the day and are in classes at night and on the weekends. It's a 10-year program, and they have different places in every city, different companies they work for, and they travel around and do that for seven years. Then they have to build a masterpiece that's accepted, and then they have to give back for three years – as teachers, helping to run the boarding schools."
Shogan, however, didn't put a decade of her life into this program. "I applied for a fellowship, which was being offered to Americans, and it was like a stop along the way. You could spend a year with a bunch of people who were already in that process. So they threw me in with the others, and they were all way above my skill level. And the workshop is one of the best in the world, and it's hard for French people to get into it, and I just got it handed to me. Which made things pretty tough: They definitely let me know that I shouldn't be there. But I learned more there than I had in the four years previous. I ended up staying for a year and a half."
And thus endeth the lessons, at least formally, for Meghan Shogan. But artists are always learning as they work, of course, and Shogan learned that she could work in Austin – so she moved here in 2012. "For Joseph Kincannon of Kincannon Studios," she says. "They used to be called Archaic, and they were a little stonecarving studio in East Austin, on – Fifth and Pedernales? Joseph's one of the few classically trained stonecarvers in the United States, and he does beautiful work. I really wanted to work for him, and he said that he had work for me, so I came down to work for him." Eventually, though, after 20 years of running a shop and accomplishing many large scale projects locally and nationally – and teaching, training, and running crew – Kincannon and company chose to downsize, to focus.
"I hung around Joseph's shop for five years after I stopped working for him," says Shogan, "and he provided me continuous advice, mentorship, and use of his shop – for free." But steady employment in stone had dried up. So Shogan turned to construction.
"I just kind of weaseled my way into the office of a company and worked my way up," she says. "And, finally, I was a project manager and site superintendent. But that whole time, I was feeling like, it took me so long to learn stonecarving, and I put so much heart and soul into it, and I'm not willing to give it up."
Which led to a greater engagement with the local arts community. And to Shogan's participation in Big Medium's East Austin Studio Tour. And in Northern-Southern Gallery shows, too, such as the late 2019 "WORK PLAY MONEY LOVE WHAT IT IS WHAT COULD BE BOTH NEITHER ART DESIGN" exhibition that revealed Shogan's Fossilized book carved from Texas limestone. And to Vault Stone Shop.
"Philip Niemeyer of Northern-Southern was super kind from the very beginning," says the stonecutter. "He was like, 'Come on over,' and made me tea, and we sat down and talked and brainstormed and had great conversations. He asked me to be a part of that "Work/Play" show. I met a ton of people and made a lot of friends, and I feel like I'm part of the community now. Sean Gaulager from Co-Lab has a barn out behind Callahan's that he rents, and there's a bunch of people sharing it. There's an arborist and some woodworkers and other people, and now I have a shop space there, too – just a patch of dirt, really. And a toolbox, and some shelves. I want to build it out and have a workshop out there. And I really want to make more of those books. I hardly do any abstract stuff at all. It's either architectural, for a building, and someone else has designed it and everything has to be cut to a millimeter accuracy. Or, personally, I like magical realism – where the object looks kind of real but there's something weird about it. Like that book, or the cowboy hat in marble."
And carving rocks for a living? Creating enduring works of intricate beauty from such unforgiving material? That's kind of magical, too, isn't it?
Shogan shakes her head, golden hair shifting in vertical planes.
"Stonework is filthy," she says.