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ART : The Spirit of the Stone Set Free : Zimbabwean artists polish rocks with sand and beeswax, then heat them to bring out an array of colors.

February 12, 1993|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for The Times

The imposing six-foot-tall stone old man weighing 1,800 pounds looks out at people lined up in the fast-food court across the mall. This isn't a typical shop at Glendale Galleria.

It's not a store at all, although everything inside is for sale until the exhibit closes. "The Elder" at the doorway of the recently empty store costs $50,000, but there's more affordable art inside for $30. It's a very spiritual art that is hand-crafted from big boulders and brought from Zimbabwe, Africa.

"When these artists pick up a stone or a rock, they see the form somewhere inside and they craft it without plans or sketches," said Laura Ponter, who helped bring some of the art to the United States. "They see the spirit in the stone."

When Santa Monica resident Ponter married her Zimbabwean-born husband, Anthony, 10 years ago, they traveled to his home country and visited his father, Hubert, who collected the Shona tribal art.

"I walked into his house and my jaw dropped; it was so beautiful and perplexing," Ponter said. "I thought African art was just wooden masks, so this shattered all my ideas of art from this region."

So the newlyweds changed their honeymoon plans and hiked through the bush to meet the native artists who carve the rocks. They watched the artists use old railroad ties and a hatchet called a badze to carve the form. The rocks are polished with sand and beeswax, then heated to 300 degrees in a fire to bring out the colors.

They have always used serpentine rock, which is white outside but has more than 200 colors inside. Until after the firing process, the artists are usually not aware of which bright colors are inside. Yet the bright colors form the plumage of birds or the clothing of the subject as if it were all well planned.

"They say they feel the form inside the earth and let it come out," Anthony Ponter said. "It takes six months to two years for each piece to be completed. We actually collect the stories from the artists of how they created the form and pass them on to the buyers."

The Ponters opened the exhibit Tuesday to honor Black History Month, and special awards were to be given to actors Marla Gibbs and Edward James Olmos for their community work. Half of the profits from the sculptures will go to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; they hope to raise $400,000 for the orchestra by the end of the exhibit.

For the 18 days that the exhibit is open, at least two busloads of children a day will see it through the City Hearts program, said Carol C. Ross, a trustee of the orchestra.

"Children can come in and touch this art," said Ross, who began collecting Shona art five years ago. "They react with such wonder and they come in to touch it, then sketch it and even try to carve similar figures out of Styrofoam. Then, they can see how hard it must be out of rock."

Shona art came to the attention of Westerners in 1971, when it was shown in Paris' Rodin Museum. Now, permanent collections are kept at the New York Museum of Modern Art and museums throughout the world.

Newsweek called Shona art "perhaps the most important new art form to emerge from Africa in this century."

Famous collectors struck by the art include Raul Julia, Jimmy Stewart, Sir Richard Attenborough, Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth.

Most people don't know much about the central African country of Zimbabwe, which means "stone house." The country has 10.5 million people, most of them in the Shona tribe, most living in huts and many without electricity. They have carved stones for 1,000 years.

The artists themselves have become wealthy, some earning $250,000 a year in a country where the average income is $800 annually. But, since selfishness is considered silly and families are very close, the wealth is often spread around.

Artist Richard Mteki, for example, supports an extended family of 65 from his earnings.

"It's more prestigious in their society that you be a good farmer rather than a good sculptor," Anthony Ponter said.

"They consider it a privilege to give your money to your family because you become munhu chaiye , in a most esteemed position," Laura Ponter said. "It's a level beyond yourself."

In one village, the money from art was pooled to dig a well closer to town so the women wouldn't have to lug large water buckets very far. Since then, five women in the village have begun to sculpt, which was previously unheard of for women because they had not had time.

The price of each piece is monitored by a Zimbabwean government art committee so that the artists aren't cheated. The Ponters, based in Sonoma, buy the art outright and sell it on their own. But for Anthony Ponter, 40, an international business consultant, the art is not a money-making venture, but an all-consuming hobby.

"I love doing this and, in the nine years we've been bringing this art here, we've raised $4 million for various charities," he said.

"This is our first time in a mall, however," Laura Ponter added. "And it's such a natural place. It's accessible, and it reaches people who wouldn't normally come to a museum."

Where and When What: Zimbabwean Shona sculpture. Location: The Glendale Galleria, Room 2184 on the second level, Colorado Street and Central Avenue, Glendale. Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28. Call: (818) 543-7578.

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