From Pacific Grove native Matthew Glasby’s steady hands come precise and undulating curves of jade, cut thin as ribbon, allowing light to seep through the sculpture. When he’s done with a piece, it might be a tangle of geometric impossibility, an elegant shape of a foreign – but somehow familiar – face, or a raven, seahorse or fish. Whatever each might be, Glasby gives it a new agenda for beauty beyond what nature intended. Admirers can’t help but ask how he does it.
“Part of a person’s effortlessness at something is their stoke,” Glasby says. “If you’re doing something you love, you’re going to be working your ass off.”
This past year it was Glasby’s wrist, not backside, that he worked to the point of tendinitis. Using diamond-coated drill bits – plus improvised tools like an electric toothbrush he fitted with a piece of abrasive silicon carbide – he will sit carving for hours at a time.
Jade is revered throughout the world for its beauty and durability, but also its purported esoteric qualities: It is believed to give its owners prosperity, luck, love, longevity and emotional balance. The Chinese call jade “The Stone of Heaven,” and have been using it in ceremonies since the Neolithic period dating back to 3000 B.C.
For Glasby, jade certainly brings him prosperity: His sculpting sales allow him to work full-time as an artist; he also supports his mother-in-law and his wife as she studies acupuncture.
Like the Chinese, the Aztecs and Olmecs of Mesoamerica and the Maori of New Zealand used jade as a tool and for ritual purposes.
The Maori relationship with jade started soon after they arrived in New Zealand in the 10th century. Glasby finds the work there today an inspiration, a model of how to go past traditional designs to create an artistic dialogue that moves the form forward.
“Right now they are at the cutting edge of carving,” he says. “They aren’t working with just the cultural, indigenous element of design. They are using the medium to generate a new conversation with the stone.”
Generating a similarly pioneering exchange with the stone is exactly what Glasby is doing in California.
“We don’t have a rich tradition of a carving culture,” he says. “We get to invent the wheel as we go along.”
To continue that conversation Glasby does a lot of talking himself, leading lectures, teaching classes and participating in jade and gem festivals throughout the year. He frequents Big Sur’s Jade Fest, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and hosts workshops for carvers at Revelations in Stone in Fairfield, Calif.
His primary reasons for appreciating jade include its cultural significance and its durability.
“Jade is ‘The Stone of Heaven,’” he says. “I can push form in a good nephrite [jade] more than I can with any other stone – it’ll do what other stones can’t. Jade has the highest impact resistance and is the toughest of all stones.”
Glasby often shares instructor duties with Donn Salt of New Zealand, a legendary name in the jade carving world. Revelations owner Mike Burkleo is well versed in his professors’ pedigree.
“Salt is considered the finest jade carver in the world,” he says, “and in my life I’ve seen only one Matt Glasby. His work is equal to the best carvers. Right now Matt is the centerpiece and spokesman for jade carving.”
A couple of years ago his work garnered the attention of television producers: The Travel Channel found Glasby by calling jade dealers and jewelry shops for their show Cash & Treasures. The idea is to find a “treasure” in the rough, tap a local artist of high quality to transform it, and then have it appraised.
Host Kirsten Gum and local guides went diving at Jade Cove in Big Sur for a piece of jade, which Glasby had to turn into a pendant. The challenge: He only had one day to do it. (Normal works can take as many as 50 hours.)
“I had to rush,” he says. “I chose the nicest stone, and I had to come up with a design. It was all spontaneous.”
If that wasn’t pressure enough, he was filmed during the entire process.
The show aired in 2008; the finished product from Glasby’s workshop was appraised at Peninsula Gem and Jewelry in Monterey for $800.
PGJ staff say the show retained the pendant. Whoever ended up with the stone – just like anyone receiving a piece of Glasby jade this holiday season – will likely experience something Glasby’s work gives him regularly: stoke.