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Mick Oakey: Living a Life of Luxor

Mick Oakey stone carving

First Published on 31st January 2017

 

The demise of skilled stone carvers in Egypt’s historic cities inspired Dial Post Egyptology enthusiast Mick Oakey to give it a try. Using traditional methods, he now chips away at his own tributes to the Gods.

It’s been called “the world’s greatest open air museum” for its ancient monuments, temples and tombs.But whilst people from all over the world flock to Luxor to see the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, not everything is the real deal.

In fact, it was the cheap imitation stone carvings being flouted to tourists that inspired one Egyptology enthusiast to create his own sculpted portraits.We spoke to Mick Oakey, keeping Egyptian traditions alive in the unlikely setting of Dial Post.

How it all began…

My interest in Egypt stems from my childhood. I still have the old family encyclopaedia that I loved when I was young, and the most thumbed pages are the Ancient Egypt and Aviation sections. In 1972, Tutankhamen’s treasures were displayed at the British Museum and as an 11-year-old my parents allowed me to travel to London by train on my own.

A first trip to Egypt...

 I first visited Egypt in 1985 with my wife, and we have returned many times since. On each occasion, I would bring back a souvenir made by one of the many skilled craftsmen. However, since the turn of this century, most of what is sold is no longer handmade. Instead, it is made with cheap Chinese resin and is useless by comparison. On my last visit, I found only one man carving using traditional methods. There used to be 20 such men working in Luxor alone. With so much rubbish about, I said ‘I can do better myself!’ to which my wife responded, ‘Well, why don't you then?’

 The skills were there…

I misspent my youth making model airplanes. If you need to work out how to replicate a spoked wheel or an instrument panel, it is just a matter of problem-solving and you learn different techniques. Stone carving is similar. It is a matter of buying the right tools and figuring things out. After a little trial and error, I read books on Egyptian stone carving and discovered I wasn’t going too far wrong.

A good workman...

I like to make replicas of the things from Ancient Egypt that inspire me. So, whilst I use modern tools, my methods are not hugely different. An Ancient Egyptian carver would have used copper chisels, which would have needed to have been sharpened every six strokes by an assistant, who would ensure the craftsman had a constant supply of freshly sharpened chisels. With all the will in the world, my wife wouldn't be prepared to do that for me! I use a variety of different sized chisels, as well as dental tools when carving out the eyes and the finer details.

One chunk at a time...

For most of my carvings, I use Portland Stone, which I source directly from a quarry in Portland. I bought seven gravestone-size slabs of limestone and they are  stacked up in the garage. I chop off a chunk when I want to create a new sculpture. When carving, you can either use a ‘sunk relief’ technique, which is carving down into the stone, or ‘raised relief’, where the background is cut away. With sunk relief, it is hard when you are working around the crevices. Carving nostrils can be a nightmare! 

It’s all for the Gods...

You rarely see a frontal portrait in Ancient Egyptian work. The Egyptians didn't have any compunction about twisting the body around, so you would have a face sideways, then the front of the body and the feet would be turned sideways, because they wanted to show the essence of every part of the body. It is all about symbolism as this was all created to please the Gods. When you visit a tomb or a temple in Luxor, the carvings can be very high up, where few people can see them. Yet they are made with the same degree of care, because they were not made for people to see.

Bastet, the cat Goddess...

My first carving in 2011 was of a small female figure carved in a stone plaster tablet. I have carved the goddess Bastet as a cat, which is a piece inspired by the famous bronze Gayer-Anderson cat in the British Museum. Another limestone piece depicts the lioness Goddess Sekhmet, based on a figure in the Temple of Kom Ombo in southern Egypt. It is typical of Ancient Egyptian sculpture, in that it depicts a Goddess of human form with the head of an animal. Another shows the upper body of nobleman Ramose. It took me about two years to pluck up the courage to start on his elaborate wig!

Carving is a hoot...

My signature is an owl emblem - the Egyptian hieroglyph for M. The marks next to the owl are Ancient Egyptian numerals specifying the year the piece was carved. The upside-down U is a 10, and each vertical stroke is a one.

Carving a full picture...

Egyptian stone carving is only something I can do in my spare time, as I am Managing Editor of a quarterly magazine called The Aviation Historian which takes up most of my time. The big carvings can be time consuming, each taking about 60 or 70 hours to complete. I rarely carve for more than a few hours a day though, because it’s easy to lose concentration. Backache can cause you to make mistakes and there’s little room for error. If you chop off a nose, you can't put it back on! 

Improving with age...

I have certainly improved my technique over the years. I look back at some of my early carvings and can see imperfections, although to most people they may look okay. One of the nice things I can do is repair damage that is in the original Egyptian carvings. Many have been damaged through time, but I can repair that damage to a degree in my own carvings and fill in those missing parts. 

The appeal of Ancient Egypt...

I am vice-chairman of Sussex Egyptology Society, one of about 30 regional Egyptology groups around the country. There are many people interested in Egypt, which is why there are often TV programmes about it on documentary channels. If you go to the British Museum, the Egyptian section attracts far more visitors than even the Roman and Greek sections. People are fascinated by the mysteries of Ancient Egypt, so my work is generally well received by the public.

Something different at the ASA...

I exhibited work as a guest at the Association of Sussex Artists (ASA) exhibition several years ago, after which they invited me to become a member. Most of the carvings I create for the ASA are speculative, so sometimes they sell and sometimes they don't. Nobody else in the ASA was making this sort of art, which is probably why I was asked to join. The response from the public has been good and in the first year that I exhibited, I was given a joint first in the sculpture category of the public vote, which I was thrilled with. 

Moving Away from Egypt?

I am also inspired by nature, mainly things in the garden, so I have also carved leaves and animals too. Friends have suggested that I try different styles, perhaps sculpture from the temples of India. But Egypt is what I'm truly passionate about.

For more information on Mick’s stone carvings, as well as jewellery and other products he makes with wife Lynn, visit www.iret.co.uk

Mick Oakey stone carving
Mick Oakey's Ramose Noblewoman
Mick Oakey stone carving
Mick Oakey's Sekhmet