By: Sophie Edens, Public Relations & Marketing Intern

scholar rock

Scholar’s Stone, Unidentified Chinese Artist, 2013.019.125

Visitor, visitor, what do you see?

I see…uh, something? 

Here at the David Owsley Museum of Art, we have an unusual sculpture titled Scholar’s Stone located in the Frank and Rosemary Ball Gallery. 

It might not look like a scholar nor like a sculpture — that is because it was meant to inspire. It has no definitive shape and can be viewed in multiple ways. 

Scholar rocks — or gongshi — have been collected since as early as the Song dynasty (960-1279). They could have been smaller, more ornamental rocks kept in the studies of artists and scholars. Workers placed larger version outside in gardens for the scholars, artists, and household members’ viewing pleasure. 

It is the figure which made these scholar’s rocks so important. Though sometimes enhanced by human hands, the rocks were sculpted naturally by processes of erosion. These disfigurations were caused by nature. This natural transformation is viewed as beautiful. The beauty lay in the abstractness of the stone’s wispy forms, perhaps appearing like a cloud, a tree, or mountains. They are aesthetically pleasing and could help induce meditation and creativity.

By the Tang dynasty (618–907), four principal criteria were formed:

  • thinness (shou),
  • openness (tou)
  • perforations (lou),
  • and wrinkling (zhou)

These criteria identified the aesthetics of a scholar’s stone, such as when judging the larger forms found in gardens. Scholar rocks are meant to be rich in texture, naturally shaped rather than by human hand (although occasionally it was acceptable for artists to slightly alter the shape), a simple and lovely color, and most importantly, the scholar rock was meant to inspire.

When I view the Scholar’s Stone on display, I see a couple things depending on which angle I’m viewing. From the front, I see wispy disfigured clouds like those from the supernatural-horror film, The Haunting in Connecticut. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just Google it and you’re bound to see the image of the boy with clouds coming out of his mouth! I guess that means I’ll be creating some spooky art soon.

However, from the sides of Scholar’s Stone, I get very different images. From one side, I see the lean arched neck of a tiger with puffy cheeks and an angular head. On the other side, I see a caved in bonsai tree. 

It’s incredible how this one scholar rock can show so many forms, depending on who is viewing it. In my time as a guard, I had a young boy tell me he saw what looked like a superhero cape, but he also saw a dancing figure. His mother laughed, but I was amazed how I could see something so different. Yet that is the beauty of scholar rocks.

Come to the David Owsley Museum of Art yourself to view the Scholar’s Stone and see how it could inspire you!