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Rock solid stone sculptor

Claremont-based stone sculptor Jim Coffman has a knack for finding beauty in ruins. Mr. Coffman, who runs Altered Stones on Mills Avenue in Montclair, loves to create designs from blocks of stone that resemble artifacts from a forgotten epoch.

“I like making things that look like they've been around for a long time,” Mr. Coffman said. “I don't know very many people who like to build ruins.”

Mr. Coffman’s background serves his interest well. He attended Pitzer College and received a dual degree in environmental sciences and anthropology, and became an expert on Meso-American cultures. But his love of crafting and creating went back further into his childhood, when he began making artifacts out of copper and coins with his father.

“I’ve been carving things since I was little. I’ve been carving for almost 40 years,” Mr. Coffman said. “My dad had a propane torch and we used to press silver dimes and hammer them out and polish them. Just very basic stuff.”

His love of carving stone has been seen in pieces throughout Claremont, from the distinctive sinks at Union on Yale to the fountainhead at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

Some of the sculptures scattered outside Mr. Coffman’s lot are reminiscent of the civilizations that have influenced him. There’s a massive Olmec head that took 100 hours over the course of 17 days to painstakingly sculpt; a beautiful statue reminiscent of Albert Stewart’s Indian maiden sculpture at Padua Hills Theatre; and a stone arch based on ruined Scottish abbeys that Mr. Coffman visited a few years ago.

“The arch was supposed to go in my back yard. It's based on a trip to Scotland three years ago,” Mr. Coffman said. “[I was] looking at ruined abbeys, and I realized that they built the arches and then carved them, so that's a project I may or may not finish.”

A lot of Mr. Coffman’s work is made to look old and worn—a little chip here and there, designs that are washed out, stone busts that are purposefully left unfinished. The perfect imperfectness plays into his fascination with worlds long gone.

“I love ancient things, so that's part of the sculpting,” Mr. Coffman said. “It's going places and seeing things and going like, ‘god, I want that.’ so I made it.”

Mr. Coffman’s passion has led him all over the world, from working with meteorite rock in Australia to encountering ancient megaliths in South America and petroglyphs in North America that are over a millennium old.

One of pieces he is most proud of is a stone sculpture, named “Silent Giant,” that was placed in the front yard of a property in Upland. It took Mr. Coffman six hours to create and about 20 hours to install, and the result is awe-inspiring—the nine-foot tall sculpture stands proudly in the front yard of the home, dominating the property and the neighborhood.

Mr. Coffman said he was “reticent” when the homeowner wanted to place it in front of his house, but it ended up beautiful.

“I saw the house and I thought, wow, that looks great,” Mr. Coffman said. “I thought it was going to overpower the house.”

Amid all the stone sculptures that stand in Mr. Coffman’s lot, he is in the middle of recalibrating. Tears of the Moon, a body jewelry manufacturer and Mr. Coffman’s main business for over two decades, shuttered in December 2015.

“Peak employment we had 86 [employees,]” Mr. Coffman said. “We probably made about 26 million pieces of jewelry in 15 years.”

At one point, Tears of the Moon supplied retailers like Hot Topic with different kids of body jewelry. But increased competition from different multi-national companies forced Mr. Coffman to shut down the shop.

Since Tears of the Moon shuttered, Mr. Coffman has been looking for other ways to supplement income. “It’s a whole new ballgame,” he said.

Now, his sole focus is on stone, building anything in different sizes, from bike racks to birdbaths to little crosses made out of alabaster. In fact, alabaster is one of his favorite stones to work with, due to the relative ease of creating things with it.

“Alabaster is dissolvable in water, so it's an indoor stone,” Mr. Coffman said. “You can really make some neat things with alabaster if you leave it out for five to ten years.”

He gets his rock by the truckload from sites along the southwest, in places such as Midland, Texas and Sinaloa in Mexico. Massive blocks of marble and limestone are patiently parked on his property, waiting to be carved.

He also works with meteorite on occasion, and recently made a meteorite lapel pin for Bill Nye the Science Guy for a fundraiser brought on by the Planetary Society and Claremont resident Robin Young.

“From what Robin tells me he really digs it,” Mr. Coffman said. “[He] got into a little fight with Neil deGrasse Tyson over it.”

Business hasn’t been as good as it once was, but Mr. Coffman continues to chip away on whatever he has on his property, continually inspired by what he has learned on his trips across the globe. The key to exercise a creative mind, he says, is to “just do something every day.”

“The reality is I get to do art. Which is fine, as long as I’m making stuff,” Mr. Coffman said. “I have to make stuff or I’ll go crazy.”

You can view Mr. Coffman’s work on his website at www.alteredstones.com

Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com