A natural talent

Leo Atkinson's sculptures are fueled by fossils

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— Leo Atkinson emerged from a cutting room in the back of his workshop on Oak Street looking like an alien.

In a gas mask, goggles and ear protection over a green bandanna, Atkinson looked as if he were prepared for intergalactic travel rather than a groundbreaking mineral and fossil artist. But it's standard for the profession.

He peeled off his safety gear and began to talk.

"I spend half my time underneath this gas mask," Atkinson said.

Atkinson is cutting, polishing and shaping some of the most unique minerals and fossils in the world. The dust can be lethal, which is why he wears the gear.

On Wednesday, Atkinson was working on a huge piece of agatized coral, about 25 million years old. He pulled the piece out of a southern Georgia river himself 20 years ago and has been waiting all this time to work on it.

"This is probably some of the most interesting material in the world," he said.

Many people work with these kinds of materials, but what makes Atkinson different from most other rock hounds is that most of his work revolves around the imperfect pieces.

Most mineral collectors are interested in complete mineral specimens, not broken, imperfect pieces.

"I've figured out a way to utilize the broken pieces," Atkinson said.

He takes the imperfect pieces, which can be crystalline, agate or any other sought-after mineral, polishes them and mounts them with other minerals.

It's lapidary art, or mineral art, he explained, and it's something he's been fore-fronting in the world for about 17 years.

"I'm not trying to upstage Mother Nature," he said.

For the mineral art, he mainly accentuates what is already there.

Recently, Atkinson has shifted some of his attention to a different kind of art, using fossils.

The fine arts world doesn't recognize lapidary art, Atkinson said. Most buyers are people who have an interest in the mineral itself, not the artistic integrity behind it.

To attempt to break into the fine arts field, Atkinson has taken some of the ideas of lapidary art to create a style of sculpture that he believes is completely unique.

He creates modern sculptures out of fossilized rock.

About 10 years ago Atkinson began buying giant slabs of fossilized nautilus shells imbedded in African limestone. A nautilus is the spiral shell of an ancient squid-like creature.

Atkinson sees designs in the rock while the shells are still in the flat slabs and then draws them in. Using traditional sculpting tools, he carves the design around the fossils in the limestone. The shells can be the centerpiece of the sculpture or just part of the medium.

Atkinson is starting to get some recognition for his fossil art. On Sept. 8, he won best fine art sculptor at the Castle Rock Art Fest 2002.

To Atkinson, it's the same as other artists carving out of stone, but the stone has fossils.

"Sometimes I'm trying for a shape " he said. "But most times I just start and it's just what comes out."

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