FLORENCE — Powdery white dust drifts through the air and gas-powered hammers buzz as three award-winning carvers examine their immense limestone pieces in the open-air, unmarked Florence studio.
The artists of Texas Carved Stone were the top three winners of this year’s Take 190 West sculpting competition in Killeen.
For Bob Ragan, Shelby Haggerton and Larry Hullum, the rivalry remains friendly and supportive despite who wins the top prize.
Ragan and his wife, Mary Condon, opened Texas Carved Stone in 1987. What began as a small business for the couple quickly expanded into the national venture it is today. Though both Ragan and Condon hail from outside the state, they settled in Florence and, unknowingly, in the midst of the limestone industry.
Initially, working for a stone mill company doing masonry work, “it was a natural progression into carving,” Ragan said. “I was always a creative person, painting, drawing and sculpting before realizing I could make a living carving.”
The vast majority of the shop’s commissioned work today is architectural carving, though Ragan, Haggerton and Hullum enjoy spending time sculpting. Luckily, there are often sculptural elements to their architectural work, usually in their fireplaces and mantels.
From Swift to Jewett
Haggerton joined Ragan and Condon as a shop hand a year after they opened by pure coincidence. At 17, his car broke down near the shop’s original location, and Haggerton met Ragan. Twenty-one years later, Haggerton is more vital to Texas Carved Stone than ever.
“After about a year in the shop, he picked up a chisel and hammer, and now he’s one of our best carvers,” Ragan said.
Recently, Haggerton traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to carve a fireplace commissioned by musician Taylor Swift.
“I lose myself once I’m in the middle of a piece,” Haggerton said. He is currently sculpting for a cemetery, in addition to his carving work.
Hullum fell into carving after applying for a job at the shop 12 years ago, following a move back to his hometown from the Dallas area. Sculpting is how he fills his free time during the evenings and on weekends. Three pieces of his are on display in the state, including one in Jewett — the sculpture capital of Texas.
Texas Carved Stone also is working on a project for Highland Park Town Hall in Dallas County.
“Most of our work is fireplaces for high-end, multimillion dollar residences,” Condon said.
When they have a project as expansive as the architectural design of the town hall, they will allot a substantial amount of time to complete it. A project’s timeline can vary greatly depending on the detail and complexity of each piece. A typical fireplace can take anywhere from 14 to 16 weeks, from design conception to completion.
Their local architectural work mainly ships to Dallas, Houston and Austin, where more large-scale residences are found. Outside of Texas, the shop ships work across the United States, ranging from Colorado to Connecticut. Though they completed one job in Mexico, they don’t consider themselves to have worked internationally, Condon said.
She is responsible for keeping all three artists in line, a role she juggles along with her title as mayor of Florence. Running the shop can be a full-time job, Haggerton said. Condon handles the financial side of the business, dealing with people and paperwork. Their office features the crew’s sculptures, paintings and drawings, with a few friendly cats nestled among the art.
Condon and Ragan created the art competitions in Florence as a way to bring carvers together on a regular basis. L’Arte Antica was held for the sixth year at The Vineyard in Florence in April, as a part of the town’s Fine Arts Festival.
The contest draws artists from all over Central Texas, as well as fans who gather to enjoy wine tastings, live music, and of course, the artwork.
As for Killeen Take 190 West, this year, Hullum took first, Haggerton second and Ragan third.
“It’s hard work to go from a block to a piece in two days … it’s really something to see,” Hullum said.