Interview with Jason Arkles


You may know Jason Arkles as the writer, producer, and host of the popular podcast The Sculptor’s Funeral, which every week dives into in-depth discussions of the history and practice of figurative sculpture. You might also know Jason as the former department head and principle instructor of the Sculpture Room at Charles Cecil Studios, or you may know his teaching atelier in Florence, Studio Della Statua. But what you likely don’t know is the story of how Jason first arrived in Florence 20 years ago as part of a travelling street circus without a lira to his name, and how from there he rose to become the only American living or dead with a permanent sculptural moment in Florence. We had our own in-depth chat with Jason about his life and his art.

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Sarah: Can you describe your sculpture training?

Jason: I learnt clay modelling and draftsmanship at Charles Cecil and then apprenticed myself at Pietrasanta to learn marble carving. I learnt bronze casting in the United States. There is no single school worldwide where you can go to learn all of the skills a sculptor needs to know, but the foundation is always clay. If you are going to do something in marble you do it in clay first – you make your mistakes in clay and then you fix those mistakes; when it looks exactly how you want it, you cast it in plaster and copy it. That’s how it’s always been done – not just back to the Renaissance, but back to ancient Rome, Greece, even the Egyptians.

To learn marble carving, you need fortitude and patience because it takes a long time to perfect. My apprenticeship was only 3 months long, and before I came to art school I worked in construction as a mason, so I already knew a little bit about stone technique/chiselling technique – I mean, I knew how it felt to hit a rock and break it with a chisel. And in fact learning the process of marble carving only took about 3-4 days – that’s not difficult. Becoming a proficient sculptor, however, is about doing it over and over again. That’s why you need fortitude and patience.

Sarah: So, you were previously a mason – had you always wanted to be a sculptor or, if not, what was the journey that brought you to sculpture? How did you get to where you are today?

Jason: The story of how I got here is the longest story I know! The short version is that I was working in theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – writing and directing and also doing set design, puppetry – that sort of thing. I had always been attracted to sculpture but I had never considered it as a career, because never for a moment had it ever been made clear to me that the kind of training I have now was even possible. There was nothing like it in the States, and largely it was a lost art – I had never seen anyone alive doing anything like the old masters. Had I been exposed to the possibility of studying classical sculpture I would have gone to it immediately for sure, but I wasn’t.

I had always enjoyed playing with clay, and in high school I had made puppets for a ventriloquist. I would make these little caricature heads out of modelling clay, and then later when I started to work in theatre I started doing puppet shows as well. Not children’s shows – regular theatrical performances. I then found out about a school in France for puppeteers, the best in the world. I spent a year preparing an audition for it, went to France, auditioned...and did not get in.

I was really upset, but I did not want to return to North Carolina and pick up where I had left off. So instead I travelled Europe as a street performer with a band of other street performers - we put together a little street circus. It was miserable and I hated it and I was homeless and penniless.

We went all through France and along the Riviera, Nice, and then on to Italy. Our plan was to go to Venice, which is a mecca for street performers, but one of our group said “hey, let’s go to Florence because I have a brother in Florence who goes to a little art school there – if we go to Florence we can take showers and sleep indoors!” So we came to Florence instead of Venice for that reason, and that art school was Charles Cecil Studios.

I should also explain that when I left the United States I had thought I was going to be in Europe for three weeks for this audition. By the time I arrived in Florence it had been 5 months, I had no money, I had thrown away my return ticket, and I was stranded. I hated street performing by this time, and I was looking for a way out. I mean it literally that I had no money: as a street performer I was making change and, since this was before the Euro, when I arrived in Italy all I had was a handful of change in Francs that was worthless to me. I had no money, no prospects, and was homeless. For the first 5 nights after we arrived in Florence, we actually slept on the floor of Charles Cecil Studios. We had arrived on the very last day of the summer term, and for whatever reason - whether he was looking for good karma or signs and portents from the universe - Charles was open at this particular moment to taking us in.

As it also happened, this was around the time that Charles was setting up an experimental sculpture department within his studios, and the brother of the guy that I was travelling with was actually the studio assistant who had been hired to build the new sculpture department. But he knew nothing about sculpture. He knew everything about sight-sizing, but he didn’t know about clay or clay tools or what a sculpture studio needs. From my previous experience doing puppets and sets, I knew about casting and mould making and clay tools. And so I volunteered to be his assistant. I modelled for the painting program in the mornings, and in the afternoons and evenings I worked on building and setting up the new sculpture studio.

Sarah: When did you become a student?

Jason: I never really did. By January 1997, after an enormous amount of work, we had the sculpture studio up and running and I was allowed to attend the first experimental class for free. I knew, however, that once the sculpture studio was set up, I was going to be less essential to Charles and the studio. At any point Charles could say ‘sorry, we don’t have any more work for you’, and if that happened I would literally be back out on the street. So I had to sculpt as though my life depended on it, because it actually did.

But, as fate would have it, the head of the sculpture department suddenly left shortly after the sculpture program started, and I was launched into the position. So, within a matter of 6 months of my arrival in Florence, I had gone from being homeless to being the head of the sculpture department at Charles Cecil Studios.

It took us about two years of experimentation to really crack the teaching method. What Charles Cecil wanted to do in setting up his sculpture department was to find a way to translate the sight-size method of painting and drawing into a three-dimensional process – that was his experiment. Although it is theoretically very similar to what painters do, the third dimension adds a lot of minor issues that aren’t readily apparent. It means that you get these strange problems arising – for example you would set up a half life-size figure sculpture like the painters do, then after a week you’d find that everyone’s figure had shrunk from the bottom up, with the plinth getting higher and the figure getting smaller. The problem lay in where you stand. Because you don’t have a canvas in sculpture, you can actually superimpose your sculpture over the model rather than placing them side-by-side, and wherever there is flesh you can put some clay. The shrinking-figure problem arose because the far end of the plinth would block the view of the feet, and so the natural tendency to correct this is to stand slightly closer so that the feet come into view. But then your feet appear to be too low so you correct it, and then the process keeps repeating itself. We also learnt that you can’t mark your position on the floor to sculpt sight-size, because you will have to rotate your figure and rotate your sculpture, and both will trace an ellipsis as they rotate, meaning that the correct observational point is always changing.

Jason Arkles | The Bathing Girl and the Sea Dragon (via jasonarkles.com)

Sarah: Can you explain where the sight-size method of sculpture fits within the history of the practice of sculpture?

Jason: It is fairly evident that the technique that I now practice and teach – which I developed at Charles Cecil – was around in the 19th Century. Specifically, there is plenty of good evidence that my technique is very close or nearly identical to the “French modelling” technique that was practiced in the mid-nineteenth century in Paris and in other places, but which died out (along with a lot of other art training methods) around the time of World War I. I had never experimented with any of these techniques previously – I started out by learning how to sight-size a portrait in two dimensions in charcoal, then I and a few other people figured out how to apply this technique in three dimensions.

Knowing nothing about art at the time, I thought that we would master this technique then start churning out work like you see around Florence from the Renaissance masters. But then I started to educate myself about art history, and I would look at my work and the work of my fellow students, and I realised that what we were producing more closely resembled nineteenth century French sculpture than the work of Michelangelo or Canova. We weren’t in fact doing classicism or neoclassicism, so what were we doing? I started researching the nineteenth century, and I started finding all this information about techniques that were used back then that we had ourselves stumbled into through our experimentation with translating sight-size from two dimensions to three dimensions. This made sense, given that the sight-size method is also a nineteenth century French method.

I can’t say that my technique is in fact identical to that of the nineteenth century French modelling technique, because – although it was ubiquitous at a certain point in time – the French modelling technique wasn’t something that was really written down. It was known by several different names - Gallicism or the French Manner – but it originated with one man: François Rude. Before the French modelling technique, everyone was doing things the same way at the École des Beaux-Arts, the main school in Paris where everyone came to learn painting, drawing and sculpture. Here, the French academic technique of sculpture was taught, which takes a constructivist approach to sculpting the figure. Understand that the 'French Manner' technique is different to the French academic technique. The French Manner originated with François Rude in the 1830s.

François Rude was himself a student and darling of the École, and he won the Prix de Rome in 1812 (a prize awarded to final year students of the École des Beaux-Arts which included 5 years of all-expenses paid study in Rome – like a graduate school for sculptors). However, Rude’s win coincided with the Napoleonic wars, and Rude’s vocal support of Napoleon meant that, when Napoleon was defeated in 1814, Rude fled to Brussels, where he remained in exile among Bonapartists for 12 years having never taken up the Prix de Rome. Instead, Rude established his own atelier in Brussels and experimented with a new way of working that was very different from what he had mastered at the École.

There was a lot recorded by Rude’s students about his technique, and in the year that Rude died one of his students printed a book that lays out his methods step by step. However, there are some problems with this book: it was written by a first year student who had never actually attempted the step-by-step process he describes, and there are things that don’t make logical sense. It’s actually a very poorly written book and there were only ever about 1500 copies ever printed.

From Rude you get this amazing family tree of his students: Rude taught Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Carpeaux taught Jules Dalou, Dalou went to London and taught in schools there, importing the French modelling technique into Victorian England and thereby instigating an entirely new form of sculpture that is still today called the New Sculpture movement and produced sculptors such as Alfred Gilbert. It’s personally my favourite genre or period of art history, and - not coincidentally – it’s the kind of work that I was looking at years ago when I was trying to understand the work that we were producing using sight-size methods at Charles Cecil. For example, I looked at the work of Gilbert and traced his style back to Dalou, then asked “well who taught Dalou?” and so on.

Sarah: A bit of a clichéd question, but who is your all-time favourite sculptor?

Jason: Probably Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. He was a transformative sculptor. He took this method that was invented by his master – Rude – and perfected it beyond probably even Rude’s dreams of how far you can push naturalistic work. Carpeaux was a student for 21 years – from 14 to 35 years old. Rude was his mentor at the École des Beaux-Arts, during which time Rude was teaching a method that was completely different from the rest of the instruction at the École, and no one liked him because of it. In the first place, Rude was producing great art, and second he was attracting all these students. The École was interested in teaching the official French academic method, and so Rude and his students were blacklisted from the Paris Salons and no student of Rude’s had ever won the Prix de Rome. But Carpeaux had ambition. So he said to himself ‘OK, I need to leave Rude’s atelier’ and went to study under Francisque Duret, and 4 years later he won the Prix de Rome.

Winners of the Prix de Rome were required to send work back to France every year (called an envoy), to prove that they were progressing and that the money being spent on their education was not being wasted. Bear in mind the Prix de Rome included all expenses, accommodation in a Medici villa, and everything you needed at your disposal, including models, marble, and assistants to carve the marble. So every year you had to send back work, and every year the works were required to increase in complexity: the first year is a relief, the second year is a figure, progressing to a multi-figure composition in the final year. Carpeaux’s final envoy is a piece of sculpture called Ugolino and His Sons, and it’s probably the finest piece of marble ever carved and the finest statue I can think of.

Ugolino and His Sons was revolutionary for so many reasons. Technically, Carpeaux perfectly combined the naturalism of François Rude with the anatomical French academic style, because Carpeaux had of course learned both. He melded these two techniques into something so fresh and so vibrant and so correct and so beautiful. He ties into the beau ideal – the classical ideal of beauty that was espoused by the academy – but he does so in a way that is so true to life and so natural.

Carpeaux is like the perfect storm of incredible talent, incredible ambition, and hard-headedness. Up until Carpeaux you had to choose one of 3 genres in which to work at the École – religious, mythological or historical art. The only literature allowed in art was the Iliad and the Odyssey (or anything Greek), a few Roman things, or the Bible. Ugolino and His Sons, however, is a story taken from Dante’s Inferno. It might not sound so shocking now, but it was revolutionary at the time, and Carpeaux had to fight for years to get it done. He was told no, but he said ‘tough, I am going to do it anyway’. As his work progressed it was evident that he was working on a true masterpiece, and so they allowed him to continue and gave him an extra year in Rome to complete it.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux | Ugolino and His Sons (via MMA)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux | Ugolino and His Sons (detail)

Sarah: How long did you remain at Charles Cecil Studios, and when did you start your own studio here in Florence?

Jason: I stayed as head of the sculpture department at Charles Cecil for two years, and then I went to Carrara to learn marble carving. After my apprenticeship in Carrara, I returned to North Carolina to set up my own small sculpture studio. I still returned to Florence every year for at least 3 months, sometimes 6, to teach a term at Charles Cecil. I continued this life split between Florence and North Carolina for about 7 years, but eventually reached a point where it was too exhausting and unsustainable. I was also questioning where I was going with my sculpture career. I wasn’t interested in getting into the gallery system; what I wanted to do was large monumental sculpture, but I was having trouble breaking this market.

And so in 2006 I was back in Florence for another 3-month stint, and by this point I was convinced that something had to change. I had a friend who was about to move out of her beautiful apartment above Saint Mark’s Church on Via Maggio, and I let her know that I would really like to move into her apartment when she left. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible because the church was just about to start extensive renovations of the building. But as I started thinking about this, and thinking about the church, I remembered that there was an empty niche on the church façade. I had noticed this empty niche eight years before in my second year at Charles Cecil, and at the time I had thought ‘wouldn’t it be an amazing thing to sculpt a Saint Mark for this niche’? I had even turned a student project into a pretend commission for this niche.

I thought, well, if they are renovating the church from top to bottom, maybe they want something for this niche? So one Sunday I woke up and decided to take my portfolio over to the church and meet the chaplain and ask him. Father Lawrence was his name, and I rather awkwardly explained to him that for eight years I had been dreaming of being the sculptor to fill the niche on the front of their church with a marble sculpture of Saint Mark. Father Lawrence freezes, turns to me, and says ‘I’ve been chaplain here for 5 years, and since I arrived I have been telling people that we need to find a sculptor to make a marble sculpture of Saint Mark… Do you do altars as well?’

I did the work pretty much for free, and a donor paid for the materials. But it all came about because I asked, and Father Lawrence gave it to me. Right person, right place, right time. I may not have gotten paid for the work, but I have been making money from it ever since. It immediately put me in a different class of sculptor, and I instantly received a year and a half of commissions. But these commissions were back in the States, and I knew that I was done with the States and wanted to move permanently to Florence. In 2009 once I had finished with these commissions I finally returned to Florence and opened up my studio here.

I still actually get more commissions from the States when I am living in Florence than I do when I am living in the States. In America I am just a local sculptor, but as a sculptor living here in Italy, people make all sorts of assumptions – prestigious ones. Being here is a great career move. Most of my commissions some from churches. When churches have some money to spend and don’t want off-the-shelf liturgical art, they come to Italy looking for it. Here is where the craftsmanship happens, but it’s also where you come for all the accoutrements of a church.

Aside from being based in Italy, there is another reason that most of my commissions come from churches, which is because I have specific training in sacred art. When I decided in 2009 that I wanted to live in Florence permanently, I started to look into how I could do that legally. Up until that point I had been returning to the States every 3 months and coming to Italy on a tourist visa, but I wanted to stay here legally as a self-employed person, which is almost impossible. However there is loophole – if you have a higher degree from an Italian state school in the field in which you work, you can convert your student visa into a permit to work. Great - I thought - except that I don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree. However, I found out about this amazing degree program entirely by coincidence – it’s a Masters Degree in Sacred Art for practicing professional artists and architects at a Pontifical Academy in Rome (i.e. a school run by the Vatican).

This degree was started by Pope Benedict XVI, who wanted to revitalise church art and bring it back to more traditional forms. The study involved learning the symbolic language of the Christian church, which is very precise and specific. There is religious art, and then there is sacred art. This Degree in Sacred Art was about learning what a church actually needs. When you’re a sculptor and you do a baptismal font, there are a very limited and very precise number of forms that it can take, and each form will be more or less correct depending on the entire fabric of the church. Everything in the church looks the way that it does for a reason. There is nothing accidental.

It was a very simple degree to get, involving 4 days a month every other weekend with 8 hours of lectures each day (in Italian). After 8 months I had a Masters degree that cost me a total of 400 euro. The degree put me in a very specialised echelon. I think there are only two other American sculptors with this degree, both of whom live in Florence (and are married to each other).

Jason Arkles | Apotheosis of Saint Mark (via jasonarkles.com)

Sarah: Given where you have reached in your career as a sculptor, you must get asked by students all the time for advice on how to have a successful career and land commissions. What is your advice to aspiring sculptors?

Jason: There is only one piece of advice that I can really give, which is that everyone achieves success in their own way. I know a lot of very successful sculptors and artists, and they are all successful in completely different ways. No one follows the same path. The one thing that you want to avoid is someone who tells you how to become an artist, because it’s absolutely different for everybody. If you don’t want to do the gallery system, then don’t do the gallery system. Don’t think that you need to please a gallery owner or the anonymous clients that come in and buy your work.

The first thing people often think when they leave school is: ‘I’ve got to get a gallery, I’ve got to get representation. So, first thing I need to do is to produce a body of work that will be attractive to galleries. What sells? Little bronze nudes, standing if possible so they take up less space on your mantel.’ So people come out of school and spend a year-and-a-half working on all these little bronze nudes with the aim of getting representation by a gallery. And that’s great, if that’s what you want to do – produce work that is like everyone else’s for clients that you will likely never meet.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a successful strategy, in fact it’s probably the most practical and sure way to make some money, although few sculptors do very well doing only this sort of thing. You need other ways to supplement your income such as teaching and commissions. For commissions you’ve got to find your niche. My niche tends towards marble – I am known as the guy who does marble and I get commissions because of that, and other sculptors will point people in my direction. I also specialise in portraiture – sight-size is the preeminent technique for portrait sculpture. I also specialise in sacred art. So I have a few different specialties.

Sarah: What is interesting about your specific set of specialities is that they all seem to have come about through a combination of fate, serendipity, necessity, and your own openness to opportunities as they presented themselves.

Jason: Yes, basically my career was dictated by how and what I learnt. But it’s not at all the case that I have been passive about things – for example when I first arrived in Florence in 1996 I was desperate to change my situation and I worked extremely hard to do so.

What unifies the work that I do is my attraction to narrative work. Narrative figure sculpture is something that people don’t do much of these days, and this is a function of how we train. You learn to sculpt a single nude figure – you don’t learn how to do drapery, you don’t learn architecture, you don’t learn how to make statuary. This is why my studio is called Studio della Statua (della Statua is also the name of the first sculpture manual ever written, by Leon Battista Alberti here in Florence).

If you look further back than the year 1880, the norm wasn’t beautiful little nudes; instead, sculpture told stories. Look back to the École des Beaux-Arts, where you had to choose a historical or religious subject – characters, situations, stories. No one does that now, so that’s what I like to focus on.

Sarah: I was going to ask if there is something that you have carried into your sculpture practice from your days in the theatre and as a puppeteer, but I think you might have already answered my question.

Jason: Yes – the thing that I have carried with me is story-telling. As much as I was a puppeteer, the other thing that I really dove into in the theatre was writing. I wrote and produced half a dozen original plays, so I learned a lot about how to craft a narrative. Actually, it was great to learn something and make a bunch of mistakes in a completely different field, so that when it came to translating this understanding of narrative to sculpture I had already figured out many of the challenges. My interest in narrative also informs the sculptors I like. If you look at Jean Baptiste Carpeaux’s Ugolino and his Sons – it’s inspired from a story, and that’s why it’s powerful.

That’s also why I was attracted to sacred art and religious art in general: because of the symbolic language – it tells a story. My training in sacred art transformed not only the way I look at art, but also the way I make art. I am highly conscious of symbolic languages and the types of symbols that you might imbue a work with. Even if no one gets it, it makes the work more important to me.

JASON IS TEACHING 2 RESIDENTIAL SCULPTURE WORKSHOPS WITH ART ESCAPE ITALY IN MARCH 2017, AT OUR BEAUTIFUL LOCATION IN LUCCA:

Figurative sculpture in clay, March 5-11, 2017

Portrait sculpture in clay, March 12-18, 2017

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See more of Jason's work and enquire about instruction at his atelier at his website www.jasonarkles.com

Jason Arkles | Portrait (via jasonarkles.com)

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