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In the Studio: Cody Swanson

by Allison Malafronte

Cody Swanson standing in front of his 2017 sculpture Our Lady Queen of Peace ( Mandeville, Louisiana)

Cody Swanson has been sculpting sacred subject matter out of his studio in Florence, Italy for more than fifteen years. Working in clay, plaster, marble, and bronze, he takes on major commissions from churches in Europe and America and is also on the faculty of the Sacred Art School in Florence. Although he has a wealth of source material and historic knowledge at his fingertips in Florence and in the nearby sculpture centers of Carrara and Pietrasanta, he is often called on to create in the United States, where he says there is a classical architecture and sculpture revival happening in many of the newly built churches. Here the artist discusses that topic further, as well as how he attains commissions, his sculpture process from concept to installation, and his love of disegno

AM: Where is your studio currently located, and why did you decide to base your working space there? (Studio location is an especially important decision for sculptors, who need to be near foundries and places to source their materials, yes?)

CS: My studio is in the Sacred Art School of Florence, where I teach sculpture. The school was founded to establish a traditional atelier or bottega environment in service of the Church, where students can train academically while also working alongside instructors on advanced projects. The proximity of foundries is an advantage, although I still have to commute regularly to Carrara and Pietrasanta, where I spend a lot of time carving marble. I am actually currently moving into a larger private studio in Florence, where I hope to facilitate marble carving to reduce the commute. I have been living and working in Florence for sixteen years, and the main reason my wife and I decided to stay is the abundance of beautiful museums and churches, which are such an important inspiration.

A clay enlargement of the artist’s <em>Immaculate Conception</em> sculpture for the Chapel of the Holy Cross of the Jesuit High School of Tampa, pictured in his Florence studio. 2018.

AM: I know that you received your training at the Florence Academy of Art, which is known for having a great sculpture program. Did you further your studies elsewhere or find the need to extend your education in specific areas?

CS: Yes, the Florence Academy is a great school. When I finished the Sculpture Program I remained as a teacher for an additional five years, which was in a way an extension of my study of the figure. However, there are two aspects of contemporary figurative art that have always bothered me: the lack of idealization, and the lack of classical drapery arrangement. On several occasions I’ve heard that the naturalistic depiction of faces and figures in otherwise classical compositions is a way of speaking to a modern audience, but does this mean that the figures of Raphael and Michelangelo are no longer able to communicate today? Bernini always liked to tease his patrons by saying that the great Michelangelo never once produced a naturalistic bust.

A preparatory drawing of <em>St. Teresa of Avila</em> for the doors of the Basilica of Holy Hill, Wisconsin, charcoal on paper, 17 x 24 in.  The completed bas-relief on the doors of the Basilica of Holy Hill, Wisconsin, 2012, bronze, 36 x 20 in.

It is truly undeniable that the great artists of the Western tradition upheld a belief in continuity and transcendence, which informed their ability to modulate between a naturalistic approach when appropriate and a harmonious ideal, firmly rooted in antiquity and developed according to their individual tastes. In a rebellious spirit it could be said that idealization today is, in fact, quite liberating and universal. With regard to drapery, the way in which a himation [an ancient Greek cloak] is animated by the underlying figure and how the spontaneous folds in silk, wool, or muslin can contribute to the essential movement in a composition is exciting. I’m eager to learn more and have been trying my best to introduce these areas into the curriculum of the Sculpture Program at the Sacred Art School.

Our Lady of Cana (in the rosary garden of St. Dominic’s Priory Church, London), 2019, fired clay, 5' x 25” x 30”.

AM: Where did your interest in sacred sculpture originate? What first drew you to this subject, and how were you able to make that calling a viable career?

CS: The large majority of the art that has always inspired me is sacred art, which naturally resonates with a desire to serve God in the vocation of sculpture. As a convert to Catholicism, I was drawn to the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is transubstantially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity rather than just a symbol of His Body. Likewise, as a sculptor I was struck that a work of sacred art is not simply pedagogic or a material representation of a historic event, but more fully unites us with what is present, yet hidden. 

AM: How does a sculptor today get commissions for liturgical work in the church? Do you work with a liturgical design consultant? 

CS: Formation, faith, and dedication are intrinsic to a good portfolio, and a good portfolio is absolutely essential to getting work. I received a Masters in Sacred Art and Liturgy from a Pontifical University in Rome, which contributed greatly to my education. I have not worked with any design consultants. Most of my work actually comes through classical architects, and I really owe a lot to Duncan G. Stroik, with whom I have had the honor to collaborate on several wonderful projects. At the Sacred Art School we try to involve students in the commissioning process by giving them a stipend and an opportunity to learn about some of the logistical and business aspects of the profession. As a school, we have also worked with private companies such as Talleres de Arte Granda of Madrid, although I would strongly encourage any artist with sincere aspirations to avoid the commercialization of their work — in other words, don’t make it fast and cheap. There are many calls for entries to be found by a simple online search, but from my own experience I can say that reputation and word of mouth are paramount.

Saint Francis Xavier, 2018, marble (life-size), Chapel of the Holy Cross of the Jesuit High School of Tampa (Florida).

AM: Are there a lot of churches still commissioning this kind of work? I would imagine in Europe so much of the sculptor design inside churches has already been established, unless they are re-designing or restoring existing structures. Do any of your commissions come from America?

CS: Yes, there are many commissions worldwide, and there will always be a need for more beautiful traditional sculpture. I have received many commissions from the United States, and I am convinced a Renaissance is underway there, with many bold and unabashedly classical churches being built from the ground up with the same vigor and economic generosity as nascent capitalist Florence. Similar construction is rare in Western Europe, as the academic elite have put forth a strong viewpoint that not only are we unable to continue the great Western tradition, but we also shouldn’t because art is supposed to be progressive. This has created a somewhat hostile environment for classicism and especially classical architecture, although the good news is that in the past few years I’ve been able to produce work for churches in Marseille, Rome, London, Madrid, and Tirana. 

AM: I understand that you work in clay, bronze, and marble. In the first two media, you are piecing together three dimensions with an additive approach, while in marble you are carving away in an subtractive manner until you create form. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each medium in terms of its capacity for the artist’s expressiveness? 

CS: Plaster is also an important transitional and finished material, and there is a fun Tuscan proverb: clay is life, plaster is death, and bronze and marble are the resurrection. Clay is the most plastic and expressive of materials and has always been used in preparation to transmit the artist’s intentions with immediacy. Bronze and marble are the most noble and enduring for a finished work, although plaster can be painted to imitate the same effects indoors. The choice of material may influence the initial design of the subject or vice versa, but material is also often determined by placement. For marble, Bernini has certainly shown us how to stretch all technical limitations, and many of his works were carved in very fine statuario, which is not well-suited for outdoors. Bronze is considered the most resistant, but when placed indoors and especially inside a church, a lighter patina or gold plating is ideal. 

Crucifix and Angels, 2010, Sanctuary of St. Joseph Cathedral (Sioux Falls, South Dakota). Regarding subtraction or addition, expression is achieved through fullness whether marble is being chipped away or clay applied. I view depth and shadow as the consequence of protuberance so the characterization of form is essential in any three-dimensional material. It could be said that the lighter tonality and crystalline beauty of fine marble is well-suited for the soft and tender flesh of the female figure, whereas lucent bronze may convey the sinews and weight of the male figure; although in my opinion Rodin’s treatment of any subject worked great in both materials. I also love to see carved marble cast in bronze, such as the Laocoön Group cast by Francesco Primaticcio. There have been significant arguments over which is more beautiful, as Kenneth Clarke has proposed that the Laocoön Group was first completed in bronze.

AM: It’s rare to hear of a contemporary sculptor working in the classical medium of marble, and clearly you have a lot of experience in this area. How did you learn how to work in marble? 

CS: Marble is a stressful love affair, and I learned to carve by hitting the ground running in workshops in Carrara. I started ten years ago when I received a commission to produce several models that were to be copied in marble for the renovation of St. Joseph Cathedral of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. According to my contract, I was not responsible for carving the marble, but when I delivered my plaster models to the stone practitioners, their carvers refused to listen to my direction. Needless to say the initial results were not satisfactory, and I purchased the necessary carving tools and moved into their shop to finish the sculptures myself. From there I have always encouraged my clients to choose marble if possible, and have been learning through hands-on practice along the way. All great marble sculptors were first and foremost draftsmen and clay modelers, and my experience with modeling the figure has helped ease me through the technical barrier of carving.  

The most beautiful marble comes primarily from the Barattini quarry of Carrara, which is also known as Cava Michelangelo because it is believed he extracted marble from there. I recently used another popular white marble called Bianco P from a nearby quarry in Massa — it has a nice color but is very dense and difficult to carve. Responding to the preference of my clients, I’ve had the opportunity to use a beige stone from the Aquila region, and have also completed several reliefs in Spanish alabaster from Zaragoza, where I also visited the quarry. 

Ave Regina Pacis, Mary Queen of Peace, Catholic Church (Mandeville, Louisiana).AM: Could you please summarize your sculpture process (for any medium) from getting the commission and the conceptual stages to the work in your studio and then finally the installation on-site?

CS: Clients will typically commission according to a predetermined subject, and then I will write up a proposal based on that subject or idea. This often includes an outline of the iconography, process, timeline, materials, shipment, and price estimate. If they decide to proceed, the proposal will be formed in to an agreement, and the drawing process can begin. It should be clear that I would not pursue a commission if the intent were to produce something contradictory to my values, and likewise I provide my prior work as an example of what can be expected in terms of formal artistic language. 

Through rough thumbnail sketches, the composition is developed for review. This is followed by a more presentable drawing, for which I compose the figure and drapery from life. It is not unusual for the drawing to be adjusted, although I would say any more than three presentation drawings would become excessive. Based on the drawing, a presentation model is produced (again from life), which is often around one quarter to one half of the final scale. This will then become the definitive reference. If the work is to be cast in bronze, a final full-scale model will be made. If it will be carved in marble, it will be scanned to produce a 3-D program. I try to do all I can to anticipate how the sculpture will work in the final context and ship everything as finished as possible to reduce any sculpting on-site. The installation is very different in every circumstance, and I’ve often hired companies with specialized equipment to raise heavy loads in precarious spaces. I make the effort to be involved as much as possible, even if at my own expense.

AM: How important is drawing to your process as a sculptor? Michelangelo, who we know was first and foremost a sculptor, seems to have viewed drawing and sculpting as a similar language. His drawings reflect a sculptor’s three-dimensional thinking and structural understanding of form. Is drawing and sculpting one in the same to you?

CS: Drawing or disegno is an indispensable part of the process and the foundation of architecture, painting, and sculpture. I always loved to draw, and I chose sculpture over painting because it is an elevated form of drawing, so to speak, in that it’s a celebration of form and line. Also, rather than being a two-dimensional illusion of reality, sculpture is reality. For this reason, many artists have felt that painting is always better when influenced by sculpture, but sculpture should not imitate painting.

AM: What do you hope to achieve through the work that you do and the specific commissions that you choose to take on? 

CS: I’m very grateful to have been called to serve Christ and The Church with my vocation as an artist, and also as a husband and father. I hope to give glory to God and bring others closer to him.

14th Station of the Cross, Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb, 2019, clay model for the Chapel of the Holy Cross of the Jesuit High School of Tampa (Florida), 4' x 2 ½”.