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In the Studio: Jason Arkles

by Allison Malafronte

 Jason Arkles in front of his Florentine studio in the Palazzo Capponi Alle Rovinate on the Arno River.

American sculptor Jason Arkles has been making his home in Florence, Italy, for more than two decades. Initially led abroad in his 20s while pursing theatre arts, he happened upon Charles Cecil Studio in Florence in 1996, and was immediately taken by the quality of what was being produced. So much so, in fact, that he decided to shift his artistic focus from the stage to sculpture, and stayed in Florence to begin serious training. Over the last twenty years Arkles has walked a long and sometimes laborious road in realizing his full potential as a professional sculptor, but he has ultimately succeeded by building a small but serious community of students and collectors, as well as a portfolio of important completed commissions. More recently, Arkles founded the popular podcast The Sculptor’s Funeral, where he combines his extensive knowledge of art history with his natural gift of eloquence to create episodes that are at once enlightening and entertaining.

After eight years in a quaint, quiet studio in Florence’s artist-and-artisan epicenter Santo Spirito, Arkles recently relocated to a spacious 2,700-square-foot space on the Arno River, a stone’s throw away from the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. This eleven-room studio is located in one of the most historic Renaissance palaces in Florence: Palazzo Capponi Alle Rovinate, which Arkles admits is nothing short of heavenly. In the following Q+A, the sculptor brings us insight from this new place in his life, and fields a series of personal and professional questions—including my perennial favorite that I often pose to figurative sculptors: why is no one sculpting in marble anymore?!? 

Two of Arkles’ finished clay sculpture busts: Goliath (left) and a four-hour portrait titled Sylvia (right). 

AM: What originally brought you to Florence, and what has kept you there? 

JA: My life in Florence, as well as my career in sculpture, started by accident, really. I had come to France in hopes of attending a prestigious theater-arts school, but I failed the admissions. I ended up traveling around Europe for a while and making spare change on the streets as a street performer, in the company of several others, one of whom had a brother who attended the Charles H. Cecil Studio in Florence. When we eventually arrived in Florence and I had a chance to meet Cecil and see the quality of work being done there, I knew I had found something special. This was in 1996, before the internet was useful in finding such opportunities. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled into my vocation this way—I can only compare it to winning a lottery.

Arkles’ 2017 marble copy of Michelangelo’s bas-relief Pitti Tondo. Private collection.

After a few years of studying and then teaching at Charles H. Cecil Studio, I returned to the United States and opened a studio there. I was never in the States for more than 12 months at a stretch, however, as I always found an excuse to return to Florence. After a decade of trying to make my dual life function, I gave up, as I knew Florence was where my heart and soul lay. I am a better artist here, and in the United States being an artist is still often seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a vocation. I felt as though I always had to explain or justify what I chose to do for a living. Florence feels like more of a natural habitat for sculpting, I suppose.

AM: Do you find that there is a lot competition among sculptors in Florence for commissions or work? Do you also do commissioned sculptures in the States? 

JA: That's the funny thing about Florence: it's a fantastic place to live and work as an artist, but the art market here is notoriously dead. There are a few galleriescarrying local contemporary figurative art, really nothing notable. There are Italian art patrons, but these are private clients rather than gallery patrons. But there is a good little group of figurative sculptors happily living and working here, who then export their work. Most of us have our own small spheres of galleries or clients back in our home countries. And of course there's always teaching. Everyone in the world comes to Florence to study sculpture, and there's an unending stream of students in and out of my studio and the studios of most others I know. So in terms of competition between sculptors, I would say there's very little. Too few patrons and too many students to fight over. It's common for me to send students I can't fit in to my schedule to any number of studios in town, and vice versa. Some of us have specialties: I am known for écorché courses and marble-carving courses, and so others will send students with such interests my way. A few studios in town are more geared toward students wanting to work independently, and who need more space than training, and I send that type of student to those studios.

For me personally, I don't do galleries. I do private commissions, and they are generally by word of mouth. I have a specialized degree in Sacred Art from a pontifical academy in Rome, which helps me snag a church commission from time to time, but I haven’t been actively pursuing those commissions lately. My career is a mixture of teaching in my studio, teaching traveling workshops around the world, and the odd studio sale and private commission.

Jason Arkles wedging his “homemade” clay. Arkles recycles and modifies commercially available potter's clay to make it more suitable for sculptors.

AM: What is the historical style/school of sculpting that your own work and your teaching is most closely modeled after?

JA: This is a really interesting question. The roots of the method I practice can be traced back to the Early Renaissance, as recorded by Leon Batista Alberti in the books De Statua and De Pittura. That method seems to have sort of vanished in the High Renaissance and Baroque eras, and doesn't resurface in any recognizable way until the early nineteenth century, in France. It became known as the “French Manner” of clay modeling, and spread to other countries such as the United States and the UK, but died out again after World War I. A little over 20 years ago, I took part in an experimental sculpture department instituted at Charles H. Cecil Studio. That studio is famous for its strict adherence to the sight-size method of drawing and painting, and Charles wanted to see if it could be used as a sculptural technique as well. Little did we know that we were actually reviving a lost technique under a different name! It was only until several years after, when my interest in art history in general started to ferment, that I researched other historical techniques and discovered the sculptor François Rude and his mysterious techniques that became known as the “French Manner.” I realized the sight-size method was nearly identical to it.

So why does this technique die out, unlike other techniques? Two reasons: The technique is entirely based upon visual/optical observation, which produces a highly individual sculpture, from each artist’s own perception. This doesn't jive well with much of art history, which focused on notions of ideal form and shared cultural aesthetics. From the High Renaissance through Neoclassicism, there was little use for a technique like this in sculpture, and the few standouts were portraitists such as Houdon and Messerschmidt. But it was a great method for the Romantics, the Realists, and other movements in the nineteenth century. The second reason it has a tendency to fade out is that unlike sculptural methods that produce ideal forms, such as canons of proportion and anatomical construction, it can't be learned from a book. With canons and other measuring techniques, there are basic rules: there's a right and a wrong, to a small extent, and students can check their work against these rules and thereby improve their work. But if all the proportional “rules” come from the living model in front of you, those “rules” change with every model. A student can read and understand the principles behind the French Manner, or sight size, or whatever you want to call it, but it can really only be thoroughly learned from an instructor in the same room teaching you, not from a book the way that anatomy or canons can. Books and theory can't correct your visually informed work—that can only come from someone else who can stand on your precise point of observation, look at your work and the model from that point, and begin the critique from there. 

A work in progress in Arkles’ clay studio

So, when you lose the connection to someone who practices these sorts of techniques, it's difficult to regain the technique. Even if you already know how to paint or draw sight size, there are subtle fundamental alterations needed to make the technique work, due to the additional dimension in sculpture. If you try to model in clay using the basic setup used to draw or paint sight size, it won't work. It's only because Charles Cecil allowed a half-dozen students to experiment for a period of a few years that we figured out how to make it work. It's a bit of a personal mission for me to ensure it doesn't die out again anytime soon.

AM: I understand that you recently relocated and are now in a palatial studio on the Arno. Please tell us a little bit about your new space. 

JA: Yes, my new studio is fantastic. It's about 2,700 square feet, eleven rooms (including a marble studio, clay studio, kiln room, stained-glass studio, storerooms, casting room, and even a nice little lounge/bar). It's right on the Arno River, about 500 feet from the Ponte Vecchio, and the view across the river is to the Uffizi Museum and the Galileo Museum. The building itself is one of the most historic Renaissance palaces in Florence: Palazzo Capponi Alle Rovinate. It was built by Niccolo D'Uzzano, who some people might know through the plaster cast of his portrait bust (attributed to Donatello but now thought to be by Desiderio Da Settignano), which is commonly found in cast rooms in ateliers everywhere. My studio is in that dude's house! The location is fantastic, as is the studio itself. I was extremely lucky to get it. A friend was looking around for a temporary sculpting studio and found this place through his lofty connections. The landlord was only interested in a long-term lease, so my friend told me I just HAD to take a look at it. I had had a studio for eight years in Florence at that point, and although I felt I was outgrowing it, I didn't really want to move. But when I saw this space and the building, I knew I had to get it no matter what. It is my big-boy, forever studio.

 A shelf of portrait busts in the sculptor’s studio

AM: Forgive me if this question has an obvious answer, but why do you think no one is sculpting in marble anymore? (Well, barely anyone.) Especially in Florence, when you are so close to Carrara?

JA: One answer is a lack of market. Marble is slow to produce and expensive, especially anything larger than a portrait bust. For a life-size figure, just about any other material will be less costly. Another answer is that you really need to be close to the source of the materials to make it feasible to learn, teach, or work in marble. These places exist, such as Carrara, or Loveland, Colorado, and elsewhere, but foundries for casting bronze are much more widespread. These are some valid reasons for its scarcity, but there are also misconceptions about marble, resulting from people’s unfamiliarity with the medium. People think it's an incredibly taxing endeavor. But just last week I had two students carving marble in my studio: two women, one 18 years old and the other in her 70s, each of whom are maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. You do need patience and fortitude, yes, but not brute strength. If you have enough energy and strength to spend the day gardening, you can carve marble.

Apotheosis of Saint Mark, 2008, marble, 6'6" tall. Saint Mark's English Church, Florence, Italy.

There really is no good reason the major ateliers do not offer marble carving. It sort of drives me crazy to see how divorced marble carving is from our contemporary notion of what a figurative sculptor does. Ask a figurative sculptor who his or her favorite sculptors are, and you are going to hear Bernini and Michelangelo at the top of the list every time. Their favorite sculptures are likely going to be the Pieta, St. Teresa, the Laocoön and His Sons, The Kiss, Pluto and Prosperina, the Rape of the Sabine Women—all marble. Yet all too often, the contemporary sculptor's education stops at clay modeling and maybe a little wax work. It's not the students' fault though; this is simply a part of the tradition we have yet to regain, and it won't happen until the teaching studios start teaching it. We can't blame it all on the lack of patrons because it's a chicken-an-egg scenario: there's no good figurative marble sculpture out there for them to buy. Once we have good marble sculptors, their work will sell, patrons will once again become familiar with it as a medium, and the market will grow.

AM: What is your proudest sculptural achievement to date?

JA: That has to be the Saint Mark I did for the English Church here in Florence. It's in a fairly prominent location, and having a sculpture like that in Florence is in its way prestigious—new permanent work isn't put up in Florence very often at all—and so there's a lot to be proud of with that one. It's a little bittersweet, as I made it under less than ideal circumstances ten years ago, and so it's not as good as I could have done. I've made “better” work since, certainly, but I am most proud of the Mark. It was the very best I could do at the time, and the eight months I spent carving it were some of the happiest months of my life.

AM: What are you plans for the near future in terms of work direction, collaborations, the continuation of The Sculptor’s Funeral podcast, etc.?

JA: The podcast has been a real labor of love. People often ask how I have found the time to do it. I started it during a slow period, and once I got going, it became my first priority. I love working on it. The first two years I did it as a weekly podcast—it almost seems unbelievable to me now. I have really slowed down in the last year, and people have been asking me if it will continue: yes, the podcast will continue! I'm taking an extended break from it right now. I thought I was going to take a month or two off, but that was back in May. It's not that I have run out of topics, I have years' worth of content I will get to eventually, but it has had to take a backseat to other priorities and other interests. 

One of those interests is in a new medium for me: stained glass. I became interested in stained glass a few years ago when I gave some thought to the problem of placement for sculpture: how a sculpture looks depends entirely on the light which strikes it. A good sculpture can look very weak under the wrong lighting. Also, sculpture is limited in its ability to be imbued with a sense of atmosphere: you can paint a foggy mist or a night scene, but you really can't sculpt one. So, I thought that perhaps I could use colored glass to provide a filter for the light on sculpture, maybe finding a way to actually incorporate colored glass directly into a sculpture—giving it its own intrinsic lighting no matter how one actually lights the work. This has led to playing with light sources as well. A sculpture seen by candlelight is an entirely different animal than one in a “properly lit” gallery space. So I have been playing with designing work meant to be seen under very specific light sources, usually natural flame, some built right in to the work itself. In others, such as my Mother of Pearl, elements of the sculpture are partly obscured, and the viewer is rewarded for closer inspection. I've been experimenting quite a bit, and I hope to have an exhibition of what I have been coming up with at some point.

Apart from those concerns, I have sort of fallen in love with stained glass as a medium unto itself, and want to start producing panels and windows. The art of stained glass used to be the purview of painters and even sculptors, but seems to have fallen off the radar for most painters. I'd like to see that change, and I have been talking with a painter whose work I admire greatly and whose work would, I think, stand up very well if translated to glass. We have tentative plans to collaborate: she'll do the paintings, and I will translate to glass. I still have a lot to learn about the processes, but I'm working on it and taking workshops from the best craftsmen I can find. I love learning new skills, and this has kept me busy.

Light from the stained-glass studio, to the right, illuminates Arkles’ Goliath bust, as well as some of the panes of colored glass stored on the left.

AM: Speaking of the podcast, I know you weren’t feeling too well when you came up with the subtitle for it. Feeling any better? 

JA: Ha! I assume you are referring to the catchphrase of the podcast: “All the great sculptors are dead, and I don't feel so well myself.” Feeling fine, thanks! The idea behind this silly little saying speaks to the innate yearning I think many artists have: a desire to connect to the past and to view our work as a continuation of what has come before. That's so hard to do these days. We live in such different times, times when, frankly, painting and sculpture just aren't vital components of the cultural dialogue. So we look back at the past masters with a bit of envy. We want to be them, or be like them. The catchphrase just takes this impulse into the realm of the absurd. Self-deprecating humor is my favorite.

Three clay sketches of Victor Caufield, 2015, terracotta. Various collections.

AM: Please finish this sentence: I am most satisfied and fulfilled as a sculptor when …

JA: ... my work serves a real purpose. I am a big fan of art that fills a need. There is nothing more satisfying than when someone has a need for a sculpture, whether it's to serve as a decoration, or something more functional like a fountain or statue for a place of worship. When someone says to me, “We have a need, we have seen your work, and we think you are the right person to create what we need,” that's a great feeling. I have done a few funerary monuments, and when a grieving family comes to me and tells me that it's my work that they want to remember their loved one with—I can't think of a higher purpose for what I do. And my attraction to “useful” work is why I don't put work in commercial galleries, by the way. That experience, of limiting your career to creating work that you are guessing might sell, of selling to clients you may never meet, of developing a “voice” or “brand” (which is really another way of saying developing a predictable oeuvre) —all seems quite the opposite of why I work.

AM: What is your favorite (perhaps not well known or off-the-beaten path) place in Florence to commune with art?

JA: Speaking of funerary art … the cemetery behind the church of San Miniato is a special place. Nothing famous there, no masterpieces, mostly nineteenth-century monuments, busts, and mausoleums—but the incredible variety, originality, and quality of the work is a visual banquet. So much of the work there is so personalized, so honest, or heartbreaking, or artistically daring, or even shocking. There is no parallel outlet for sculptural creativity in our society that comes close to what was expressed here. I leave that cemetery with a full heart every time.

AM: Do you think you will remain in Florence for the rest of your life, or would you one day like to come back to the States? 

JA: Every time I have tried to plan my future, I end up doing something else, so I'm not going to make any predictions. Sculptors need to have a home base a bit more than painters, the materiality of the art demands it. It's possible that my work might take me somewhere else, and perhaps permanently—although it would take quite a lot for me to willingly leave Florence. After more than two decades, I still do not take a single day here for granted.

The brass plate on Arkles' studio door in Florence, reflecting the architecture of the Arno's riverside buildings.

 

All photography this article courtesy Jason Arkles.