A famed sculptor who calls Florence, Italy home finishes up a two-week course he’s teaching students in Boise State’s Fine Arts program today. A trip to his workshop is like a trip back in time.
Besides the constant clacking of chisels against blocks of imported Carrara marble, one of the most striking things about stepping into the back sculpture studio at the Ben Victor Gallery on campus is the dust. Little chips of rock and dust fly from each student’s block as they turn white stone into art.
One of the students in the invitation-only workshop is Christina Gilmore. She’s pursuing a degree in sculpture at Boise State. Like her fellow students in the workshop, when it comes to working in marble, Gilmore says this everybody’s first time.
As she taps away at her block of stone, slowly revealing the form of her sculpture, it’s impossible not to notice a pointy device resting on three legs with a point touching the stone. When asked what it is, Gilmore says with a laugh, “It’s called a little pointing machine.”
No, she’s not kidding. That’s actually what it’s called. It comes from the Italian “macchinetta di punta” – which sculptor Jason Arkles pronounces perfectly.
“It’s Italian for ‘little pointing machine,’” he says. “There really isn’t a word for it in English.”
Arkles has his sleeves rolled up and and a fine layer of marble dust is adding years to his thick brown hair. He’s an American, but has lived in Florence for the last two decades. He says the kind of little pointing devices he brought with him have been used since the 17th century; they look like something you’d expect to see on Isaac Newton or Leonardo Da Vinci’s desk.
He says they’re fairly simple use. “It’s a tripod that sits on your plaster cast, and then you can pick it up and put it on your marble. It has three little feet, a long needle. You pick up the whole tripod; you put it on your marble and now the needle is pointing at exactly where that point will be in your stone.”
For the mathematically inclined, he says it’s basic triangulation and technology any open ocean navigators or land surveyors would be familiar with.
Arkles came to Boise from his home in Italy’s Tuscany region thanks to a podcast he hosts about sculpture. It turns out that Ben Victor of the Ben Victor Gallery is a fan.
“Ben has been a listener since the beginning,” Arkles says. “Less than a year ago he contacted me about the possibility of coming over to Florence to study with me and bringing a couple students along with him. And we crunched the numbers and we realized it would be cheaper just to bring me and a bunch of marble and some marble tools to Boise, and so here I am.”
Standing among the little clouds of dust, the unending sound of chiseling and the little pointing machines perched over the blocks of stone, it feels like you’re watching a lost art. The techniques being used in this modern studio are the same as centuries ago.
While the process looks archaic, Arkles says there are still people out there making beautiful marble sculptures. “In the U.S. you could go to Loveland, Colorado, which is the center of marble carving in the U.S.,” Arkles says.
But, if you’re lucky enough to call Florence home, all you have to do is take a short jaunt down the road to Carrara. Arkles describes it as “mecca for marble carvers.”
He says there’s really one reason you don’t see marble being carved commonly.
“If you’re a sculptor who lives in New York or Los Angeles or Hong Kong, and you have a commission for a large scale marble statue, you go to Carrara to make it,” he says. “When it’s done, then you ship it to wherever it’s going to go. So, you go to the mountain, rather than the mountain coming to you.”
For the select group of students in Boise, they not only have a chance to learn marble as a medium, they get the rare experience of having the mountain come to them.
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