Zoë Suenson-Taylor was one of two Academy students to try her steady hands at stone carving last summer. Part of the Carrara, Italy residency, Zoe created a sculpture that will ABC Stone's Brooklyn headquarters. Hours before the unveiling we caught up with Zoe to get an insider's view of the residency and experience in Italy. This is part one of the two part post.
NEGOTIATING HISTORY in CARRARA by Zoë Suenson-Taylor (MFA 2013)
Every morning we were expected to be at the Corsanini Studio and stone yard by 8:30-9:00am, so we were up for breakfast by 8:00am. After changing into work boots and a respirator, ear defenders and shaded safety glasses, we got to carving. The set up was perfect. The stone yard is outdoors and is open on all sides so there’s always a breeze. There is a spectacular view up to the quarries and a grand sense of space. There were cranes and forklifts and lots of strong muscles that made the stone seem weightless. After working for a few hours, all the artisans from the studio ate lunch together upstairs. Lunch was always a gorgeously, simple Italian meal of pasta and sauce, a salad picked from Massimo’s garden, sometimes cheese and meats or a home cooked meat dish, a small glass of red wine, occasionally chocolate and a shot of grappa to conclude the meal. I always left the table with a spring in my step. We then carved until last light, about 7:00-8:00pm. Marina de Carrara is very close to the coast so we’d refresh in the sea with the very last rays of sun and then sample a pizza place with their own special secret family recipes for dinner until going to bed from sheer exhaustion. This was my routine, six days out of the every week, for the two and a half weeks I was there. Needless to say, it was the most demanding art experience I’ve had.
Many people have said how hard they believe stone carving to be. I have always revered it and treated it with such respect that I was almost afraid to try. I needed to get better at everything else before I could manipulate a precious piece of marble. In Carrara there is so much marble they pave the streets with it. Marble as big as a suitcase can be thrown in the dumpster as an offcut. The very first day, we sourced and heaved a piece out to become our first fledgling attempt at carving. We bumped and stuttered and fumbled through the first steps. I was in a state of constant perplexity. How do you keep your eye protectors from fogging up while wearing a dust mask? I was always readjusting my mask placing it higher or lower on my face. I ate a lot of marble dust and got a lot in my eyes. But then with the right tools held in the right way, it became almost effortless, like a hot knife through butter. This was immensely satisfying. On that random offcut we were free, not afraid of making an error and making things up as we went along. Working on the primary piece for our time here was different; it was much harder!
The greatest challenge was measuring. Using the huge angle grinder while shifting so much heavy material. It took a while to wrap my head around trigonometry again. I had to translate the bozetti (Italian for maquette) to the marble block and match up the four cardinal points. At that stage, there was so much to learn and we were also holding the carving tools for the first time. We came to learn that the angle of the point you are trying to reach needs to have two known points at a 90-degree angle on the same plane as the point, and the cala, or depth measurement, should be as perpendicular to the point as possible. That information is vital and it didn’t sink in easily. I really freaked out when the very first point we went for was the tip of the nose, the center of the face. One day I took the whole day to get two points. Another huge challenge was just negotiating the position of the head. The head is slightly inclined to the right, and turned to the right and tilted upwards. Your eyes always want to correct this and level the face. I wish I could have tipped the 300lb block right up to the bozzetti face but I’m not that strong. After removing what felt like mountains I was only half way.
Having the head on the angle and the right arm raised meant it was also extremely hard to get access to the neck and clavicular region. I didn’t start with a very good bozzetti. I actually took two maquettes to Italy, as I thought they both had accents of the idea I was trying to reach; An idea of a sneeze and what controls it. I enjoy the ambiguity of the lost yet hopeful moment one has to resign all control in an anticipation of the impending relief. We began putting mastic points on one bozzetti and I’d say, “Oh, that needs to come out”, “There’s actually going to be a bit more there”, “Yeah, I don’t want it to quite be like that." I saw all of the imperfections amplified as I went.
I thought after ten days on the residency my carving was really looking like my model. Two days later I stopped measuring points and steadily unified masses blocking out the larger forms and constantly drew on the piece. By the end of our time in Carrara my fat head with a sock on it was almost finished. An educated estimate proposed it might take another three to five weeks to complete. I'm sorry not to have completed it in Carrara. Before coming home, I was already dreaming of when it would be shipped back to the States so I could finish it.
For the last four days, Heather and I decided to visit Florence and Rome, a hard decision because we wanted to keep carving. But not visiting would have been sacrilege. After our experience, we had a new and amplified respect for all things carved in stone. Literally EVERYTHING becomes incredible at the Borghese; my master of sculpture, Bernini had us in awe. Somehow we were not asked to leave and stayed sketching throughout the staggered entry times. They must have seen how inspired we were.
With my next stone carving I will start from a fully realized piece. Something that is ordered in it’s dimensions, thorough in its proportional relationships, designed to the smallest degree the formal relationships and completely evoking a soulful style complimentary to the idea. I now see how important it is to be committed to the formal construction, so accurate points can be taken as it is scaled up. The sculpture will naturally evolve with the amplification of size so there is more space, more area of possibility and more decisions. Once the key structural positions have been reached in the carving, I think it is important to work freehand. By having a fully investigated guide in the form of the fully realized bozzetti, I will save so much time!
Stay tuned for the second part of Zoe's reflection on her experience in Carrara.
To learn more about the Carrara residency please visit the Residency page on the Academy's website