Saturday, December 2, 2017


Two years ago I was faced with the task of-How can I tell a story that everyone will understand clearly.  How can I tell a story that has universal meaning.

And in so doing create a WW1 Monument honoring the men, and women that went through this horrific moment in global history.
Well now I'm on the other side of that in terms of the storytelling for the 9” sculpture Maquette. What WW1 looked like is told through a visual narrative called A Soldier’s Journey. It is a story of a soldier and father, who departs from home and family, traveling to the distant shores of Europe, experiencing the horrors of war, only to return  home again forever changed.

35 years ago when I began learning the craft of making art, I was always taught to work from general to specific. And that lesson became my mantra as I proceeded in this incredibly complex design.

It took 9 iterations over 12 months, with 12,000 pictures taken of re-enactors in my Bronx studio to create a story of transformation and change that would explain this War to the Memorial visitor. The strangest part of this process is that I was unaware as I assembled the scenes and drew out the final drawing that I was working in the template of what Joseph Cambell calls a Monomyth. It has also been referred to as the hero's journey.

test print- Clay sculpture- Initial drawing concept of A Soldier's Story

It is only recently that my wife, Traci Slatton, an internationally published author, and a gifted story teller, looked over at me at 6am one morning over breakfast and said, “ You know that Soldier’s Journey that you are doing is right out of the template that has existed for ages in many different cultures of myth.”

Joe Weishaar my designer partner had said to me back in the fall of 2015, “ Create a beginning, a middle, and an end." But I was completely unaware that what I was doing visually fit an age old way of telling stories.

Traci continued and filled me in,” You ought to read up on this. Joseph Campbell refers to it as, "mankind's one great story." This structure of narrative involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory. (Just to name a few, it is found in Native American culture, Greco Roman culture, and Judeo Christian culture.) The protagonist then comes home changed or transformed and wiser by his passage through this perilous task.” My wife has always been very instrumental in helping me find the right track for the story in my art. When you live with somebody that's gone to Yale and Columbia, there is bound to be an intellectual conversation at the breakfast table! Picking up one of Joseph Campbell's books on the dinning room table she filled me in on the road that I had taken. It was a little shocking to realise that somehow I had downloaded a storytelling template that had existed for ages in many different cultures to explain the story of WW1.

With more reading I found that Campbell defines the function of mythology as the provision of a cultural framework for a society or people to educate their young. Every epoc, every culture, every society has myths. It provides society with an explaining mechanism for coping with the human condition. Myths provide people with a means of coping and guiding their passage through the different stages of life from birth to death.”

 Mythology makes us aware that we are not the only ones going through this moment in our life. And it also makes us aware that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.  This leads us to a realisation that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Why had I gravitated toward this way of explaining what WW1 looked like. For me myth has always been a way to fit the sculpture into a framework that uplifts with power.
 I was deeply affected as small child living in Italy and being surrounded by the visual splendour of the art and the architecture. There was always a sense of going beyond the mundane or average in the sculpture and art. Art spoke about grandness and fit within the structure of heroic narratives. This art was a represention of us in sculpture and drawing presented in such a powerful and visceral way. It was art that rose to the occasion. Sculptures like the Michelangelo Moses carried such force and emotion. And to a 5 year old standing in front of the 10 foot high Moses ready to spring and discharge his ire and fury, this had a lasting effect!

 Myth speak of heroes. Myths place us in a universe were we belong to something bigger than ourselves. And certainly the soldiers that entered into this hell and walked away were incredibly brave and heroic. This war transformed millions of people’s lives, and even though the transformation was devastating on a global level, there is an element of the human race rising up above the ashes.

I believe it would be a grave injustice if these soldiers and women represented as average. I would expect that the art would take the real in the mundane and elevate it to a higher stature to show its historical significance. To show the monumentality of what these people went through. Using the monomyth template story creates an amazing structure to deliver a relief wall that is dramatic, emotional, full of movement, emotion and force.  It's a way to represent the men and women as larger than life. The relief wall tells the story in such a visceral uplifting way that no one can walk away from this bronze wall without being affected.

Below I have broken down the structure of the monomyth and included a diagram from Campbell. I have also included a diagram of the protagonist(father /soldier)as he moves through his journey in the relief wall.

Campbell describes this template of the division of the story in 3 “acts” or sections;

1. Departure
2. Separation
3. Return

1. In the departure part of the narrative, the protagonist lives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an undertaking involving risk. The protagonist is reluctant to follow the call, but is helped by a mentor figure.
2. The initiation section begins with this protagonist then crossing the threshold to the unknown, where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.
3. The hero eventually reaches a crisis in his adventure, where he must undergo "the ordeal" where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing an elevation or apotheosis and gaining his reward.
In the return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the understanding or knowledge he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man.

The diagram is loosely based on Campbell (1949) and more directly on Christopher Vogler, "A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces" (seven-page-memo 1985)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Traditional Ways of Working Get a Technological Boost in Creation of a Memorial

Several years ago, I was on a trip to Possagno in Italy, and we went to the Gipsoteca of the Italian Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova. The museum contains his plaster models and shows his prowess at getting all the major commissions that Europe had to offer at the end of the 1700s and early part of the 1800s. He even made sculptures for America of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Canova drew his inspiration from the past, thinking about how he could play forward the rich tradition of Roman and Greek Sculpture in the present. His work also shows the first symptoms of the experimentation of the modern age. To achieve this great task, he employed a workshop that helped him to achieve his artistic vision. He hired workers to transfer his plaster models to marble.

Using the latest technology of his time, he perfected a machine called a ‘pointing’ machine. He was able to work extremely quickly and accurately, using this cutting-edge technology. The machine revolutionised sculpture in the late 1700s. The measuring tool used by stone sculptors accurately copies plasters and allows artists to recreate their vision in stone.

Canova Gysoteca in Possagno, Italy

I stayed at Canova’s museum/home for close to five hours and revisited it the next day. There was something there that I couldn’t put my finger on, something that I was supposed to take in. Something I was meant to take away with me and play forward.

I was amazed at how prolific he was. I sat in the Neoclassical room letting in this unreal world. The white sculptures are bathed in light that falls from above. There is such a sense of unending peacefulness, and I had the pervasive feeling that I was a visitor to a sacred space.

As my life progressed from that moment, I now know why I was meant to be there that afternoon.

What did I learn and how did I apply that lesson?

When I finished the drawing for the full composition of A Soldier’s Journey in February 2017, I felt that I had accomplished an epic feat in a very short period of time. The creation of that design idea came from nine months of incredibly focused and intense work done within the walls of my studio. The complete drawing was started during the Thanksgiving of 2016 and completed in February. The actual drawing part took me 750 hours of the most intense work of my life. In January alone, I worked 30 days straight, for 10 hours a day on average. Needless to say, the task paid off – as we received concept approval from the Fine Arts Committee on May 18th 2017.

After that brief moment of elation that, for me, really only existed for hours, I knew what the next steps were. I would have to translate that drawing into a sculpture maquette.

I knew that I had to rethink how I would proceed. There was no way that I would be able to achieve so-called ‘museum level’ quality in the short span of time afforded for completion. The success of proceeding forward lay in figuring out a plan to maintain quality with maximum speed.

I had had a visit to my studio in April by Richard Taylor, who owns Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand. Richard had been following me for years and had a trip planned to New York for the premiere of Ghost in the Shell. Even though his company is well known for its work on The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, he has a real passion for Classical art, specifically sculpture. When he visited my studio in south Bronx, he was blown away by my drive to create a Classical figurative art that played forward this rich tradition in a modern context. His reaction was, “There is no shtick here. This is all about the art.”

The seed was planted when he asked me on that rainy New York day if I’d like to come have a look at his workshop in Wellington, New Zealand. Two weeks later I boarded a plane for a trip that would take me 9000 miles away from my studio and my family.

Weta Workshop is unique in the world. I knew that I had to take the grunt work out of the process, and I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed a highly skilled workforce to accomplish this task quickly. I wouldn’t have time to train a group of people in my Bronx studio. Weta Workshop has a sculpting department with figuratively trained sculptors. Those sculptors are from all over the globe: Spain, China, Japan, England, and Switzerland.

Those sculptors also knew how to take my vision within the concept drawing and help me translate that into sculptural terms. To do that, we photographed models in Weta Workshop’s Photo Studio from 360 degrees. The models were lit to pull out the structure and volume of the body. With that information, we were able to start sculpting on the computer, the figures in the round. We could then take those digital files and compositionally flatten them to different degrees of relief. The beauty of this programme called ZBrush is that you can move and manipulate figure compositions at a technological rate of speed, not a human rate of speed. This allows different options in figure composition to be explored in hours rather than days.

This information is then milled out and overnight a decision can be made about the depth of a grouping in the relief, or the scale of a figure in the relief. Things that if done manually in clay would take months as opposed to hours.

A short time after starting to work with the team at Weta Workshop, Canova’s studio popped into mind. In some ways, I have borrowed from the past and played forward a similar system of creation.
Just like Canova, who perfected the use of the pointing system to bring his art to life, I am using a modern technological tool to bring this relief to life. Canova also used a large trained workforce, and Weta Workshop supplied me with that. And lastly, just like Canova, I too feel like I am playing forward a tradition of figurative art that comes from the same roots of Greece and Rome!

So there you have it. Technology can become useful in the creation of an art form that speaks about “us” and is traditional.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Changing Things Historically

Changing Things Historically

Last Thursday I flew back the 9,000 miles to New York City, taking a break from the green, windswept city of Wellington, New Zealand. I had completed the first part of the 3 meter-long sculpture maquette. It was a moment for me to reflect back on this pairing of digital technology and traditional drawing and sculpture. And I had that chance this week as I stood in front of an audience in the offices of Changing Our World (the principle fundraisers for the WWI Memorial) in Mid-Town Manhattan. 

Wellington, NZ


I had been asked to speak to the company about the WWI Memorial Project. And as I stood in front of the audience my thoughts about the alchemy created in this pairing of modern and traditional suddenly started coming out of my mouth in a very heartfelt way.  I spoke about my 30 plus years of working in clay to sculpt heroic figures. I spoke of Italy and the 50,000 hours that I had spent in front of life models in my studio to create those sculptures and drawings.  Without thinking, my words came out, and they carried a lot of emotion because I understood the finality of what I had just said.  

The significance of time in the creation of my art had changed. I would never go back to solely creating sculptures where the element of how long something took to make did not matter. I fully understood with a twinge of sadness, that that era was over. Even a few months ago I saw it as the end of my official sculpture training. That old door had closed. A new door had opened with this epic public project. There was a major deadline to meet. I would be creating Art in the Arena! 

When I began work on this Memorial Project back in January of 2016, I was immediately so excited.  I wanted to share my passion with this group now. As I began my talk with this audience of 20 and 30 year-olds, I realised that they did not share that same excitement. There was a certain sense of disinterest as they slouched with cell phones in hand, checking their emails and messages. There certainly wasn’t a lot of electricity in the room. After all, I was speaking about a war that had happened 100 years ago, and memorials as of late have been underwhelming even on a good day. But as I began to tell them my story of growing up in New York City in the 60s and travelling to Italy, and how at age 19 I could not draw, and how one day I decided to become an artist, ears perked up.  

And as I continued explaining what was happening in this project, an excitement started to creep in. Heads began to lift. Cell phones were put down and postures began to change. A charge had hit the room. All of a sudden everyone was sitting on the edge of their chair in rapt attention. They were witnessing, and being let in on, a huge secret that would blow the roof off the art world. They were witness to a historical change. This was the first group of people to see the 3 meter-long maquette outside of Weta Workshop in New Zealand. I was explaining what I had gone through to get here, how I had received a calling. I was letting them in on my journey. I spoke about how sculpture was once the visual medium to bring people together and tell a story, and how film had taken on that job today. And I explained, I was about to change that!

I had travelled to Wellington and discovered the warp speed that digital technology could afford an artist in his creative process. I knew as I stood in front of this group, that this relief wall would bring back the excitement and power that art once had for the general public. I felt like we were in a back room planning a revolution and this group of young 20 and 30-year-olds were privy to the "Visual Explosion" about to be launched. I talked about the correlation between my relief and film. How in film, as we sit there, the scenes change in front of us. I spoke about how in the future people would go visit the Memorial and as they travelled from one end to the other the scenes would change. Memorial visitors would become active observers receiving a spark from the past.  They would be sucked into the story and feel emotions about the characters that have travelled to those distant shores, and experienced the carnage. The witnessing of what WWI looks like as told through the relief would create feelings that would be a catharsis of sorts, very similar to what happens in movie theatres at the mall.

And this young generation of listeners understood that a true revolution is about to happen. They understood what is coming and what you will see at Pershing Park will be playing forward the rich and full tradition of figurative art in all its aesthetic power and glory. As Edwin Fountain, the Commissioner of the WWI Centennial Foundation says, “You will see a killer sculpture." All of a sudden, the audience carried that same excitement for the aesthetics of a bygone era. They saw my vision of bringing to life the emotions of film with the intensity of Michelangelo and the beauty of Leonardo. They were inspired by my vision of this aesthetic being reinvented to fit today’s world!

There was palpable excitement in the room as I told them this story of A  Soldier’s Journey.

The visitor will see the husband pulling away from his wife as she grabs his arm in fear of never seeing him again. They will see the soldier launching himself out of the trench with an animal aggression in his eyes. They will see the sadness of war as the nurse holds the gassed soldier in her arms.  And out of all this death and destruction they will feel the desperation of the father figure emerging out of the battle scene, staring directly out at you from the relief. For this is a visual narrative told in a three-dimensional material, bronze. It is a story of our humanity. Of how we are born, travel through our life, only to return at the end handing our experiences on to the next generation. 

They saw how this art was a return to the visual. I explained how this relief breaks away from the ideology of post-modernism where the importance of the book about the art has superseded the art that it writes about. And they got it.

It was a moment that I will never forget. It was an acceptance from the younger generation. It is a generation that is not literate in the culture and esoteric values that I carry with me. When I began this project, I was determined to bridge the gap between this outdated tradition and imbue it with the excitement of the new. That is why I had flown to Weta Workshop to make use of this cutting-edge technology.  And as I stood there, I realised at that very moment that it was not the technology that was the answer. It was the vision that drove the technology, that allowed this aesthetic to be reborn.  The technology was just a tool. It was all about the artistic vision.

And it made me happy to know that what I cared about was also something of great value and importance to this younger generation. I left there with tremendous excitement knowing that when this relief wall materialises at Pershing Park, I will be able to change the direction of art history and put figurative art back on the map as the cutting-edge art. I will have given back to others with my life task of creating a contemporary Renaissance Art. And in so doing, I will make art vital again to the general public!

There is no stopping this now, it is coming on like a crashing wave on the beach.