Joining New Masters Academy’s catalog of master teachers from around the globe is Jason Arkles, known for his popular podcast, The Sculptor’s Funeral. Each episode brims with insight, information, and humanity, as Arkle’s art history lessons become an epic voyage into the past. New Masters Academy invited Jason to film the content of his podcast for the first time as a tv-show-style video web series The Sculptor’s Funeral at New Masters Academy.
Jason explores art history from the perspective of a sculptor, as opposed to an academic, and that is exactly why artists from around the world have been drawn to listening to his podcast since 2014.
In an interview with Canvas, Arkles was very forthcoming about his work and life in Florence, where he has resided since 1996. He articulated the paradoxical life of an artist, both graced by the profound joy of making beauty and art, and also burdened by the realities that come with such a life.
“It no longer feels like the adventure it must look like from the outside, it’s just my life,” he says. “Some parts stink – I’m middle-aged and single, I’m often broke, and I still struggle a bit in all the ways immigrants struggle in an adopted culture and society.”
Arkles acknowledges, “I have a fantastic studio in a Renaissance palace built a century before Michelangelo was born, right on the Arno a few hundred feet from the Ponte Vecchio, and I live in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside just out of Florence.”
“I spend all day every day thinking about, writing about, reading about, teaching about, looking at, and creating sculpture. I know how fortunate I am and I have never taken a day for granted.”
Arkles’ career in sculpture actually began as an ‘accident.’ At the age of 24, in 1996, he went to France in hopes of attending a prestigious theatre arts school. When he failed the admissions exams, he found himself traveling around Europe, making a living as a street performer.
When he eventually arrived in Florence and saw the quality of work being done there, he knew he had found something special.
Arkles had never considered the idea of becoming a sculptor.
“I never took an art class in high school. I had grown up with the assumption that the kind of art I had always been attracted to – figurative sculpture – was something people used to do in a bygone age.
“The day I saw what was going on at the Charles Cecil Studio, and the realization that this was something I could learn, was the day I started on this path.” Stumbling into his vocation this way, he felt he had “won the lottery.”
After a few years of studying, Arkles traveled back to the United States and opened a studio there – but he was never in the US for more than 12 months at a stretch.
“I always found an excuse to return to Florence. I knew Florence was where my heart and soul lay and in the United States, being an artist is still seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a vocation. I always had to explain or justify what I chose to do for a living in the US.”
Arkles tells how his choice of discipline came in part from his day job as a stonemason. “I had a very good familiarity with stone processes and tools before I ever thought seriously of becoming a sculptor.”
“When the path opened up for me in Florence, I naturally went towards marble.”
At the Charles H. Cecil Studio, he learned modeling in clay from life but had to go to Pietrasanta, about 90 minutes away from Florence by train, to learn marble carving.
Although he says he doesn’t have a favorite medium, one aspect of sculpture that keeps him endlessly engaged is that one has to master so many processes and materials.
“One day I am modeling in clay, the next I am mold-making using plaster, the next day carving marble,” he said. “The day I run out of things to get better at in sculpture is the day I stop sculpting. And of course, that will never happen!”
“The Sculptor’s Funeral Podcast has changed my career more than almost anything else I’ve done,” said Arkles about his podcast that the New York Times recently listed among the ‘Top 10 binge-worthy art podcasts in the Age of Covid-19!’
The project started in 2014 in part out of boredom. “I had too little to do!” Arkles said, “No commissions, few students… but the real reason I started it was to teach myself art history.”
“The Cecil Studio instilled in me a real love for the art of the past and I was inspired to research the history of clay modeling to see if what I had learned measured up to past techniques. I stumbled upon a few pieces of a puzzle that it seems no one had quite bothered to assemble.”
The Cecil Studio taught a largely optical approach to work from life, known as ‘sight-size’. “Our class was an experiment of sorts, to see if sight-size, a common technique for painters, could be applied to sculpture.” Arkles wrote a sculpture manual detailing the process.
Now, after developing this ‘new’ technique, and the broad strokes of art history, he set out to see if there was a connection between the two. He discovered, in fact, that there was. A naturalistic style and approach that evolved, independent of the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, but eventually gained acceptance there, was known as the ‘French manner,” or Gallicism.
“Art historians have explained this occurrence, and have identified the artists who created work in this new naturalistic style, but have never explained what this technique and approach actually consists of,” explained Arkles.
He is convinced that he found the answer art historians had overlooked, precisely because they are “historians” and not sculptors. “If I didn’t know how to sculpt, I wouldn’t have understood the evidence and information I found.”
Excited about what he was learning, Arkles sought to write a book detailing his revelations, but he came up against his limited knowledge of art history. He needed to be sure he wasn’t making crucial errors of fact.
Having nothing better to do, and wanting to learn more about art history, Arkles accepted an offer to present a series of lectures at a local arts group in Florence, detailing the history of figurative sculpture in Europe from the early Renaissance to the present day.
“I did nothing for those nine months except study, digest, and explain the history of sculpture.”
With the success of the lectures came requests to put them online in some form. “Being a sculptor, I had fallen in love with the podcast format. I could listen and learn while I worked.” He felt that many like him would listen while they carved, or cast, or modeled.
He was right! The podcast has been a hit, reaching working sculptors and sculpture students.
“I strive to make it the podcast I wish I had when I was a student. I splurged on a nice microphone, but that was maybe 200 euros, and that’s just about the only equipment I have. I plug the mic into my laptop, record it in a quiet environment, and edit it with free software. It took me about four days to learn how a podcast is made, and then I made it.”
Arkles says that he never set out to make money with the podcast, he only takes donations and does a little advertising, to help pay for the costs of the show, “It’s always been a labor of love.”
The importance of studying art history, according to Arkles, is to understand what has come before, so we can avoid making the mistakes others have made, avoid repeating ideas which we might think of as ‘new,’ or even build on ideas that have not yet been fully explored.
The least essential reason to study history is to repeat what has come before, in order to ‘regain what was lost’. Art is a continuum, and it only moves forward.
“One of the more profound lessons I have learned in the study of art history is the realization that good sculpture has always been a true product of the time and place in which it was created. This lesson led me to understand the fundamental reason why figurative sculpture isn’t thriving in our times – the disconnect and escapism of contemporary figurative sculpture says nothing about our collective time and place. We are either making our sculpture too universal or too personal to be relevant to our culture, and I only understood that when I absorbed the historical context in which great works of the past were created.”
“There are a ton of valid reasons beyond our control that explain why sculpture isn’t what it used to be – the dominance of electronic media, the political and social powers in society using other forms of art as propaganda instead of sculpture, like they used to, the breakdown in arts education – all true; but what makes figurative sculpture irrelevant is the almost complete disinterest in figurative sculpture today to engage in the societal conversation. We collectively have chosen to limit ourselves to pretty little nude studies that sell in galleries, or otherwise make a sculpture of figures with no identity, character, narrative, or other content beyond a catchy or enigmatic title,” Arkles asks, “What other art form does that?”
With the popularity of the podcast, Arkles has had people coming to study privately from all over the world. Although now with the COVID-19 event, Arkles, like most of us, is reconfiguring a revenue stream to make ends meet. “The good news is that I now have more time to devote to The Sculptor’s Funeral. And now I am back where I started. It might be time to finally write that book…”