Sculptor Jason Arkles

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

 

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I have two answers to this question, I think. At a larger scale, I suppose my forte is also my motivation – I have an unending thirst to know more about sculpture – how to make it, why to make it, the history and future of it, what it means to myself, to the culture, and so on. I’ll never stop learning because there is just so much to learn – I’ll never be master of it all. That motivates me to learn more, and thus my forte appears to be that I approach the question of sculpture a little more holistically than others might. I’m an art historian and commentator on sculpture as much as I am a sculptor; my broad interest in sculpture has led me to become concentrated on the broader questions and the bigger picture of what I do.

On a more practical level, my forte is marble carving. It’s a bit of a niche these days to carve marble figuratively, especially in the field of portraiture, in which I specialize. I know a lot of people who can model a good clay portrait bust, and I know a lot of people who can carve marble, but very few who can do both. And what motivated me to do what I do is simply a love of the process. I am a sculptor because I love to sculpt, more than I love just about anything. It’s a joy I am fortunate to experience daily.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Well, it never really has run dry. It’s not like I am a creative genius with a thousand ideas, it’s just that sculpture is a long process and it’s not always possible to get things done right the first time — I am still experimenting with ideas I first formulated ten years ago or more. The way I do it, I only need about 6 good ideas to riff on to fill a career’s worth of work. I have no problem with redoing an idea over and over until it’s right. Most of my ‘real’ work never leaves the studio, because I am content to wait until I’ve nailed what I have set out to do before I let it go. I am fortunate in that I don’t depend financially on constantly producing work; I teach and do private commissions to pay the rent, and get to spend the rest of my time on working ‘my’ ideas out in clay or stone.

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How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

This is a difficult question for me – because I don’t really ever worry about authenticity of voice. Self-expression is not really high on the list with my work, in terms of what I value. I would rather find creative ways to tell stories about other people with my work; I am an unabashed narrative sculptor, and I think there are a million more interesting stories out there than the story of who I am or how I feel about things. At the same time, I’m not a robot, and how I feel about things is just going to come out in my work even if I don’t want it to. That’s the same for everyone too – I think it’s a mistake to overly concern oneself about self-expression because it’s so easy to overthink it, and then what you get isn’t true self-expression, but something a bit forced, maybe even subconsciously edited. As for social media, I find it to be a bit of a motivator to keep working when I see all the fantastic sculptors out there doing so much good work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

Gosh, I have been doing it all my life, it never really was a conscious decision that I made. I grew up in a household where my parents were always working with their hands, whether it was woodworking or quilting or cooking or carpentry, so it was natural to me. My parents have always encouraged my pursuits and are quite proud of me, for which I am very grateful. I can’t say being an American specifically has affected my work, though I think that perhaps Americans might have an appreciation for traditional figurative sculpture than many Italians, or at least Florentines, do not seem to, simply because we didn’t grow up surrounded by it all the time.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I get antsy. Working in the studio takes me out of myself like nothing else, and after a long day’s work I feel tired and at the same time more centred, focused, and in some ways energized than when I started the day. I don’t like going for too long without that, the way others might feel restless or rudderless when forgoing meditation or prayer for too long.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Failure is an opportunity to learn, I truly believe that. Half of getting better is making every mistake you can make, then remembering not to do it again. It’s not the idea that fails, it’s my lack of understanding the key to make that idea work that’s the issue. So I approach the idea in a different way, and maybe I make the idea succeed in a way I never would have imagined at first. People think creativity is a matter of having lots of different ideas – that’s maybe half of it. The other half is opening yourself to the possibility of taking your work down paths you didn’t initially intend to go.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

I’m a very selfish worker, I want to keep all the fun to myself, so I almost never have had an assistant or co-collaborator. I got my start in the arts in the theatre, and the thing I disliked the most about the theatre is its collaborative nature. A production is only as strong as the weakest link – sometimes I was a strong link and sometimes I was a weak link, and I found both experiences to be unsatisfactory. I like the solitary nature of the sculptor. And as much as I don’t concern myself with self-expression in my work, I greatly value each piece I make as a record of my personal interaction with the world and with the craft, undiluted by the ideas or desires, or skills or limitations, of others. Sink or swim, it’s mine. Everything I make is a record of my limits as much as it is of my talents and I am content with that.

Having said that, I would love to develop a professional relationship with a like-minded architect. I have an interest in architecture and architectural sculpture that I cannot give voice to on my own. If I ever find the right one I think it would be a very stimulating experience.

tympanum fixed
Tympanum for the Church of Our Saviour, Los Angeles 2012, marble

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

What have I done to overcome struggle? I haven’t overcome it. I endure it. You just push on and suffer until you are no longer suffering, or until you decide that it’s not worth it. There’s no secret to it, really. I have achieved a certain level of success, but each level has its own set of problems. About success, though – Every successful artist I know arrived at their success in a fairly novel way. My advice to those starting out is that emulation of the career paths of others will only get you so far. A huge factor of success is doing things in a way no one else is, and so looking to others for guidance, following a well-worn path, can be a hindrance. Because you will be walking that path alongside plenty of others all trying to be successful in that same way.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being creative, when I am really in the flow of things, doesn’t feel like working, even if I’m spending all day sweating under a large marble sculpture. It’s such a luxury to have a job that, when you are doing your best and working your hardest, doesn’t feel like work at all. I also appreciate setting my own schedule and trying different things, taking risks and setting my own priorities. It’s been a long time since I have been someone else’s employee, and I don’t miss it.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

It’s an interesting question these days, with the new awareness of ‘fake news’. Propaganda almost always comes packaged in art, whether it’s a political poster, music, a film, or a Civil War memorial. I think the responsibility of every artist who is commissioned to create a work of art is to be cognizant of the client’s motives in commissioning that work. Commissioning a work is an act of expression, as much as making that work is.

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