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Boise State Students Learn Marble Carving from World-Renowned Master

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 7:20 am / May 12, 2017

A student chiseling a marble face

A student at work in the studio, Allison Corona photo.

In the on-campus studio of Benjamin Victor, a dozen Boise State art students, faculty and staff stand before blocks of Italian marble, envisioning how to carve the stone into replicas of famous works by Michelangelo and Bernini. This is where world-renowned sculptor Jason Arkles comes in – for two weeks, the visiting Florence-based artist will guide these students through the ancient process of turning stone into works of art using ancient techniques like a pointing machine.

“It’s not really a machine, it’s a centuries old device,” explained Arkles. “The technique and science behind it is millennia old. It’s how Renaissance artists, Greeks, Romans even the Egyptians carved. Instead of just getting a rock, hammer, chisel and going for it, you first make a rough draft using the pointing machine.”

Two sculptors, smiling

Jason Arkles, right, with Ben Victor in the studio.

Arkles is an American sculptor working and teaching in Florence, Italy, in the traditional methods and materials one would normally associate with an Italian sculptor. His large-scale figurative works in bronze, marble, terracotta and wood can be found in public and private spaces, museums, cemeteries and churches in Europe and America, including on the façade of Saint Mark’s English Church in Florence.

Arkle’s workshop is an incredible opportunity for art students, as it marks the first time a marble carver of his caliber has ever offered a workshop in Idaho. The collaboration and planning needed to import the necessary tools – including 10 hand-made pointing machines and slabs of Italian marble – is, in and of itself, a remarkable feat.

“None of us have had the technical training that Jason is providing and it’s awesome,” explained Victor, Boise State visiting artist in residence and successful sculptor in his own right. “It’s really fun to see how he can teach everyone, from someone who’s worked with stone to someone who’s never touched it in their life, or is not a sculptor or artist by trade.”

Victor was instrumental in bringing Arkles to campus. A fan of his art history podcast, The Sculptor’s Funeral, Victor reached out to Arkles last year with the idea of bringing several students to Europe to study under the master. After several conversations, and with the full support of Boise State’s administration, Victor invited Arkles to campus instead.

“We could have advertised this class to artists across the U.S., but the administration here is very supportive of the students, and it was their preference to give Boise State students the opportunity to take this once-in-a-lifetime workshop,” Victor said.

Student chisels marble in workshop

A student at work in the studio, Allison Corona photo.

Aside from Victor, no one in the workshop has before used a hammer and chisel on stone, let alone a pointing machine, which is used to make a “rough draft” of a form. The process works like this: Sculptors begin making a rough draft of their ideas in clay. From there, they cast their form in plaster and then copy that form into marble using the pointing machine, as well as a hammer and chisel.

“It’s a bit of a rarity to practice with pointing machines,” Arkles said. “There are only two or three places in the world that make them any more.” Arkles ordered 10 machines for the students and made plaster casts of several famous old master works from which the students can work – including heads originally carved by famous sculptors Bernini and Michelangelo, as well as reduction torsos of the ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo.

Once the workshop is completed, the students will get to keep the fruits of their intensive labor.

The workshop, which runs from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. each weekday, will conclude May 19.