Alba’s Sculpture

I mentioned in an earlier post my intention of making a monument for my late wife. These are the finished marble pieces for her grave.

This was the first time I ever really sculpted or carved anything. I had a great deal of help doing the initial sculpture in clay from the director of the sculpture program at the Florence Academy of Art, Robert Bodem, who let me use his studio for a couple of months and showed me what to do. He also did the plaster casts for me. The sculpture technique at the FAA is very drawing-based, so all my years of charcoal and pencil portraits was of some help. I still really had no idea what I was doing. Rob would often come in with a trowel and take off lots of clay. Another old friend, Calyxte Campe gave me a day of hands-on help with the bust, and Johanna Schwaiger helped with the final stages of the marble.

Everything about this project was different. Normally, the process with portraiture is that the closer you get to a likeness the happier you feel about the work. When sculpting one’s wife a month after her death, the dynamic is very much the opposite.

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Alba had always wanted a dog. After they discovered the tumor she adopted a little stray from the streets of Naples, Emma. The dog always sleeps with it’s ears perked up, but after Alba’s death it slept for a few days with the ears down. I tried to capture that in the sculpture.

‘Emma’ will go at the foot of the grave, with Alba’s bust near the headstone. An architect friend of hers, Rudi Ulivi, has done a very elegant design for it all, something of a modern version of Jacopo della Quercia’s tomb of Ilaria del Carretto.

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Here are some photos from the process. The dog was done in our apartment from life. She sleeps on her pillow next to the radiator most of the winter anyways, so she was a pretty easy model. I tried to make the pillow look like one of the many cheap Ikea pillows we had around the house.

Alba was done from photographs. Here I’m working in Rob’s studio in Florence.

Sculpting in clay from photos in Rob Bodem’s studio.

The clay pieces were then cast into plaster, and laser-scanned by a marble-carving company in Carrara, Italy. After picking out a sculpture-grade marble block, the scans were sent to the robot (pictured below) which carves the blocks to within a millimeter of the specifications of the scan. It’s hard to tell the scale in the photo but Mickey is bigger than a person.

It may seem like cheating, but I learned that every sculptor since Michelangelo has had assistants block in the marble from the maestro’s clay model.

This digital process worked to my advantage in that, having never sculpted before, I had made the bust of Alba way too big.  By using this method of the laser-scan and 3D computer image I was able to measure an old sight-size oil portrait I did of her and reduce the dimensions of the digital wireframe model to her exact scale.

The marble-carving robot at Carrara.

After the marble comes back from the robot it still needs a great deal of work. I tried rasps and chisels but at the end found it easier to use a dremel.

The marble as it comes back from the robot.

When Alba learned of her tumor she desperately wanted some form of immortality, I guess we all do. None of us will get it.

This was the best I could do.

Art and Death

Art, for me, has always been two things. At its worst it is purely decorative (which, all things considered, isn’t so bad). At its best though I believe art is as close as a person can get to touching the divine. I don’t think we can understand god in any meaningful sense. Our brains simply aren’t capable. I use the example of my dog and mathematics. She gets two treats when we come home, but sometimes when we’re running low I give her one. She can clearly count to two, she follows me around the house wondering where the second one is. She is probably really proud of the fact that she can count to two. On the other hand she can’t do algebra or calculus and I doubt she is aware of the fact. For me, a human being’s understanding of god is like my dog counting to two. The reality is infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. The feeling of love (for lack of a better word) that comes with strong inspiration is, to me, as close as we will ever get. The surge of emotion a painter feels observing light on a withered old man, a beautiful young woman, or a Fiat Panda is us getting a small inkling of the vast beauty and power of what must be the divine.

With all of the metaphysical questions one deals with when confronted with the death of a loved one, my belief that my wife has gone somewhere which has something to do with this feeling gives me solace.

Art, for me, has never been a form of communication. Other artists I’ve spoken to find this strange. They say that is the main reason they create. I’ve just never seen it that way. I paint what I love, the world be damned. So it was interesting to me to see how communicative I found the art of others to be when mourning the death of my young wife.

These days people turn to online forums, therapy, counseling, and anti-depressants to deal with grief. Being the first of my friends to deal with a situation like this, I wasn’t really aware of the options and I looked to more traditional methods.

People say alcohol can be a crutch, I used it more like a wheelchair that first month. Even though being a functioning alcoholic in my profession is acceptable, if not encouraged, the problem with alcohol and grief is that the booze knocks the teeth out of the serotonin levels in your brain and the next day is much worse. Or so they say. The truth is that at least you feel o.k. part of the time. The real problem with alcohol for me is that it negatively affects my work. I think you could get away with being an alcoholic as a portraitist, but not as a landscape painter. The mornings are too important. Either way, I’ve toned it down lately.

I’m very thankful to have a fantastic set of friends. Both here in Florence and elsewhere around the world. It’s said your address book changes after the death of a spouse but my experience has been exactly the opposite. A few times I’ve had to hide from the concern, just to have a moment alone.

At the end of the day though, I found most of my consolation in art: Literature, music, sculpture and paintings.

When I was a kid I had to memorize the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It has always stuck with me. On one of my first nights alone in Florence we had one of our rare snows in the Mediterranean, I wondered if it was snowing on my wife’s grave across the Adriatic when I thought of the story. Poor Michael Furey, dead at 17, half my wife’s age.

Music is a wonderfully empathetic art form. I preferred the songs by widowers such as Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens, Blue Orchids and Katy Song by Mark Kozelek. Songs that don’t make any sense were, bizarrely, also of comfort. Songs like The Gardener by The Tallest Man on Earth, or Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (the Italian version).
There isn’t any sense to be made in the death of such a vibrant young woman.

Many painters have since written to me about their own loss of a loved one. At the beginning though I knew only of past artists who had lost wives and the art they left in their memory. I can’t say it made me feel better, but it did make me feel less alone.

Frank Duveneck was an American painter living in Florence in the 1880s. His wife, Elizabeth Boott, was the inspiration for Pansy Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (you can read more on their romance here).  They had also been married for three years when she passed away. He worked with a sculptor to create a monument for her. The original is here in the Allori cemetery in Florence. The monument was considered so beautiful that copies were made for the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. They ask you not to take pictures in the Allori cemetery, but here is a photoof the Met version. I’ve visited the Allori version a couple of times recently and found it very moving.

Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Frank Duveneck.

Arnold Böcklin was another foreign painter living in Florence. He was commissioned by a widow to paint an image of grief. The result is the Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) and he painted five versions (Serge Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem with the same name after seeing it). The image is based on the cemetery in Piazza Donatello where his four year old daughter, Maria Anna, is buried. My studio looks onto the cemetery, but in the 12 years I’ve been there I had never been inside until now. I looked to see if he had done a monument for his daughter but it was stolen earlier in the century when the cemetery was abandoned.

Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel). Arnold Böcklin.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau buried four of his five children and a young wife. He painted his Pietà in after losing his 16-year-old son in 1876. For a man who must have suffered so much in his life, I find his work strangely lacking in emotion.

Pietà. William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Claude Monet’s wife Camille died at 32. He was 38 and penniless, like me. I read that he blamed his poverty for Camille’s death, and it was part of the reason he focused on becoming so rich later in life. While I believe Alba was failed miserably by her doctors, I don’t know if more money would have necessarily saved her. By the time we knew what she had there wasn’t much that could have been done. Monet painted Camille on her deathbed, and kept it in his bedroom for the rest of his life as one of his most prized possessions.

Camille Monet on her Deathbed. Claude Monet.

I haven’t painted for the last 6 months, which is also why I haven’t had anything to blog about. I did a sculpture of Alba and another of our dog which will be re-cut in marble for her grave. I’ll post pictures when it’s finished.

From my talks with other artists, it seems that not being able to work is a normal reaction. It hasn’t really been my season anyways. I hope to hit the ground running in May when I have painting trips planned to Montalcino and the Val d’Arbia.

Alba Teta Dalessio, May 24th, 1979 – December 7th, 2010

My wife passed away last month. She was 31 and we had been married almost three years. She had a malignant tumor in her frontal lobe which had been dormant for years but changed at some point recently. She died as Alba Teta, as she was going to change her name this year when her passport expired. Like most young couples, we had a lot of plans and dreams.

Alba was incredibly intelligent, full of life, and very beautiful. She is greatly missed by myself, her family, and her friends.

The blogging is going to be slow while I get back on my feet.

Art Videos on Youtube (and TED)

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while. Here are a couple of excellent art-related videos on Youtube.

Vilayanur Ramachandran on Neurobiology and Aesthetics (Skip to 21m:45s):

Roger Scruton on Beauty (6 parts):

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty:

There is a great wealth of information online these days, but so much of it is hard to find. If anyone else has recommendations, please post them in the comments.