The above photograph is an image on myself in the back yard of a marble factory in Avenza Carrara, Italy. In the foreground are some of my first marble sculptures. This photograph was taken late March, or early April 1973 by the Canadian sculptor Bart Uchida. I am twenty-three years old and six or eight weeks later I shall be robbed and my first “expedition” to Italy will be shortly over.
An expedition that in my mind’s eye forty-five years later is mostly fogged fragments. But I clearly remember Bruce Garner telling me in that if I really wanted to learn how to carve stone or marble I had to go to Carrara Italy and hopefully his friend Bart Uchida would still be there. Bruce was a sculptor that lived and worked predominately in the Ottawa River valley. I worked as his assistant for the last three months of 1972 in Ottawa.
My father was a Colonel in the Canadian Air Force. He, and most of my family members, had been recently transferred from Ottawa to Brussels to work as Director for NATO. Being entitled to a family visit for Christmas, myself and my brother Thomas were flown from the Canadian Air Force base in Trenton to Heathrow (?) by jet around the 18th of December 1972. My first view of Europe is English roof tops and geometric plots of land in the early morning grey. The second step of our journey was totally different. We were flown by military transport, four propellers, and we were strapped to a seat that was part of a row along the side of the aircraft. A Jeep and a few other personnel were flying in the plane with us. I am not sure where we arrived from London, possibly Chievres Air Base, Belgium.
As part of the holiday celebrations my parents decided to take the family for a ski vacation at Zermatt in Switzerland. We celebrated the New Years there and then they returned to Brussels by car as I took a train to Carrara. It was the last time that I skied. I did not know if Bart was still there, but I did have his last mailing address. The train arrived at Carrara early in the morning. I found a taxi and produced the written address. This resulted in being brought to a house somewhere in the hills around Carrara. Knock, knock and the door opens. Bart is not here says Janos Stryk, a 40 year old, large and distinguished Hungarian sculptor and owner of the house. He invites me in for breakfast. Slightly bemused with my desire to become a sculptor we and then go searching for Bart.
For more background on Janos http://www.haninafinearts.com/artists/janos_stryk/biography
We find Bart in the back yard of a marble factory in Avenza, a part of Carrara that is below the Aurelia and before Marina di Carrara. He was working on a large marble sculpture for an Art Collector in Milan. He too seems bemused by my intention, and is very helpful in getting me settled, as he helps he find an apartment, convinces the owners of the marble factory to let me “work” in their back yard and even loans me an old Lambretta scooter for transportation.
What I remember most about this period was being caught up in a “puritan” work ethic that found me working for two to three weeks in a row before taking a half-day off. The mantra at the time was to carve the “block” of marble into the sculpture- direct carving. However I still remember vividly tone Sunday scooter ride where I went from Carrara to Lerici by “the back mountain road” and being totally taken by its stunning beauty, and another Sunday visit to Luni.
My wrists were not strong enough to control the pneumatic hammers; so all my carving was done with hand tools and a small disc grinder. At first my hand eye coordination was not as good as I thought, and although the swings were timid the marble hammer was unforgiving. The base of my left thumb was getting hit and skin taken off. I had learned that the marble dust, with all its calcium, helps to coagulate the blood. One day, after another good thumb smashing I found myself witnessing a dialogue between my left and right. The left arm immediately swung up and threw down the chisel and then emphatically informed the right arm had to either get it right or pass the hammer to the left arm. And the left and right became coordinated and confident.
There was a community of foreign sculptors working and living in and around Carrara. I meet some of them mostly through the occasional noon meal in a local trattoria or during dinners at Bart’s apartment or Janos’s house. I couple of the sculptors I meet then still work in the Carrara area.
My budget was student and the Canadian dollar keep dropping so I decided to cash most of my precious travellers cheques and hid the money in my apartment closet. When the landlord next came to pick up the rent money I went to the hiding place and found it empty, and realized a jacket and a couple of ties were missing too. Although my Italian was very primitive the landlord realized that I had been robbed and called the police. My first Italian experience was coming to an abrupt end.
I returned to Ottawa and began to work again with Bruce Garner. I became his assistant to finish his commission of ceremonial bronze doors for the Canadian Government Conference Centre in Ottawa’s former train station. My crate of sculptures eventually arrived. I managed to sell several of them and began plotting how to get back to Italy.