“Lavorare!” comes the cheerful cry from Boutros Romhein, “Work”, as for two happy weeks we chip, tap, grind and hammer away at our sculptures at his school Arco Arte, in the wild mountains of Carrara. In a two week course, which at around 1250 Euros, including simple accommodation, is remarkably good value, it is the first and very best lesson for aspiring artists in marble. There is so much to learn about stone, form, tools, style, finishing, and so on, which any real sculptor will tell you takes a lifetime, adding they are always learning too, that you simply have to get on and do it – WORK. But what blissful and consuming work it is.
Boutros, with that wry smile
Boutros, a charmingly warm hearted and highly regarded Syrian sculptor, who often appears dusted in white like an old testament prophet, has been working in marble for over 55 years. So by the little stream, in the neck of a valley mined for marble since pre-Roman times, which Boutros is convinced resists any bad energies, a giant mouthless whale, a laconic camel, and an abstract angel are some of the testaments to his passion, knowledge and his skill. In a large workshop below the school the leaves and vines are washed in marble dust too, not harmful – being essentially calcium carbonate, as Boutros and Eric, a young mason from Germany, put the finishing touches to a gigantic, prowling, two-tailed lion, destined for a park in New York State. Now what began as a block weighting 60 tonnes, is refined down to a mere 20!
Up at the little museum in the mountains though, where a sign points the way to the Cavo di Marmi, Boutros, a local celebrity, created all the sculptures himself, over a quarter of a century ago. So testifying to the grinding human reality of life working those marble mountains. Once it was only hand tools, donkeys, carts and back breaking work. Now something like a thousand trucks rattle up and down the valley every day, far too fast, like all Italian drivers, passing through a special lorry wash to keep down the dust, and cutting machines chug and slice late into the night. So providing marble to the world, in essentially industrial Carrara, unlike the now very chic and expensive Pietra Santa, not from the visionary hands of a Michelangelo, not for the statues that are everywhere, but for all those kitchen table tops, terrazzi and marble stairs. But interestingly also ground down too and used in agricultural and animal feed products. You wonder when these mountains then, rising into the Italian blue like petrified ski slopes, will disappear completely, as life and man consume the world. But it proves one thing, marble isn’t bad for you!
James, Liv, Gina and Barbara at the presentation – schools out!
So comes a drive right into the heart of the mountain, through a kilometre long tunnel that feels like entering the mines of Moria from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But once inside with the tourists there is no sense of Orc attack, only magic. A quiet awe descends, looking at these vast internal galleries of negative space, where they sometimes hold concerts, or make sleek adverts for expensive cars. Then, on the other side of the mountain, we drive to the quarry Michelangelo himself used, where perhaps the stone for David, or his immortal slaves in Florence, was quarried. The municipality will forgive me picking up two little pieces as a special souvenir, ok, nicking them, but then all artists know the dubious nature of valuing any piece of art, or perhaps anything beyond people. After comes a visit to Boutros’s nephew Osama too, at Studio Alnassar, whose own work is remarkable, and who has created a fascinating atelier with two marble amphitheatres, where he holds concerts and talks and breathes the very unique spirit of the place. There is an awareness of the tragic issues back home in Syria, and Boutros’s brother is also a sculptor, but here Boutros talks the strong stone language of how everyone needs protecting, and a family have long found a new home, and a new or ancient meaning. That speaks a greater language than politics or power, and attracts people from all over the world.
Boutros, delighted and obsessed with Rascal’s tail!
So we worked on in several languages, and only one, Art: James from Atlanta, on a ten year adventure bucket list that would put a bucket to shame, warm Gina from Wisconsin, Liv from Norway, an enthusiastic French couple, a young man from Japan, two German girls – Silvia a skilled sculptress herself – and me and my special dog Rascal, whose sweet nature and helicopter tail delights Boutros. I was trying to sculpt a hummingbird, the most delicate of creatures, in the hardest form, and Boutros looked very sceptical as it got smaller and smaller and refused to fly. “No Lavorare – Go to the beach!”. As for the art, Boutros usually denies discussing form, that’s up to you, and if something cracks, or seems wrong, there is another laughing cry, like a question, “In the river?!” Then all those centuries of work must have seen so many hopes, so many mistakes, so many accidents and disasters, and of course some wonderful revelations, that you soon learn you can’t be precious about it either. The sculptors I have met here too, whether Arne, a much regarded artist from Norway, or the dashingly marble haired Martin, a famous Hungarian who has moved to America, or Christian Lange in Pietra Santa, are all generous in their spirit, their openness and their understanding. They know people are having a go, finding a new way perhaps, maybe trying to be professionals too and there is a humility in sharing that journey. It’s why so many seem to come back to Arco Arte – where Boutros’s lovely partner Barbara also runs a very happy and relaxed ship – older, younger, the group of young German masons learning everything they can and settling for a morning and afternoon coffee, with sugar, no sugar, but then to hear that merry invocation again “Lavorare!”
The said hummingbird, by James’s fish, just down the way from his sail and splendid Bull-pig, almost finished in its translucent majesty and very much for sale, one day!!!!
David Clement-Davies, fortuitously for Phoenix Ark Press, did a two -week course with Arco Arte, in hand and machine tools. To take a course or for more information CLICK HERE