Tools of Trades: Articulating Sculptural Practice

Introduction to the issue 3.3 by Jon Wood

This first special issue of the Journal of Modern Craft is dedicated to a greater understanding of how contemporary and historic sculptors articulate their use of tools, making sense of their relationship to them and explaining the roles they play in their practice. It has its genesis in both a Henry Moore Institute Research Fellowship and a conference session. In 2008 Jyrki Siukonen was awarded a one month HMI fellowship to work on a project, using the Institute’s resources, which he called ‘Silence: Sculptor at Work, or, Articulating a Philosophy of Tools’. Discussions between us and colleagues about the different ways of thinking and talking about the intricacies of sculptural practice led to us formulate a session together for the AAH (Annual Art Historians’) conference, which was held at Manchester Metropolitan University in April 2009.

Having the art historians’ conference as the forum for this session was especially important to us as our conversations in Leeds had regularly focused on the different approaches and languages that come out of art practice compared to art history. Thinking between and across them, the session asked how manual work and its philosophy have been understood by artists themselves as well as writers. It asked what could be learned from each other – between the studio and the study, so to speak – what connections could be drawn between different kinds of ‘manual thinking’ and attitudes to making. The session comprised presentations by both artists and art historians (which was in itself relatively unusual for an AAH conference) and across the two days we heard about different ways of articulating historical and contemporary sculptural practice: about different kinds of tools, hands, studios, schools and different kinds of artistic knowledge. The majority of papers dealt with twentieth and twenty-first century sculpture, but there were contributions that examined the articulation of particular sculptural practices in the 18th and 19th centuries. By bringing together historians and contemporary practitioners we aimed to open up discussion of the different aspects of sculptural ‘tooling’, both inside the studio and beyond it. Alongside papers by artists Edward Allington, Elizabeth Presa and Cecile Johnson-Soliz (who sadly couldn’t join us on the day), were contributions from Jyrki Siukonen, Tomas Macsotay, Ann Compton, Christina Ferando, David Getsy, Nina Gülicher, Janice Hitchens, Peter Muir and, finally, JMC co-editor Glenn Adamson, who concluded the two-day session with a paper called ‘A Dirty Shame: Guilty Pleasures in Contemporary Studio Practice’.[1]

The Journal of Modern Craft seemed an interesting place to publish a selection of these conference papers because the questions our session raised about ‘sculpture’ go right to the heart of what we might indeed mean by ‘sculptural practice’ today – questions which have an equal urgency for our understanding of ‘craft’. In the post-conference discussion session, we commented on the often unfortunate fate of the words ‘sculpture’ and ‘craft’ in the minds of many commentators today, seen as either too elitist and recherché, or too ubiquitous and lacking in aesthetic merit. In keeping with this, we decided to select papers from the session that connected most strongly with this double relevance, whilst also including texts that reflected upon the tools and languages of sculpture making, addressing the different meanings of materials, processes and non-verbal ways of articulating sculptor’s practice.

The shift from discussions of academic sculpture and its traditional separation of invention and execution toward what were believed to be more ‘direct’, ‘honest’ and ‘expressive’ working methods, (from Auguste Rodin to Constantin Brancusi, for example), resulted in major changes in understanding of both studio practice and sculptural rhetoric. Modern sculpture practice could be promoted as an independent, solitary and even meditative exercise. The language of sculpture making that this generated, however, coexisted with other pedagogies, manuals and textbooks of the day, as well as with other art critical and historical accounts of sculpture. The backgrounds to these issues are addressed in the first section of the journal, in the texts of Jyrki Siukonen, who provides an introduction to the journal, and those of art historians Tomas Macsotay, Nina Gülicher and Ann Compton.

These historical changes in sculptors’ vocabularies – material, visual and conceptual – challenge us to ask how manual work and its philosophy have been understood by makers themselves, and by those who have taught and studied it – and also by those who continue to do so today. In keeping with this, the journal concludes with three texts by contemporary sculptors – Edward Allington, Cecile Johnson-Soliz and Krysten Cunningham – each of whom discuss the meanings and languages of their sculpture and of their processes today.


Jon Wood is an art historian who specialises in twentieth-century and contemporary sculpture. He coordinates the research programme and curates exhibitions at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

[1] Adamson’s paper has been published as ‘Analogue Practice’ in Michelle Grabner and Mary Jane Jacob, The Studio Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

2 thoughts on “Tools of Trades: Articulating Sculptural Practice

  1. when i studied sculpture at goldsmiths college in 1983-1986 we still had a foundry and workshops and so like other hands on sculpture courses at the time(canterbury,winchester,norwich and wimbledon etc.)some emphasis was placed upon making skills as part of the education. subsequent years has seen the erosion of this element on sculpture courses to the point, in my opinion, that we now have sculpture a majority of graduates who have no making skills at all.
    The option of Thinking through the hands has been replaced with over conceptualising the practise to the point where it has become all left hand brain talking with no room for the intuitive and empathetic.

  2. Thanks for your comment Terry. As there is greater squeeze on skills in large teaching institutions, could smaller private academies take up what’s missing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *