I come from Polish-Italian descent; I’m first generation Canadian. My grandfather and great uncles were into sculpture and art. So I think I’ve had that all my life and just never realized how strongly until recent years. I’ve always had an interest in music, art.
Borgo SS. Apostoli, 18
How long have you been doing sculpture? I have always created sculptural work but in my early years it took the form of fine furniture in wood and handcrafted fireplace surrounds in cast stone. The more “fine art” sculpture began about ten years ago. My first interest was even before that, probably 15 years ago, when I met a sculptor. We did one-on-one sculpting and portrait in clay, and from him I learned how strongly I was interested in continuing in this medium, and then I had to go back to my regular thing, because you have to work too [laughs]. I found out from him that at the Burlington art center there was another artist that did once-a-week group lessons, so I went there and learned sculpting from a live model; that to me was incredibly interesting. It just got into my hands and into my heart, and I thought, “I really, really like this.” So I just kept going. My first commission was doing the Harriet Tubman portrait. It was a bust for a national historical site in our city. Who had known [laughs]? And the next day I’m shaking the mayor’s hand and he says, “Frank this is wonderful, but I heard that you’re leaving us.” And I said, “Yes, actually, we [my wife and I] are going to Florence. And I’m going to learn a lot more about sculpture and continue to pursue this art.” And so we did. We had fallen in love with Florence years and years before that. And to further our training we were accepted into the three-year program at world renowned academy, The Florence Academy of Art. We graduated, and really learned so much from life because there was constantly a model in front of you, whether you’re drawing, painting, or sculpting. Then after-hours we had our own studio here, and we would bring in models as well just to really practice further our academic training, but with our own vision. And the education was amazing, it’s tops. And we just continued to do it, and now I still do work from live models when possible: sculpture, portraits, life-size, half-life sized.
Did you always grow up in Canada, then? Yep, born and raised. Born in central Canada and moved to Ontario when we were much younger, and my dad bought a farm.
How do you think that setting influenced you as an artist growing up? Well, it was beautiful because you had the blossoms that would come out in the spring, and then of course when the fruits come out it’s colorful again against that backdrop. I was self-taught for painting (my wife being an oil painter may have influenced me), but I love to do landscape painting. I truly love to get out, and some people say it’s because I’m Canadian that I need to see trees, but it’s true! I think that helped because nature is just the most incredible subject. There’s always something unique.
Do you still find that satisfaction from nature in Florence even though it’s a city? Oh yeah. I love the city because it’s like every day there’s a new school of fish, or a new sunset, a new start. This whole city is crawling with people from every make and model out there, and I love meeting people and showing them what we love most about Florence. I love the way that the art is here, the fashion, the architecture, the poor, the beauty, the young, the old, the multiculturalism, the history—it’s all here. And I think that’s why all the artists eventually come here.
What artistic styles stood out to you the most while growing up? I think all of it around our home when we were kids; my mother being Italian, of course, had to have the plaster statues all over the place and artwork on the walls. And she did a little painting, and my sister did as well. I think because of the Italian side of it and what we see around the city and in the museums out here, that’s kind of what I grew up with. I’ve always had a really good feeling about realistic art, and I think growing up in the 60s and 70s you had all that crazy stuff, still today, which I think gives you a nice bracket: you’ve got the crazy contemporary stuff over there, you’ve got the historic Renaissance over here, and everything in between. I think it is the realist/naturalistic works that really is most in my heart.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have had to overcome as an artist? I really love meeting new people, and, being an artist, you just have to stay inside the studio [laughs], but I’ve sort of worked things out to where I get to enjoy people, get out there and do open houses and exhibitions, but at the same time I’ve learned to perfect my skills where I am able to get more done in one day. That’s one of the biggest things to overcome; you need to put a lot of time into art. A lot of people think that they’re going to create that one masterpiece and then retire, but that doesn’t happen [laughs]. I think one of the biggest things to overcome as an artist is sticking to your direction. It’s very easy to get distracted by everything that’s around you, and what you see outside. I think you just have to be really dedicated to your end goal, keep that in mind, and just go straight ahead. Play along the way, but definitely you’ve got to stay focused.
Do you think it’s harder to stay focused here in Florence when there’s always something going on versus back in Canada? I think back in Canada I would go stir-crazy in my studio because even if you did go outside, there’s less stimulation, partly due to the long winters which make “sitting in the piazzas” less of a possibility. Here if you step outside your door you meet every age, every nationality… many people who visit Florence come from varied backgrounds and it is unique in that way. Unlike a luxury resort destination we get people from war torn countries, from very rich places, students, professionals … and now that we’ve realized that it never stops, that there’s always something to do here it is easier to stay focused on work in the studio because you feel comfortable that these things will still be there when you need a break or inspiration. I think it has helped me become more focused in the studio because I know that there’s always going to be something else out there; there’s always something new and exciting, always something cool.
Who is your biggest inspiration now? I still like Bernini’s and Rodin’s work, and Michelangelo of course. I think the old masters have a lot to teach us but it is up to the individual to develop their own unique voice.
How would you describe your own style? This [The Conversation] is my own inspirational impressionist work, but my style is classical realism. I want the freedom to play with my ideas and figures, but I still want them to “have bones” and be recognizable as human form.
One of the biggest things to overcome as an artist is sticking to your direction. It’s very easy to get distracted by everything that’s around you.
How do you get inspired for a new piece? Wanting to try a new material has actually given me new ideas. I’ve got some really exciting ones in my heart and mind right now, that I can’t tell you about [laughs], but they’ll come out some day! Inspiration comes from every time I go into the Medici Chapels, the Borghese, or Palazzo Pitti, or anything that’s outside here—also the Bargello; it’s like I’m not worthy [laughs]! These guys are so good, you know. And you don’t want to be copying their work; you want to be as good as them, but you don’t want to copy what they’ve done. And that’s hard because you do want to make an original piece. So yes, I think this city inspires me nonstop.
Do you ever feel that there’s a struggle between being inspired by these historic pieces in the city and being compared with them? I think that’s something to be aspired to; I want to be just as good. It’s really important to have a story. I don’t think you can just make a blob and put it out there and expect people to get all excited about it. I mean, some people can, but I don’t believe in that. I think you should have a life to the work, there should be something in it that’s alive. The Harriet Tubman sculpture, a seated life-sized bronze commissioned by the District School Board of Niagara, is an important work for me. It is my second work of Harriet Tubman, who was an important historic figure in my hometown of St. Catharines. I have posed her with a book in her lap with the title “The Story of Harriet Tubman” because she has a story to tell, and it is for a school and the irony is she could not read. Slaves were not allowed to be educated and her work in bringing slaves to freedom from the USA to Canada has changed everything. The story of how she pretended to hold a book or newspaper to evade capture on her travels was well known. She felt because she was “wanted” and people knew she was illiterate she could cleverly hide by pretending to read. For the schoolchildren of today to realize that this is not to be taken for granted is an important part of her legacy. I think that’s important. You can be inspired by something beautiful, but if you can’t let the audience know why it’s there or why it’s so great, then I think that’s where it falls apart.
What role do you think historic and contemporary art play with one another? I think it’s like what our school did, and it took a little to get used to that. What really good artists do is have a really solid structure to begin with. If you don’t have a basic foundation to build a house on, it’s not going to stand regardless of the decoration. And I think you really need to learn from the old works that went before. I mean, I couldn’t have done this without the education I received because you’re getting the structure you need. Once you have the alphabet it is up to you to write the poem, and that is when the real work begins. For me it’s important to know what the people in the past did so I can build on that and grab the baton and keep running with it.
What do you hope that others understand about your work? The effort that goes into it and why it’s important to me. Again, going back to the story about why is it here, why did you make this piece, and what’s so exciting about it. I want this story to be told later in life, to the next generation. I hope it sticks around forever, like the Riace bronzes, something like that that happened so long ago but that today we’re all talking about it and we go to admire and enjoy. I want my work to continue going out there, and hopefully my work will inspire the next artist.
What are some frustrating things about being an artist in Florence? Sometimes getting materials because a lot of places don’t stock a lot of the materials that I need. It’s really hard to sell art to a country that is surrounded by art because they can just walk outside and see it there for free. They don’t buy a lot of art. They buy art, but not a lot. Their pleasure often seems to be more in abstract, impressionist, colorful. They’re not big into bronzes and marble and that kind of thing because they’re surrounded by it. So that’s a frustrating part in that the market is not really here. Unless it’s tourists; tourists do buy some stuff. But not a lot, they’re mostly here for gelato and walking around and to look at the statues outside [laughs].
Why do you think people are attracted to those newer styles? I think because they’ve been surrounded by the other for forever. I mean, it’s in their blood, it’s been around for thousands of years, and why would they want more in their own home? I think. But I think also that because they have limited space, something with color that punches up a wall, is exciting to them. Laura sells a lot more paintings than I do sculptures here.
What are your goals as an artist for future endeavors? To be successful [laughs] number one, and to me success is being able to afford to continue making art in a place that I love. And two, I think I would like to pass this on to someone: to just continue doing the workshops and to teach, which I love. I love the way students can create things, and when they make a mold and their piece comes out of it and they’re all excited. I think that’s kind of cool. So, to be successful and to be a part of someone’s life, a young artist—who knows!
What is your purpose for creating? I guess self-satisfaction to say I can do that, I know I can do that. The only thing I am having trouble with is the Italian language, but other than that I love a challenge. I think I just need to have a challenge and a goal and to reach it. To me that’s very important.
In your opinion, what gives art value? I think the story is what gives it value. It’s got to have a story and some heart and soul, and you should be able to get pulled right into it and wonder, “How did they do that? Look at those fingernails, look at the color of those eyes; that gesture speaks to me,” and also, beyond the technique, the mood it speaks to and whether people can relate something of their own experiences when viewing it …all these sorts of things. I think that’s really important, something that’s deeper than just the superficial.
What makes your style unique? I guess it’s unique in that I put all I could into it, and so for me that was the challenge. And if I’m satisfied at the end of it, then I think that I’ve succeeded in creating a unique product of my own doing.
What role does your work play in regards to the city of Florence? I’m inspired by the fashion that’s here; all the incredible stores and shops and things, and movie stars that come here. I think it is fashion that has recently has me inspired. The figure in fashion is beautiful to sculpt because you are not only sculpting a human form but you get to play with the beauty, creativity and inspiration of the designer as well.
Do you think, then, that it is important for an artist to be creating in an environment where they are inspired? I think so, yes. There’s always a better artist out there than you, always. And I think that if you can learn anything from, whether it’s fashion, art, jewelry, food, the colors of walls—anything that gives you a little more food for your creativity—then I think yes, it’s all really important. Art is a big thing, whether it’s music or dance or sculpture or food or what have you. It’s a big, big world, and we can all learn something from it. Art can be a record of our times and it is what we leave behind.