On a recent morning at Skylight Studios in Woburn, Massachusetts, a group of Harvard graduate students, faculty, curators, and conservators ﬁled past shelves of plaster sculptures and stacks of 100-pound bags of plaster. They stopped to watch one of the studio’s artisans tear off a sculpture’s amorphous latex shell to reveal a small-scale plaster replica of the Belvedere Torso. The group asked questions about the process and materials used to create the replica.
The visit was part of “Technologies of Reversal: An Exploration of Meaning and Making,” a workshop organized by Jennifer Roberts, Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, and Ethan Lasser, Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums. Over three days, nine students visited different sites to explore how reversals—the conversion of a negative form to a positive—are used in printmaking, casting, and contemporary prototyping. They’re interested in ﬁnding out the links between these processes and how artists conceptualize the negative forms of their desired work.
In addition to the sculpture design studio, students also visited the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts to view a printmaking demo; the Houghton Library for a looking session with Susan Dackerman, Harvard Art Museums’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints; and the MIT Media Lab to learn about 3D printing.
During the group’s visit to Skylight Studios, Robert Shure, sculptor and president of the studio, led students through his vast work space while detailing the history of materials and techniques used in mold-making and casting. Many American museums began as museums of plaster casts, including the Fogg Museum, and today, casts are still used to create copies of sculptures for museums, art schools, and independent collectors.
Shure shared some of the complex questions that an artist considers when casting a sculpture: How will their molds transfer shapes when cast? Should they build their mold from the outside in, or from the inside out? How will the material that is used to create a mold—clay, latex, silicone, or plastic—affect the ﬁnal product?
Students were able to make some of these choices themselves in the studio when they made their own plaster casts, using wax and plasticine molds. Francesca Bewer, Research Curator, and Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, both at the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, guided them and answered their questions along the way.
The sustained dialogues that occurred during the workshop between faculty, museum professionals, graduate students, and artists made clear how technical and artisanal knowledge can enrich the historical and interpretive disciplines. This was the ﬁrst workshop in an annual series exploring the processes used in the ﬁne, decorative, and industrial arts—we can’t wait to ﬁnd out what the organizers will focus on next year.
What artistic processes do you want to learn more about?