Sculptor Jane Valentine, is an artist working in a revered art form, crafting the marble of Michelangelo and the inspiration of ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy into a 21st-century statement. Valentine is brightly blonde and seductively ebullient. One of Australia’s pre-eminent – and rare – marble sculptors, her personal stash of marble blocks are agisted in a field on the edge of Sydney. She works on the other side of the world: most usually in the Italian village of Pietrasanta, where Michelangelo sourced his marble; sometimes in Xiamen, in the south-east of China; most recently in Cairo.
“As a carver, the scale in Egypt is unbelievable. Something as little as 10cm is so incredibly beautiful and contains as much essence as something that’s five metres tall. The history, the culture: it’s everywhere. You could live in the Cairo museum, it’s amazing. And when I saw the pyramids, I cried.”
One of the earliest art forms, sculpture still carries the imprint of artisan knowledge passed down through centuries. Yet while Valentine’s practice honours and continues many traditional methods, she is very much a 21st-century practitioner, excited by technology and operating globally, sourcing her materials, her working spaces and conversations all over the world.
“I work with whatever technology I can take; and I work some pieces just by hand. That’s amazing – and even more beautiful when you’re working more intuitively and you don’t know what the end product is going to be.” Now, she says, working like that is “something that I give myself as a gift”. “Part of my artistic practice tries to get to the essence of things and that’s often a pure, fragile, feminine essence.”
A contradiction to the sense of solidity and grandeur often associated with marble? “Yes, and with marble you have a sense of immortality, too – a memorial aspect. To get to an essence, to immortalise it, that’s essentially what I’m doing. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition.”
Always confident she’d be an artist – “it was the only thing I was good at, at school” – Valentine majored in painting at the Sydney College of the Arts. On graduation, she won a scholarship to Florence, only to find herself overwhelmed trying to work in “this ancient, culturally rich city”. The epiphany came on an excursion to Pietrasanta: Valentine saw a girl working in one of the studios and knew instantly what she wanted to do next.
“The first time I worked with marble was like watching black-and-white television turn into colour,” she says. Valentine never painted again. “The technique I use is subtractive: give 30 students a block of clay, 28 will put little pieces of it together to assemble a shape – only a couple will start subtracting pieces of the clay to find something. That’s working in negative space and I found that language very intuitive. It was the first time I calmed down. Sculpting is very meditative and I’m very lively, always thinking 20, 30 different things. Sculpture lets me have that thinking space, and all those ideas, but it lets me quieten my voice and get to the essence of what I’m trying to say.”
Her first major exhibition was representing Australia in the 1999 International Sculpture Symposium in Changchun, China.
Contemporaries Valentine finds admirable, inspiring, include “Anish Kapoor, of course, Isamu Noguchi, Peter Randall-Page, Antony Gormley – people you return to just for the simplicity of falling in love with their work.” Then there are women such as the late Louise Bourgeois and Australian artists such as Marea Gazzard and Inge King. “They arose within their media within such a difficult age of being.” She spent eight years in Pietrasanta – a long apprenticeship, she concedes, but one she couldn’t have undertaken anywhere else.
“It’s a melting pot of artists from all round the world, from very significant artists to people working on their first pieces. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of ideas and cultures. After work, you’d go to the bar, have a coffee or a glass of wine, covered in marble dust, then you’d eat together – people from five or six different countries, maybe a writer or a dancer. It’s the only place I’ve ever found like that.”
There’s a famous Michelangelo quote about the statue concealed in each block of stone and the sculptor’s task of revealing it. In Valentine’s concentration as she listens – leaning in to catch anything obscured beneath the stones of a conversation’s words – you sense the focus with which she seeks out her marble and its internal potential. “It’s better to go when it’s just been raining and there’s early morning light,” she says of these excursions. “You have to tap it – when you tap marble, it sings, so you’re looking for the appropriate pitch.” It’s a sensual step in a very physical process: work with marble is work of heft, with cranes and grinders, tractors and hoists.
The tallest of the exquisite teardrops Valentine made for Victoria’s Chadstone Shopping Centre is three metres high – and the hunt for their stone took six solid weeks. All of which creates its own economies of scale: the crafting of a maquette might take six weeks – “although that includes the time you are thinking about it while you’re peeling the potatoes” – a work the size of the Chadstone piece, Origins, required a year from start to finish. Then there is the cost of the raw materials she uses: a marble block can cost her as much as $40,000.
Thierry B Fine Art is proud to present Harmonic Lines by Jane Valentine (pictured at top) located at 473 Malvern Rd, South Yarra 3141. Gallery hours are: Monday - Saturday 11am-5pm& Sunday12pm-5pm.