We witnessed the impact that memorials have on people, with the toppling or removal of many in 2020 along with the installation of the first memorial featuring real women in New York’s Central Park. It seems like a good time to reflect on the creation and conservation of public monuments.
Robert Shure, sculptor, conservator, and president of Skylight Studios in Woburn, Massachusetts, creates sculpture using traditional methods and materials and compositions that help viewers reflect on people and places. He has also conserved important historic monuments; Shure worked on the conservation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a fixture across the street from the Massachusetts State capitol, during the turbulent summer of 2020.
Combining Academic Study with a Traditional Apprenticeship
Shure exhibited a talent for drawing as a child growing up in Brooklyn. He graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in 1970 and earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in 1973. He embarked on the traditional path of working in a studio or atelier under a master’s direction when upon graduation, he went to work for two renowned sculptors in their studio on Tavern Road in Boston. Under the guidance of Arcangelo Cascieri (1902-1997) and Adio di Biccari (1914-2009), Shure worked on projects for the National Cathedral, the restoration of Daniel Chester French’s (1850-1931) Concord Minute Man, and made his first encounter with the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) when he helped to conserve a plaster cast of the Amor Caritas. During his years at the Cascieri-di Biccari Studio, he worked on all aspects of sculpture from building armatures to making molds and plaster casts to restoring plaster, stone, and bronze sculptures. He became acquainted with Lino Giust (1928-2020), who had purchased P.P. Caproni and Brother, the highly regarded studio that produced reductions and reproductions of sculptures and architectural ornament. All three of his mentors retired around the same time and in 1990, Shure along with his wife Kathleen, opened Skylight Studios. Mr. Giust had passed on the Caproni company to the Shures as well. By 1995, Skylight Studios had become one of the largest studios in the US—the same year Shure was honored with a Federal Design Achievement Award for his heroic-sized sculpture of George Washington, installed at the Washington Monument.
The Process of Sculpted Memorials
Robert Shure is not an artist working “alone in a garret.” He says with great delight, “I enjoy people and the committees that I work with whether it is made up of one person or 20.” He says the process of a public memorial begins with the desire to honor the memory of someone or something. So, his process begins with listening—and communication remains important. Robert says it really helps to know the location of the memorial, from which he can judge scale and compatibility with surroundings or take advantage of the site’s features. He is a firm believer of “putting pen to paper” after the preliminary discussions take place. His sketches form the basis of the “give and take” that follow between client and artist.
When a concept is agreed upon, he begins to produce a clay model in miniature, referred to as a maquette. Once finalized, he builds more detailed small models—often with complete armature and very detailed elements. He says that this step is crucial for a few reasons. “It is important to find out if a particular detail will need extra support while using a small amount of clay. I can’t fight gravity and when we move into modeling at a heroic scale, if a large section of clay is supported poorly, it can be costly in terms of days or weeks of work.”
A Sculpture Studio is a Business with Many Trades at Work
Shure employs a curator who works on the archival research for his designs and cataloging his work and photos of work in progress. Robert says his work is dependent on highly skilled tradesmen. He works in the style of Renaissance and Gilded Age American masters of sculpture—he has a team of skilled professionals and apprentices working on specific aspects of multiple monuments at any given time. He employs people who specialize in mold-making and casting, woodworkers to build platforms and custom crates, granite carvers who work in stone, pipe fitters for welding armature and rigging specialists who design transport and installation. He currently employs 12 people and works with many others. He works routinely with architects for specific installation needs in given settings. Robert works with many foundries depending on their specializations—some are preferred for casting small objects; some for large. He often does his own finishing for the patina.
Conservation is another important part of his studio work. This past summer, I caught up with Robert at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he was regilding the “Angel with a Tablet” or “Amor Caritas.” He says that “working on the work of master sculptors from America and Europe is an honor.” He gets to observe the details of master works up close and comes to know the artists through their techniques and details. He produces treatment reports that serve as part of the object’s permanent record to guide future conservation work.
You can learn more about Robert’s work at skylightstudiosinc.com If you are interested in the Caproni Collection of reproduction sculpture, visit capronicollection.com