In the Studio: James Sondow
James Sondow’s fate to study the ancient tradition of monumental sculpture-making in Russia and become an ambassador of that legacy was apparent from a young age. Born in New York City to Russian-American parents, Sondow was fortunate to not only discover his talent early but to also be surrounded by supportive family, teachers, and fellow artists who nurtured that talent by introducing him to the numerous institutions, schools, and museums the city had to offer. Ever the over-achieving student with advanced placement and honors in the many subjects he chose to study throughout his youth and adolescence—life drawing, math, biology, pre-med, music, and sculpture among them—Sondow has since proven to be the best director of his own development through several decades of intense discipline and devotion to his craft.
Once the young sculptor discovered the Ilya Repin State Academy Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (also known as “The Repin Academy”) at the age of thirty through a summer program with the Bridgeview Fine Art Academy in Queens, he knew this was where he was meant to continue his training. Three years later, he packed his bags and left his life as an artist and teacher in New York City behind to move to St. Petersburg. There he steeped himself in seven years of intense study at the 250-year-old institution, graduating with highest honors and becoming the first foreign student to be accepted into the academy’s post-graduate program. Meeting (and eventually marrying) his leading model Elizaveta—a native Russian who did not speak English—was further motivation for Sondow to learn the Russian language, become more immersed in Russian culture, and reconnect with his own Russian-Jewish heritage.
The sculptor and his wife lived in Russia another three years—during which time they had two daughters—but the couple ultimately decided to return to the States to take up permanent residence in New York. Today Sondow has a studio in the Southeastern section of the Bronx and is also a principal instructor at the Princeton Academy of Art in New Jersey. At the time of this interview, he had not been back to his studio for three months because of the quarantine and was adapting to a new rhythm of remote teaching and online classes. In this interview, Sondow explains the learning curve associated with that instructional model, while also going in to great depth and detail about the training, studio spaces, and grand story of life as a student and sculptor in St. Petersburg, Russia.
AM: You are a native New Yorker, but I know that you spent ten years living in St. Petersburg, Russia while and after attending The Repin Academy. Please describe your early training and education in the States, what made you decide to study in Russia, and what prompted your decision to return to New York.
JS: When I was a young boy, I spent many weekends obsessively drawing dinosaur bones at the American Museum of Natural History, which led to a life-long interest in anatomy. A little while later I began drawing Roman sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing my obsession, my father asked permission for me to draw from the live nude model in adult classes at the Art Students League of New York (ASL) when I was twelve. As enthralled as I was with the nude form as a pubescent boy, I was equally fascinated with the other adult artists and their lives, and I think seeing them and interacting with them gave me the courage to take this road later in life. I was lucky to continue to be able to draw from the live nude at Hunter College High School, an accelerated program in which students complete their high-school requirements during junior year so that they can take a full year of electives their senior year, including courses from outside institutions. I chose to draw, paint, and sculpt from the model at Pratt Institute, the School for Visual Arts (SVA) and the ASL my senior year. However, I actually felt I learned the most from photography classes, which I also took at SVA and which helped me understand the beginnings of two-dimensional composition.
My academic training began after college when I discovered the Bridgeview School of Fine Arts in Queens, founded by a native of Leningrad (the current St. Petersburg), who had gathered other art teachers from Russia to form the school. Today they only teach children, but twenty years ago they had mostly adult classes. I was blown away not only by their ability but also by their rigorous, demanding teaching style. After a couple of years with them, the founder organized a month-long summer intensive in Russia at The Repin Academy for ten American students. My Russian professors in the States all told me that if I were serious, I should go there full-time, and when I finally saw the school I understood why. Aside from its unique history, the sheer scale and scope of the academy is awe-inspiring. The anatomy room with real male, female, young, old, and even horse skeletons; their countless and beautifully cast and preserved plaster casts of Houdon’s écorchés; the hundreds of students in seven distinct art departments; their immense and ancient library; and the multiple museums in the academy just astounded me. They had the best cast collection I’d ever seen, and their main museum was comprised of the best of all the graduate work from over the centuries, including Repin himself when he was a student. For me it was like Harry Potter discovering Hogwarts. There was no question I had to go. When they did a second summer abroad, I went again and began my application.
However, at the time, hardly anyone at the academy spoke English. Even the head of the foreign student department spoke only Russian (not true today), so the idea of applying and figuring out housing and transportation myself without speaking the language was daunting. But it didn’t matter—I had learned more in those two months than all the years before in the States, and my mind was made up. I saved up and went. Iliya Mirochnik (fellow professor at The Princeton Academy of Art) was also instrumental. He had studied with me at Bridgeview and also attended the summer programs at The Repin Academy, but his parents were Russian, and he could speak the language. He went full-time the year before I did, and although we didn’t have classes together (he is a painter), he helped me navigate life there.
The decision to return was simple: I married my Russian model, without whom I never would have persevered through the culture shock and strain of living without English for so many years. She also didn’t speak English, so that gave me the proper motivation to slog through the Russian language classes provided. It was her decision to come back to the States. I actually wanted to stay, having made strong connections to many of my sculptor classmates, but I relented eventually. By then we had two daughters, and I wanted them to have the opportunities that come with growing up in New York as I did. Now there are so many Russians in New York that my daughters go to the first dual-language English-Russian public elementary in the city.
AM: Did you have your own sculpture studio while living in St. Petersburg? Please describe what it was like and where it was located.
JS: My time in St. Petersburg was split among many studios. During my first summer with the Americans from Bridgeview, we were lucky enough to work in the studio at the school that Repin used to teach in. I also used Sasha Molev’s studio (my first sculptor teacher in Russia) that first summer. I worked with Sasha privately outside of the academy. Unfortunately, Sasha passed away during my time there. He was a wonderful sculptor and graduate of the academy. Like many, once he was accepted in to the prestigious Artists’ Union, they gave him his own studio.
The program at the Repin Academy is structured so that students are given group studios each year with their cohort. The preparatory year for foreign students was in a very small dingy studio with other foreign students studying for the entrance exam. Once accepted and fully matriculated, I had a studio with the ten other (mostly) Russian first-year sculpture students in a very large space between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet with large windows and 30-foot ceilings. The following year, we were split in to two groups in slightly smaller studios with wooden floors, where we brought in hay for the live horses we sculpted.
After the second year, we had a choice of one of three professors, each with their own teaching studio. You stayed with the same professor in his teaching studio from the third year through the fifth year, interacting and learning as much from the older students as from the professor. I chose Albert Charkin, who was the most famous sculptor at the time. He was the head of the Artists’ Union, the head of the Sculpture Department at the academy, and the director of the entire school. He also passed away during my last year as a student unfortunately.
The sixth year is devoted to development of your thesis work, and students are assigned smaller studios with one or two other students. After graduation there is something called the Creative Studio, where the best of the graduating class are invited to work in an almost post-doctorate-like fashion. That is really the best studio because it was built for Baron Peter Clodt von Jürgensburg, who sculpted many of the larger-than-life horse monuments around the city. It is enormous and has large windows and huge doors that open to the park outside the academy. Although foreign students are technically not invited, I was the first foreigner to graduate with highest honors, and they looked the other way while I worked there for a year after graduation to prepare for the solo show the director offered me at the academy.
AM: What is your studio like now in comparison? And what foundry are you using to cast your bronzes/clay?
JS: When I first got back to New York, I rented space in the basement of The Compleat Sculptor. It was kind of dingy, like the studio in the early student years in Russia, but I had access to every material possible just upstairs and never had to pay for shipping. Now I am in Port Morris at the Southeastern tip of the Bronx, just north of Randall’s Island and an easy bike ride from home. The Covid crisis has kept me from making it there, and I have been working largely from home. The foundry I use is Baer Bronze Fine Art Foundry in Springville, Utah. My larger pieces were cast in Russia and brought here, and I have not had cause to find something more local to recast them.
AM: How would you describe or explain the Russian academic approach to figurative sculpture as you were taught? Would you say your approach to sculpting today is predominantly the same as what you learned in school, or are have you since incorporated other influences and approaches?
JS: The big holes in my education prior to entering the academy were a lack of understanding of composition, construction, and anatomy—the first being the most important. As each semester progressed, we would work from the model all day but also be expected to create our own imagined compositions based on themes or geographic locations where different kinds of sculptures would be appropriate. We would go through multiple iterations of a composition before ever using a model and were expected as the years passed to become familiar enough with constructive anatomy to avoid glaring errors that would draw the viewer’s eye away from the carefully chosen orchestration of primary and supporting focal points.
As I was in my early thirties when I finally enrolled, I had spent a couple of decades working from the model but had never analyzed the natural compositional rhythms that the anatomy of the figure provides. To find these rhythms we were always pulled away from the surface details and forced to impose our burgeoning understanding of the internal bone structure’s architecture and the muscles that lie upon it. As much as possible, we strived to see the figure as a clear demarcation of planes that integrate the weight, proportion, gesture, and likeness. This pushed us past silhouettes to think three-dimensionally and feel how the various anatomical planes flow together and bind a complex set of distinct structures into the totality that is sculpture. My professor’s professor, Mikhail Konstantinovitch Anikushin—who is responsible for many of the monumental sculpture in St. Petersburg and probably the most famous sculptor and teacher of his time in Russia—described this totality in a quote that translates roughly, “sculpture can often say only one word and that word must be strong, poetic, and passionate.”
The realistic work I see on this side of the ocean has a polish and attention to fine surface details that we were always taught to use sparingly, as they tend to diminish the underlying structure that was paramount in conveying the large, strong unified planes requisite of the monumental sculpture we were being trained to create. My more recent work has seen more of this refinement in part because the work is smaller and more suited to it, and in part because I wanted to appeal to an American audience that seemed more familiar with and predisposed to it. This can be seen in Joseph. The rougher sections in my other work is an intentional counterpoint to the more refined focal points.
An example of each of these approaches can be found in comparing Joseph and Esther. They are similar in pose, but Esther has highly refined feet, hands, and a face, which act as punctuation between flowing robes that carry more direct markings of my initial impulses while sculpting. I like to play with the syncopation created by the juxtaposition of these textures. By contrast, Joseph is uniformly refined. The challenge is always to avoid killing the dynamism of the early rougher version, but because his tension is largely internal, displayed in facial expression and subtle ambivalent body gesture, I felt he lent himself to a quieter more universally refined treatment.
AM: There is still a contingent of classical realist artists who take subject matter inspiration from classical narratives, be it Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical stories, and/or classic literature. I see that you have a great interest in depicting subjects from the Old Testament, specifically some of the female Israelite heroines such as Esther, Rachel, and Rebekah. What is it about the Hebrew heritage and the perspective of women in particular that you feel inspired to portray?
JS: My work often employs the Old Testament because it provides both a spiritual link in my life and narrative link in my work. The biblical themes I choose are autobiographical parables connected to my search for identity. I grew up disconnected from a historical or cultural framework within which to understand my own identity. My parents were mathematicians and psychologists, and in a sense placed their faith in those fields instead of religion. As for their Russian heritage, they came of age in a time when many people were discarding their heritage in favor of greater integration into American culture. I was drawn to Judaism for the same reason I was drawn to Russia: to anchor my sense of self.
Having missed it as a child, I studied the Torah as an adult and had my Bar Mitzvah at thirty-one (instead of the traditional thirteen), just before quitting all my teaching jobs in New York and deciding to study full-time in Russia. Judaism is based on the idea of re-interpretation and so lends itself to new ways of casting its characters. In Torah study, there is a tradition of midrash, which means commentary or textual interpretation. There is a lot of codified midrash from over the centuries, but it is a common oral and written tradition still alive today. Jacob Neusner, perhaps the most published Jewish scholar, distinguishes three midrash processes: paraphrase, prophesy, and parable. Much of my work is a visual form of the last, that uses the academic figurative tradition to find new interpretations of Torah text.
When I’m reading the text, I initially don’t know why a particular passage becomes lodged in my mind until I begin making compositional studies of it. As visual focal points become clear, so do the issues and often autobiographical underpinnings of the narrative I’m exploring. An example is Tziporah and Moses at the Well. Moses, shown unbearded as I was my first shell-shocked year in Russia, is quite far from his common midrashic image: heroically defending Tziporah from bandits who enter the scene. After several attempts exhausting that trope, I found myself portraying him vulnerable, surrounded, supported, and literally framed by Tziporah, her water pole, and the well. This composition resonated with my unconscious tie to the story: Moses flees his royal upbringing for the desert for having slayed a slave master, mirroring my journey killing my old life in New York to spend years in Russia. There, Moses finds connection to his Jewish roots in Tziporah, his future wife, just as I found connection with my ancestry by starting a family with my Jewish-Russian model. In fact, my sculptural interpretations of Rebekah, Rachel, and Tziporah are all incarnations of my wife. These three biblical matriarchs meet their counterparts at the well in the desert. Metaphorically, the desert is Russia and the well is the academy with its spring of knowledge.
AM: Your attention to the nuances of human emotion and your ability to capture those subtleties through your subject’s countenance is certainly a strength. For instance, the expression you chose for Joseph is so telling of the conflicting emotions he must have felt when faced with the decision to help save the same brothers who sold him in to slavery. When you’re doing a sculpture based on a subject from the past, how do you connect to his or her story and the historical context of what he or she must have been experiencing? Does working/dialoging with the model contribute to this exploration in any way?
JS: I dialogue with my own unconscious through iterations of larger and larger versions of the sculpture done without the model. With Joseph, I kept working on the face until I got the same torn feeling from it that I felt when the image first entered my mind while reading about it. The model comes, if at all, at the end to find anatomical nuances I may have missed in my imaginings, and the model is chosen to fit proportions already decided upon to create the most harmonious composition.
For example, in Rebekah at the Well, initial versions emphasized Rebekah by directing Eliezer’s gaze up toward her. In later iterations, she remained physically central but the focal point moved down toward Eliezer’s receiving bowl. Ultimately, all three figures found their eyes and attention fixed upon it. Even the camel’s neck and head create an arc through Rebekah’s water vessel that pours the viewer’s gaze into the bowl. Like staring at interactive three-dimensional Rorschach ink-blots, these sculptural sketches bring me to the emotional core of the narrative. Upon reflection, it became clear that the crucial aspect was the point of contact between the figures, the giving and receiving of water, and the autobiographical parable crystalized from there.
AM: When was the deciding moment in either your youth or early artistic training when you knew that sculpture would be your medium versus, say, painting or architecture or some other art form? Or even another industry altogether?
JS: Although I felt compelled to take drawing classes in college, I was afraid of the uncertainty a life of art would bring. I therefore put my interest in the human body into a plan toward the medical profession. I got my B.A. in Math and Pre-Med and took the MCAT, but I became disillusioned with the medical industry as large HMO’s took over. I did consider architecture because of my math background, but I always loved teaching and got my first job as a math teacher right out of college and also taught biology and art soon after that. I also studied music and played bass guitar in a band that played regularly in New York City, and to this day use music often as a metaphor for understanding composition because there are so many parallels between musical and visual intervals and how good composition in both mediums creates tension in one place and then relieves it elsewhere.
Finding the Russian art teachers really clinched it for me. It was the first time, after really looking since childhood for proper artistic guidance, that someone told me frankly what I was doing was terrible and there was a better way. Before that, so much of the art in the art world appeared completely subjective, and it seemed more important what one said about what they created and who they said it to than the work itself. Also the constructive system of seeing through the figure three dimensionally appealed to my background in math and geometry. The first bust I sculpted at Bridgeview made it very clear that I needed to be working with clay all the time if I could—there was something about the direct handling of the material and the fact that I wasn’t trying to trick the eye into seeing three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane. I didn’t have to think so hard. It came far more naturally to me than painting. I just felt more directly connected to my subconscious with my hands in clay. I am way too cerebral, and it was one of the first times when emotion trumped thought. I was addicted immediately and feel very out of sorts whenever I am away from sculpting for too long.
With all the drudgery of casting and armatures and heavy materials it is an incredibly laborious and difficult profession that provides little to no stability in life. I’ve used the word compulsion a lot, and that’s really what it is.
AM: You have taught at several schools and are now an instructor at The Princeton Academy of Art in New Jersey, which teaches drawing, painting, and sculpting in the Russian Academic and French Academic traditions. Whether it’s this academy or others you know of in Russia, Italy, and America, what would say are some of the fundamental similarities and differences you’ve observed between how schools define and disseminate a "classical realist" academic approach?
JS: What I and the other professors (three of whom studied with me in Russia) are trying to create at The Princeton Academy is a connection to the unbroken living tradition that exists at The Repin Academy. It is the last place I’ve seen that has been teaching professor-to-student through the generations for 250 years without abandoning the classical approach for something more contemporary like the École des Beaux-Arts has done. The newer schools and ateliers that have proliferated here and in Italy are recreating the wheel after a severed intergenerational connection of two or even three generations, so they rely on books that tried to codify a classical teaching system, such that by Charles Bargue, and put a heavy emphases on reproducing what you see with techniques such as the sight-size method. I’m grateful that they exist and that there is such a resurgence of interest from which they are benefitting. I feel far more connected to them than much of the modern abstract work I see, but I fear some of these schools don’t get past the reliance of what you see toward the freedom of what you know. Another way of saying this is that they lean so heavily toward naturalism that they may lose track of the importance of composition in trying to reproduce every detail of the model.
At the Repin Academy we began similarly, by trying to do exactly what we saw in the early years, but always with an emphasis on the construction planes. As the years progressed and we had more anatomy and art-history lectures under our belt, we were expected to use the model only as a starting point. We were taught to only include details that helped emphasize focal points relevant to our compositional choices and never simply because they were there. We tried to find a balance between idealized and naturalistic representations of the human form. While I do use the live model for reference, it’s more important for my sculptural figures’ poses and gestures to flow together than for them to rigidly represent nature.
AM: That is similar to what your artist-friend and former Repin Academy classmate Leon Okun said in his In the Studios interview from 2016. He said if he had to summarize all of Russian academic training in one word it would be "composition." On another subject, he also mentioned that the Drawing and Painting department at the Repin Academy historically has embraced certain aspects of avant-garde approaches (for example the French Academy in the early 19th century or an artist such as Modigliani in the early 20th century) while holding on to their traditional roots in academic realism. Were the instructors in the sculpture department of a similar mindset or was there a stricter adherence to the tenets of classical academia?
JS: All of my professors worked strictly in realism, and for the most part created monuments in classical styles. There was one professor who was an outlier and embraced more modern abstract work, but for the most part they rejected it all out of hand. I remember keeping it quiet that I had gone to the Giacometti show at the Hermitage.
AM: In light of the proliferation of online courses, workshops, and monthly subscription services for learning art (especially recently during quarantine), what is your opinion on how effective that mode of teaching and learning is for the traditional artist? Do you have any upcoming courses that you will teaching online?
JS: I teach drawing and sculpture, and I prefer to be in the same place as the students for both. The professors we had never did demonstrations per se and made corrections directly on our drawings and sculptures or simply brought our attention to anatomical errors or poor compositional choices. I relied on that option with my own students and still do as I draw overlays on their work via Zoom. While I am frustrated by my lack of hands-on options, I’ve compensated for it by diving much deeper into both anatomy and composition and their relationship. What used to be a thirty-minute daily slide lecture has become ninety minutes, half of which is devoted to exploring compositions of the Great Masters so the students are getting much more exposure to art history and seeing how artists of the past solved problems that they themselves deal with. The Repin Academy was holistic in its approach, requiring numerous lecture classes in addition to the daily seven hours of studio time with the model. I feel like we are in some ways closer to that model online. Especially now, where for the first time on this side of the ocean, my students are starting to bring in their own imagined compositions. Since we are all in front of the computer anyway, I feel comfortable pulling up any resources I can think of on the spot. With the online model, we are also getting beyond having only local students, and now have students from California, Canada, and even Europe.
Another definite advantage of online teaching is that the students look at one another’s critiques. At the academy the professor only came once or twice a week, and everyone gathered around to soak up what they could, especially since we were usually working from the same model and making the same mistakes. The students are now watching the critiques on the screen, and by the time I see their work they have often already made corrections based on previous students’ errors. This allows me to go further with them instead of repeating myself for each student.
Sculpture provides a special challenge because we are communicating through a two-dimensional screen. To account for that we look at numerous reference images from multiple angles, and I overlay drawing to describe unifying planes and bony landmarks. I’m also beginning to use a GoPro camera strapped to my forehead so they can see what I do as I move around the sculpture that I’m working on along with them. To solve the problem of a model, we are working from some of the most photographed Roman copies of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, including a very good three-dimensional rendering that allows the students to view it from any angle (including invaluable cross-sectional views inside the sculpture).
Upcoming classes will focus on the skull. The entire first year of The Repin Academy was devoted to the head, so I thought we’d do some intensives on the subject. I have a mold of a real male skull that I am casting half in resin, drawing in the plane breaks, and sending to each student. In the first sculpture class, we will sculpt the other half in Plasticine. In the following class we will add the muscles of the skull on the hard resin half. I will also teach two drawing classes where we draw the skull and then classical busts, with special attention to the skull structure underneath. These two drawing and two sculpture courses are a thorough introduction to the classical rendering of the head through an exploration of the underlying architectural structure of the skull, and the muscles and features that lie on that structure. Drawing sharpens understanding of proportion, composition, and the effects of light and shadow on a clearly interpreted form, while sculpture deepens an awareness of multiple vantage points, moving students beyond reliance on a silhouette. The four courses support one another and are ideally taken together, but can be taken individually as well.
For more information on Sondow’s upcoming online courses at The Princeton Academy of Art and to sign up, visit: https://www.princetonacademyofart.com/event/sculpting-the-skull-james-sondow/2020-07-03/
SCULPTING THE SKULL: JAMES SONDOW
FRIDAYS JULY 3rd – JULY 24, 2020
10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Live Zoom Meetings and Student Portal Access
DRAWING THE SKULL: JAMES SONDOW
THURSDAYS JULY 2nd – JULY 23, 2020
11 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Live Zoom Meetings and Student Portal Access