If anyone out there still thinks of stone sculpture as an ancient, antiquated art form, here’s reason to think again. A group of sculptors, artists, and designers is changing the nature of the art with a program call the Digital Stone Project (DSP). In partnership with Garfagnana Innovazione – an Tuscan company working to revive their region’s stone cutting industry – the limits of sculpture are changing. Lead by a board of 5 including Jon Isherwood (Neue Guild Member, sculptor, and faculty at Bennington College) the DSP is 501c3 Not-for-Profit organization that’s exploring new possibilities in stone sculpture and inviting others along for the ride. Through a month-long workshop in Italy, they’ve created an opportunity for artists, architects, and designers to have access to incredible new tools and to experiment with cutting edge technologies.

The first iteration of the DSP began in 2005 when a former CNC stone carving facility in Trenton, NJ came available. It seemed like the perfect building for this group of artists who were already exploring those processes in their own work and wanted to encourage more to do the same. Isherwood and his colleagues established a non profit to take over the building and maintain it as a resource to artists and craftsmen. It lasted for about 8 years but the costs of equipment repairs, software, etc. made the facility hard to maintain and ultimately, it had to close. Luckily, around the same time in Italy, a company called Garfagnana Innovazione was established with 3-part plan to revitalize the stone carving industry in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany. First, bring new technology to the region. Second, educate the community in this new technology. Third, become an ‘incubator’ for businesses that develop around these new technologies. As a group of educators, primarily, the DSP was perfectly situated to help fulfill that second part of the plan. Recognizing the mutual benefit in collaborating and forming a partnership, the organizations got together and the summer workshop series was born.

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While the workshop only formally meets for one month, the entire experience is much longer. In early spring, participants begin working remotely with the engineers from Garfagnana Innovazione to refine their designs, plan out the digital carving process, and develop tool paths. Then, for one month in June, participants pack their bags and head to Garfagana, Tuscany, where the group lives and works for the duration of the workshop. Each participant receives a 1-meter-square chunk of marble and is allotted 25 hours of milling time on a 7-axis mill. Usually that’s enough to cover a rough cut which happens before participants arrive, though for some it’s been held off until they get on site. Those 25 hours can accomplish a lot but not everything a sculptor may want, so part of the preliminary dialogue with the engineers includes deciding what work the machine should handle and what will be left to human hands. Finishing is the bulk of the work that happens during the workshop, and the DSP provides some of the more traditional hand and pneumatic tools for that purpose. Sometimes it’s just fun to get dusty, right?

As Isherwood describes it, the process can be exciting, but also very challenging. For many participants, or any artist first sculpting this way, the hardest moment can be giving up control to the machine, especially when you’re trained in more traditional methods and are used to having hands on the work at all times. Isherwood elegantly refers to it as ‘giving your hand away to technology.’ It’s a moment of commitment which seems very final – especially since the machine work happens in another country and outside of the artist’s presence. But, he notes, taking that step also leads to something incredibly rewarding – the moment of seeing a form that you’ve imagined, maybe worked through in clay, foam, or through digital modeling, emerge on its own from the material by the work of new and cutting edge technologies.

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Past participants have come from a variety of schools and programs. Yale University, Bennington College, William Patterson University, NJIT, and more have all had students participate, often at the sponsorship of a studio or department. The program attracts mostly artists but also has a lot to offer architects and designers. For the latter, the prototyping capabilities of the technology can be really attractive. Architect Michael Stradley, who teaches 3d digital technology at Bennington College, spent his time at the workshop working at 2/3 scale to prototype the ‘Orbital Body’ bench – an exploration of a manifold surface. See the images below – they’re quite compelling.

For more information on the Digital Stone Project, their history and the workshop, see their website or The Neue Guild’s ‘Opportunity’ post here.

Become a Member!
Join The Neue Guild Today.

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Become a Member!
Join The Neue Guild Today.

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