Published  21/11/2015

Alice Cunningham: ‘The quarries were my biggest inspiration’

Alice Cunningham: ‘The quarries were my biggest inspiration’

The artist talks about her experience of learning to work with marble from Michelangelo’s preferred quarry and her determination to remain sensitive to the form and the surface as a whole

Alice Cunningham (b1983) was the winner of the 2014 Brian Mercer Stone Carving Residency, awarded by the Royal British Society of Sculptors and the Brian Mercer Charitable Trust. Having very limited experience with marble, her three months spent at Studio Sem, in Pietrasanta, Italy, were an invaluable – and rapid – learning opportunity. During her time there, Cunningham was able to engage with, and learn from, both local artisans and international artists, as well as to collaborate with a robot.

As the quarry from which Michelangelo sourced his marble (he believed it to be superior in quality to the nearby Carrara), Pietrasanta has an imposing history. Sem Ghelardini, who founded the studio in the 1950s, was famous for his openness to younger artists and can be thanked for giving Henry Moore his first block of stone to work with. Cunningham, whose work embraces both conceptual art and more traditional, formal sculpture, was a perfect candidate to spend time at the studio and continue its tradition.

Cunningham’s initial introduction to stone carving came during a two-week residential workshop as part of her degree at the University of Brighton (2003-6), when she worked in the Portland stone quarries in Dorset. In 2007, she had her first brief encounter with marble, when she spent a month in Zambia. The four pieces she made during her time in Pietrasanta, which, together with photographs and film footage, constitute her exhibition at the Royal British Society of Sculptors, are therefore ambitious and impressive.

Conception, a wave-like form crashes down – fragile yet full of power and solidity – while a large boulder, Dialogue, cut into to create various shelves, contrasts the natural markings of the rock with Cunningham’s human interventions. Unravel was made from a piece of marble Cunningham chose from the river – the place sculptors often go when they cannot afford to use the quarry. Finally, Perspective, which stands tall like a totem, revealing faces and expressions that seem to alter the more you look at them, is actually a representation of the quarry on one side, and the nearby mountains on the other. The work was created from a 2D photograph, which was fed into a computer and rendered into a 3D model, which was then first carved by a robotic hand, before being finished by Cunningham. An interesting collaboration, reflecting the interface of nature and artifice, or the organic and the manmade or man-altered.

Alice Cunningham: Brian Mercer 2014 Stone Carving Residency Exhibition
Royal British Society of Sculptors, London
22 October – 18 December 2015

Interview by ANNA McNAY

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