Skye Ferrante in Conversation with Gabriel Don

Your sculptures, often of nude women, resembling drawings by artists such as Matisse, are made with one continuous, uncut, piece of wire, how did you come to this medium? 

Often of nudes, yes, and women, mostly but I do sculpt men and all other identifying in betweens. I’ve even sculpted naked elephants, and recently in France, a naked French bulldog—although not by choice. It was a commission. I took the money.  Matisse? I can see that, maybe with his later jazz or cirque-inspired découpage, but I’m more influenced by jazz itself than any modern artists. The idea of working with continuously spooled-out wire came from a brief apprenticeship in bronze casting I had in the early 1990’s. Still a teenager, in school, and training at School of American Ballet, I learned the process in Greg Wyett’s sculpture studio located in the crypt of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. It began with the armature wire, followed by clay, then plaster and rubber molds, the original is destroyed and with more time and money if you were lucky you got a bronze. I had no patience for this. I wanted to sculpt as fast as a painter paints, the way the impressionists would often paint a work in one sitting, thereby capturing the movement that we see in life. Whether it’s a landscape or a woman’s body or an elephant’s I see movement. A dancing line—If it works. Back in the cathedral studio I decided to ignore the later stages of bronze casting, casting out the clay itself, beginning and ending with the wire.

The question you are most often asked is, Do you sleep with your models? Why is it do you think audiences and art buyers/writers are interested in the biography and love/sex life of artists?

I’m a professional artist. I don’t sleep with my models, I sleep with my clients… That’s how I answer that one—the question I get asked by all and everyone. In fact, this is a recurring theme in a book that I’ve been working on since the Paris studio last year, as well as the subject of an upcoming show entitled “art whore”. Me being the art whore, but to be clear, No, I do not sleep with my models, as a rule. I won’t say it hasn’t happened in the course of three or four hundred portrait sittings, but certainly that line is never crossed within the theatre of the sitting. The play would have to change. Clothes put on. A drink. A dinner—like most everyone else. There may have been one instance in Paris where the provocations of the model in our fourth sitting was so strong I had barely enough time to put down my pliers and unclip my spool before she forcibly changed the play. An exception, but that was Paris. I have learned to embrace the gorilla in the room. Sex. It’s there, but I have a job to do, and i am wearing my work costume, my blue mechanic’s onesie, a white shirt and tie, and she is wearing hers. Nudity is a costume. Nakedness is exposed. If we are lucky in the end we will have made a beautiful sculpture that moves. The question, “do you sleep with your models” assumes, quite misogynistically, that the model is naked, sexualized and obviously willing. But I get where it’s coming from. There’s history. The artist-model sitting is a trope, especially in France. What I cannot deny is the intimacy that takes place in these sittings. Clothes are off, guards are down. I am consciously switching off the man and turning on the artist. I have a one-dollar spool of dark-annealed steel wire to turn into an artwork someone will pay ten thousand for. I have rents to pay, a child to feed—lacking both the privilege or the inclination to fuck around.

You do live sculptures at nightclubs and see the spectacle of money, people trying to show the rest of the world they have it, could you explain the spectacle and share your thoughts on where money and art and fashion intersect? 

Spectacle is the key word. In the theatre of the nightclub it is the only thing on offer. They’re not selling over-priced bottle service they’re selling sparklers. 30 seconds of attention to the baller VIP until the sparklers fizzle out. I‘ve never cared for clubs, but I saw the excess, the tens of thousands spent on ego, and I knew I had my challenge—to sell top shelf art in the chaos of the clubs, to ignore the fixed location of a gallery and go where the money is, the silly money. To do this, I had to have a show. The live nude model wasn’t enough. I needed amazonian body guards to protect me and my model and hand out cards that said ‘you can’t afford it’. I needed the art printed on the menu at $10,000, to make it real, beneath the unreal prices of knock-off champagne, and I needed the ‘sparklerabra’; a hand-held spinning ring of nightclub sparklers that shows who just blew 10 grand on something that will last longer than their half-coked erections. As for the intersection of money and art, I will make it simple. All art and all objects are secondary to the stories that we buy. In the club, it’s a different story, but it is story that we’re selling nonetheless.

You often draw the distinction between artists of different classes, identifying as a working class artist, how do you think relying on art to pay your bills rather than art as a leisurely pastime affects your practice?  

That hit home. I am definitely a working class artist with the unambitious aim to leave this world in the relative comfort and security of the working-middle class I was born into. We no longer live in an age of patronage, and while it is indeed a privilege to make art in our time, it’s still a job, and full-time for me despite the efforts of New York City to kill me. Today, there is a new phenomenon in which the artist and patron have become one, in the form of ‘the rich kid’. They don’t even have to sell their work. It’s perfect, as they post themselves and their installations of dead birds nailed to the wall or shiny fabricated animals from the Biennale, Basel, Burning Man, the Met Gala, Coachella and every other event that’s indistinguishable from rich kid culture. 

What advice do you have for people who want to be artists? 

We are all artists until told otherwise. It’s skill that takes time. My advice is to finish what you’ve started. I’ve made plenty of sculptures that didn’t start off well and turned out unexpectedly alright in the end.

What are your current projects?

Art Whore. For my next trick, I’m going to give the audience what they want—and disappoint them if I do it right. My current project is to stay alive in New York City, and make art with my beloved friends and models and finish the damn book, aptly titled, ‘the naked and the nude’. Expect the next solo show at SoHo Arts Club—in Chelsea, although I’ve got something coming up in London too.

Could you share a favourite line from a poem or a book? 

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might’ve been”. If I were a poet I’d be Whittier. 

What does a unicorn and a mermaid represent to you? 

I’ve never sculpted a unicorn, but mermaids abound in my life. My daughter naturally became obsessed at that mermaid age. If you do it right, it never ends. That’s why I love my ‘friends of Coney Island’. They are open and free and live their lives as children with a capital C. I’m most comfortable with mermaids, and least comfortable with men.

How are women positioned within the creative industries? 

Women are everywhere and in all art, though too often behind it rather than in front. In my own work, I consider the portraiture a collaboration, and I’ve always shared in the art profits with my models mostly female because there is no art without them. If the present is the future I’d say buy female, elect female, love female. It is the single most pressing issue in the universe, let alone the industry. The imbalance of the feminine and the masculine.

Having traveled and exhibited around the world, in what ways does the art scene vary depending on the country you are in?

I can hardly comment on the art ‘scenes’, here or abroad. It seems a privilege I don’t have time for, like watching TV. I’ve never been comfortable in the audience. From my ballet days, I’m happier on the stage, either behind or in front of the curtain. As a working artist I have always had to go after the money—New York or London—rather than the bohemia—Berlin or fucking Williamsburg—I don’t have the time for it. I could never afford it. And there’s enough happening in my studio.

You also write, painting a picture with words, to what extent can something be said with a visual medium that can’t be said when writing and vice versa?

It’s impossible to remove the story from the artwork, even if it’s not the true story of the sitting between myself and the model—in the case of portraiture. the viewer will bring their own story to the piece, if they know no other. I was conflicted for years as I sculpted for a living while identifying firstly as a writer, writing fiction. This changed in France, after having time enough and space to write about the work, about of the process and the intimacies i’ve shared. I now include story with sculptural portraits, usually typed in ink on paper as an original, from a typewriter. This is not an affectation, but rather the right medium for the message. inked ribbon or wire, I gravitate toward spools.

A reoccurring theme/subject of your work, reminiscent of artists like Toulouse Lautrec, is sex workers- so much so your models sell your portraits to their clients—a Cosmopolitan article was titled, How This Artwork Might Mean Your Man is Cheating on You  and a New York Times entitled, A Sculptor Reaps Rewards of Art Deals Brokered in The Bedroom— implying that if a Skye Ferrante is up in your home, your husband has slept with a call girl: why are prostitutes and courtesans often your subject matter, modelling for your portraits?

I think we are all living transactional lives. In this city, in our modern absurd life we pay to live.  With sex on the table or under it, it is there, as it always has been. I would prefer not to otherize sex workers; they are my friends, they are your friends, whether you know it or not, and I can argue at times I am a sex worker myself. Sex workers are not my preferred models per se, they are simply more than one thing and represent a part of all of us. The case of artist and courtesan-model finding a collector is hardly novel, although it was for me when she suggested it in our third or fourth sitting. Titian’s favorite model, Angela Del Moro was 16th century Venice’s 2nd most popular courtesan— I’ve no doubt she found art buyers in her clients.