Interview by Melanie
In July 2017 I had the pleasure to visit Hakon while he was working in Pietrasanta, Italy. He showed us his work in progress and we discussed sculpture over lunch.
Melanie: So you were born in Norway and attended art school there. Can you tell me a little bit about how you began your artistic training?
Hakon: I started out as an apprentice at a figurative painter’s studio – Jan Saether - and he actually had a studio next to a sculptor. I was fascinated by that way of working so I asked him to show me a little and I did a couple of sculptures with him. Then I started in the sculpture department at the Academy of Art in Oslo. It was a class for traditional sculpture, but during the time when the emphasis on theory was at its strongest so we didn’t have very much practical training. It felt like a self study in a way. There was very little teaching about how to do things. All of the emphasis was on what and why you are doing things. But during my studies at the Academy, I was able to take one semester to stay here in Pietrasanta.
Melanie: Was it organized by the Academy as an exchange semester?
Hakon: No, no. I organized everything myself. I found the marble studio where I’m actually still working by coincidences through a friend of a friend who had been there a long time ago. I didn’t have any experience with marble before that, but I had always wanted to try it. I was very lucky to find Marco Giannoni. He very much took care of me and really taught me what I needed. I felt more of an apprentice than anything else working with Marco. And he still takes a lot of pride and responsibility for my work. So that – working there and working with the artists, I think it’s where I learned how to do things. I learned about sculpting in a way that I didn’t in school. I think if I count the hours I had a teacher teaching me how to model in clay, it’s maybe less than 20 hours. It’s next to nothing.
Melanie: Did you use any models in the Academy?
Hakon: In the Academy, we used models occasionally, and just for a few hours. So in school I never had a formal model study. I started out working without using models very much. It was occasionally models, as well as photographs and working from memory or imagination.
Melanie: Which is interesting because in your current work you use models quite a bit. Can you talk about how you approach working with models now?
Hakon: When I started, I would have a fixed idea and then find the model and place them more or less the way the idea was. And then I would try to do quite closely to that idea. But now I have some intentions, some loose ideas and then I try to work together with the model to find the expression and body language that not only expresses my idea but that’s also true to the model’s own characteristics to try to find the individuality of the model that way.
Melanie: So if you were going to describe your own work in just one or two sentences, how would you describe it?
Hakon: I would say that even though I don’t look very much to traditional art - I really don’t go to a lot of museums and spend my days looking through art books, and being inspired from the old masters - but I see that what I make is closely related to tradition. It is. So I guess it’s just that I’m not so conscious about my relationship to tradition as I should be. I think it’s just a natural language for me to express my idea. And the ideas that I have are usually figurative or people and situations and that’s the obvious way for me to communicate. My emphasis for a lot of years was on simplicity and silence in sculpture – those were the aspects of sculpture that really fascinated me. But now my emphasis has shifted more to expressions of vulnerability and fragility because I find sculpture – and marble sculpture in particular – a very suitable medium to express those concepts.
Melanie: What is it about the marble that feels that way for you?
Hakon: Because of the material qualities of marble itself, it appears fragile. It’s quite fragile, but it’s not that fragile, and yet it appears so because of the translucency and pureness of the stone. But it’s also suitable to express these emotional nuances or subtleties because it’s very precise. So I can work on a very precise level. I can work on micro-millimetres, I can model the subtle nuances. And I think that’s fundamental for communicating those emotions.
I try not to be too literal about it. I think that my main focus is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, more than a literal representation of something that expresses, for instance, fragility.
Melanie: It feels like a lot of your marble pieces express a very precise moment where it’s almost in motion yet in stillness at the same time.
Hakon: Well, I would really hope so. I try to work with the models to create this moment. And I think the ideal for me would be if it didn’t look like a pose. If it was just a moment captured. So I need to leave room for coincidences when I work with the model to see what specific moment I’m trying to capture; trying to freeze the image in my mind, but also with the aid of photography. I have experimented with video cameras, filming the model, and then going through the video afterwards and trying to look at the different moments. Going frame by frame to see what’s happening – not just to try to find the right moment, but to try to understand what creates that moment.
Melanie: Because it is a very brief moment. Some of your pieces have this very particular expression or movement and to attempt to recreate that with the model is practically impossible.
Hakon: Yes, yes. Almost impossible. But to try to do that – that is very fascinating. I see sometimes it almost works. But in general I think there is a lot to gain thinking about that.
Obviously what I am making is a pose by definition because that’s the only way to do it. I need the model to pose. But to try to understand what makes it appear a moment, that’s very important. Or, I think if I should work with poses and make it look like poses, I would exaggerate it and make it look very pose-y. Like, you see that this is an artificial movement for that person. Maybe slightly absurd or something. That could fascinating. But the regular studio pose is boring. Like the typical twenty or thirty-something girl in a slightly sensual, slightly awkward pose, that’s so boring.
Melanie: Your sculpture of the man with the paper plane is an example of that critical point when it’s shifting weight, that in-between movement from leaning back to pushing forth. It’s almost like it’s a shift of energy that’s happening.
Hakon: Yeah, because if he was standing just posing, it would be just be a guy holding a paper plane. It wouldn’t be the moment of him. And he’s an old guy, and it was a hard pose for him. So obviously he couldn’t pose like that. It depended on photographs. But he couldn’t even stand like that while I took all of the photographs. So I just took a few while he really tried to exaggerate the moment again… to get the willpower that I wanted in the pose.
Melanie: And then there’s the one of your daughter walking down stairs and she’s kind of in between the stairs. Her weight is not on one stair or the other, she’s shifting between them.
Hakon: I think that was the first time that I became aware – consciously aware – of the idea of the moment. It’s been probably ten years since I made that sculpture. But I see that I consciously had a thing for the moment before, but I think that was the first time it worked and that I became conscious of it.
I want to show not only the likeness and the proportions of the model, but the model’s unique body language showing in this captured moment. This describes more of the person than just the likeness and the shape of the body. If it’s possible to show the model’s unique body language, that’s very impressive because if the sculpture appears as an individual, not just the idea of the artist, but if you get the sensation that this is a real person who has obviously posed for the sculpture, but you get a strong sense of the individual, then I find it much more interesting.
You relate to a sculpture or a figurative work of art because it has a presence more or less like a real person. You will naturally react a little bit empathetically to this image of a person. Any image of a person would create that sensation a little bit, that’s the power of images. Psychologists have done tests on this. This one test was at an office where they had a fruit bowl for people to share, and this little box where you could donate money to the food costs. And they found that when they put a picture of a face looking at you, people will put more money in the box than if there was no photo of a person looking at you, even though it’s completely optional. So that’s the power of images.
Melanie: Can you describe how you begin the sculpting process when you are in the studio?
Hakon: I start out with playing with ideas and intentions through pencil drawings. And then I work with a model to try to find the right pose and movements. The pose should not look like a pose. And then I do some small-scale sculpture, like twenty centimetres, quite tiny sculptures. And if it works then very often I would make it half-size. And if I’m pleased with the half-size figure then I’ll often do life size if I can.
Melanie: So for the small sizes would you have maybe ten to start and end up making two of them into half-sizes or something like that?
Hakon: Yes. Maybe. And I usually destroy the ones I don’t use.
Melanie: So you don’t preserve your maquettes?
Hakon: Well it depends – I never like my sculptures – but if I accept them, I will preserve them. Because that’s part of my method as well. Being dissatisfied. This is a method, actually. Looking at what I do and being dissatisfied with it. And looking at what can I do to improve it. That’s very important.
Melanie: So do you consciously try to maintain that attitude?
Hakon: Well, it’s not very hard for me. It comes naturally. But obviously it would be destructive if I just hated everything and then I wouldn’t create anything. So I have to be able to identify the good qualities or accept that this is as good as it gets. That I should pursue this sculpture or that I should continue working. I can’t just destroy everything because I don’t like it. Also when the sculpture is done I inevitably will think, “Oh I should have done it like that” and “this should have been better” or “that should have been like this.” So that feeling will remain at least for a few years. If I see old stuff I can just look at it like somebody else did it. And I have to just say “okay, it is what it is.”
Melanie: Do you feel sometimes the dissatisfaction from the piece that you might have just completed will would motivate you in your selections for the next work that you might make?
Hakon: Yes, it’s all part of the development that is fueled by this dissatisfaction. So, I would narrow it – my method of working is three fold. It’s patience. And then there is doubt; always questioning what I do. And then there is the feeling of dissatisfaction - it’s like a feeling of looking at the sculpture, looking and looking and looking at the sculpture, and there’s something that creates an unpleasant feeling in me, a dissonance.
So, maybe it’s almost done, or maybe it’s barely begun, but looking at it and it's like something that just is not right. Something I need to improve. And that could be some part of the movement that doesn’t work at all, or it could just be like a nuance of this bone sticking out too much, or some really minor thing. So that’s how I work. I’m looking at it and I notice something about it that needs to be improved. An imperative that I need to change.
I think you should be able to appreciate what you do also. So I should be more pleased too. Although the few times I am pleased I usually see afterwards that the sculpture had weaknesses I didn't notice, so in a way I should have been discontented, I should have done better.
The babies for instance that I talked about with you before the interview, the babies that I did last year – I have to admit at one point I was almost pleased with them. But when I see them now, they really bother me. They have this small – do you remember E.T. the movie, from the ‘80s? E.T. faces. So I should have been less happy with them because I must admit, I was almost satisfied.
So that’s why I’m doing this new series of babies. Because I wanted those babies that I did last year to have another emotional impact. To have a different sense of fragility. But they don’t, they’re too big… they don’t have that expression. And also I exhibited them lying on the floor to emphasize fragility and that was not enough. They just remained sweet even though they’re on the floor. I thought that exhibiting them on the floor would make them look more vulnerable being out of place. But it didn’t work.
Melanie: They looked like cute babies on the floor?
Hakon: Yes. Exactly. Well, I guess they were okay for what they are, but they’re not what I hoped they would be. So I am making this new series.
Melanie: You work in both marble and bronze currently. How do you navigate those two mediums?
I was already in love with marble before I started doing sculpture, so it was my intention from the beginning to work in stone. Bronze was initially almost a disappointment, I felt that compared to marble and compared to the original clay sculpture it did not have the same light. But my attitude towards bronze has changed, I appreciate bronze much more now than I used to do. Now if I want bronze, I model it in clay for bronze and I do it differently and try to achieve something else than if I do marble.
Melanie: In bronze do you aim to preserve the immediacy of the mark making?
Hakon: Yes, because…well you could leave marks in marble but the spontaneity will be much more subtle, of course. So in bronze I like to leave marks in the clay. I am not trying to achieve perfection, so to say. Which is a lure in marble in that it almost seems possible to achieve. That if I just kept on working and improving it would be possible to arrive at a consistent, uniform perfection. But by definition it is impossible, but you really feel that it should be possible.
And I think also my mentality is changing, I’m getting less patient than I used to be. And lacking patience is not good when you want to make a perfect surface in marble. Patience is really, really crucial. And a marble sculpture – like the one I’m doing now – will just get better if I work another week. So that can be a little bit discouraging at times because, well another day, another week on this one... it can be quite tiresome.
Melanie: Do you do anything while you’re working on those more tedious elements? Do you listen to podcasts or anything?
Hakon: No, I can’t do that. I can listen to music if it’s quite neutral. But I cannot listen to the radio or anything. I would just get distracted because it’s not mechanical work, I always have to be concentrated on it. It’s not just like filling in blank spaces, it really requires concentrated patience.
Melanie: You work between Oslo and Pietrasanta - do you find that the different settings of the two countries affect your work at all?
Hakon: Oh, I never thought about it like that. I am very glad that I have the possibilities here in Pietrasanta, not just practically but also having more colleagues and the more vibrant emphasis on sculpture. In Norway, I am alone working in marble, for instance. Besides me there is just one sculptor working in marble, but she’s working abstractly. Figurative work in marble – it’s only me. So I don’t know if I only worked in Norway if I would have worked differently. I don’t know. I think in the beginning I found that I was more creative here. Meaning, that new ideas arrived more frequently. But I can’t say that it does anymore. It doesn’t matter where I am. Being here in Pietrasanta is more dynamic, more things are happening, I meet more people, I have different discussions, so in the beginning maybe that stimulated the creativity. But now that I have been working for so many years I think I could be in jail and be just as creative. I don’t think it matters.
Melanie: So talking about ideas - how do your ideas tend to arrive? Is it through the sketching, or does an idea just come to you? Or are you working and then it hits –
Hakon: Oh, that’s a very hard question. And I try not to be too conscious about it. Meaning, I don’t want to create a recipe for myself: how to come up with ideas. Being too conscious about it, like, “well for my ideas to arrive I need to do this and this and then I’ll get ideas.” Because they come in all kinds of ways, and I think that’s good.
It often starts with some kind of fascination for something. Or something that I see that sticks in my mind. Maybe I don’t know why… sometimes an idea just arrives as an image, so to speak. You don’t know where it comes from. But then other times, an idea is a result of thinking about something that I find interesting. And then ideas create more ideas - if I like certain ideas and think about them, I will have more ideas related to that.
I really believe this is the most difficult part to teach. There was not very much emphasis on this when I went to art school.
I think in art school they make art appear too difficult. They make it appear too complicated in the beginning and the students are too afraid. The first thing they should do is try to remove the students fear of being naïve, and encourage the them to try out any idea no matter how strange. Don’t be afraid – don’t think “oh no this is too stupid,” or “I don’t know why I’m making this.” I think that you should just try it out and see what comes out of that. Because it’s something that can grow, or that you should allow to grow, and you should just let it grow freely in the beginning.
Melanie: Can you talk a little more about your current series?
Hakon: These days I’m really trying to think about different approaches to fragility. How I could show fragility in different ways. So I am working on the new babies, the moths, and the sick dog I showed you in the studio. But I’m also going to start doing some figures later this summer. I think fragility would be the common denominator for the exhibition.
Also because if you look at figurative sculpture, there are a lot of heroes and important subjects and beautiful people and sensuality and strong feelings whereas these subtleties and these kind of emotions are not so explored. Also I want to use models that you don’t see so often in sculpture. I would like to use less “pretty” models. Not ugly or deformed or anything, but normality is much more fascinating to me- using normal people as models. Whereas maybe today in the art scene I would get more attention if I did sculptures of ugly people. Mutilated or grotesque people. Art earlier in history on the other hand had a big emphasis on beauty, meaning “pretty people”. So I would like to just use normal people because if you see a sculpture of a normal person you relate to them differently. Being a normal person looking at a normal person, you would relate differently. So, it’s not an ideal person that you’re looking at, and it’s not like a freak show. But it’s like they’re one of us, or you’re one of them, so to say. I think that’s more interesting.
Melanie: What’s the three most important things for you to have in your studio?
Hakon: In clay, I have two tools that I really like. One is a piece of wood that I found in the studio here in Pietrasanta. Among the firewood. So it’s a flat piece of wood – I think I have a picture of it on Instagram – that I have been using since 2009. And then I have a knife. Like a regular butter knife that I have been using for 15 years. I have thought I have lost it on a couple of occasions and I have been desperate, really desperate. But I have found it, luckily. That’s my favourite tool because it has the right balance in my hand and it has the right shape for the blade.
The third thing? Well, I like to listen to jazz if I’m working in clay. Working in marble with all of the noise, music is impossible. So in marble I don’t really have specific things that I need. I have my favourite kind of chisels. I like really sharp chisels in marble and wider sizes compared to most other marble carvers.
Melanie: Let’s talk about being a figurative artist. How you do you feel about the figurative art movement in relation to the contemporary art scene?
Hakon: Well my studies in the Academy taught me about art, understanding art, and maybe not being as afraid of contemporary art as many figurative artists today are, feeling that they are just part of a figurative subculture which is not related to the rest of the art world. I think the subculture was a result of the dominance of modernism and the coming of conceptual contemporary art. It became more difficult to be accepted doing art that was based on figurative tradition. And the result was that the figurative artists withdrew from the art world and created their own sort of sphere. But today the art world is more like a landscape with people doing all kinds of different things. And it makes no sense to separate one part of the landscape and say, “that’s not part of the contemporary art scene.”
So I think the situation today is more that: if what you do is good and interesting, then you will be accepted as a contemporary artist. If it’s not good, you won’t be. But it’s not because what you do is figurative. When I started it was different because of the emphasis on theory. I think the art world today is more interesting and it’s also an easier place to do every kind of art.
Melanie: Okay last question: Do you have any advice for people who are just starting on their sculpting path?
Hakon: One piece of advice is what I said earlier about not being afraid of contemporary art. Not being afraid of contemporary art and not being afraid of being naïve. Meaning: don’t be afraid to just try out stuff. Those are the two most important things. And then there’s the practical advice, of course. And doing sculpture, all of the practical stuff is intimidating in a way. It’s so complicated. You have to know all of this practical stuff. If you want to start painting, you just go buy some colour and some canvas and a brush and you can start painting. If you want to sculpt, well you can go and buy clay, but what do you do when the clay is done? You have to learn how to cast and then if you’re going to do bigger pieces then you have to learn how to weld, and it’s all so complicated. So don’t be too afraid of that either.
You have to like doing the practical stuff. Otherwise you will hate doing sculpture. Because it’s so many hours of things you have to do besides being just creative and giving shape to the clay. You need to do all of those other things; buying metal for armature and all that other stuff. You have to like doing those things, otherwise it’s just going to be hell.