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Jacob Cartwright:


15 July 2020 | 26 minutes
sculptor in goggles using a chisel on stone

Born into an artistic family in Australia, Jacob has been living in Italy, on and off, since he was two-years-old. He began his musical training very young and brings these sensibilities to his art. All the music in this episode was composed by Jacob.

Jacob Cartwright, Ascoltare (Listen), 2019

Jacob Cartwright, Resonance, 2019

The Embrace series was inspired by a hug Jacob’s wife Jacqueline gave him. He explains that when his wife gave him a hug he saw a certain form. This form became a piece and this piece then developed into a series of work about the embrace. He also feels that his deep links with music played a part in influencing the outcome. He says, ‘It's a beautiful subject matter because an embrace is a paradox: giving and receiving at the same time. It's like two things at once and everything at once’.

Jacob Cartwright, Seabreeze, 2019

Jacob Cartwright, Embrace, 2019

Jacob loves carving wood and working to optimise its fibre and grain, discovering how it might split or break. He describes his love of the textures of wood and explains both the process of burning wood and using the burnt wood with oil to make a patina. Sometimes in making a sculpture he will cover whole sections of wood with nails.

Jacob Cartwright, The space between us, 2019

Jacob's studio showing: Nostro abbraccio (Our embrace) and Full

Jacob usually worked with the aid of machinery but admits that he hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether or not to use a robot in future. When health and safety regulations around dust became an issue, Jacob decided to embrace a change within his studio and reverted to working marble by hand and avoid machinery altogether. He tells us how this meditative way of working influences his life.

Just some of Jacob's hand-tools

Referred to in this episode:

La Polveriera Studios

He mentions the Cartwright family exhibition at Australia House. We also interviewed Jacob's mother, Shona, and father, Michael.


Producer: Sarah Monk

Sound edit/design: Guy Dowsett

All music: composed by Jacob.



Jacob Cartwright Something that’s recently inspired me a lot, I was doing tai chi for quite a bit. That’s working with energies, and when you’re working with your body and your movement and your energy, you start to visualise that. I remind myself to remain open and to embrace what comes for the day, people I meet, things like that. That to me becomes almost like a geometric, energetic shape. That’s what I’m sculpting a lot these days. These pretty– sounds a bit new age, but that feeling, those images, interpreting what I feel or hear into form.

Sarah Monk Hi. This is Materially Speaking, where artists tell their stories through the materials they choose. In this series, we’re talking to artists in a community in northern Italy who carve marble. They’re here not only because of the range of marble but also to work with the exceptionally skilled artisans. We’re 30 miles north of Pisa and 15 miles south of the marble mountains of Carrara, two miles inland from the Versalia coastline, whose beaches in summer are packed with colourful umbrellas. We’re near a town called Pietrasanta, nicknamed Little Athens because of its tradition for carving marble.

Today, I’m talking to Jake Cartwright, an Australian artist who comes from a family of sculptors who recently had a family show at Australia House in London. As well as being an artist, Jake is also a talented musician and composes for film, dance and theatre. I caught up with him at his studios in La Polveriera, one of the last remaining studios in the centre of Pietrasanta. Behind the large metal gates are a number of workspaces, some indoors, some outside in the yard, under roofing made from corrugated iron. Jake’s studio is inside and has a deep comfy sofa, a small desk and a large range of hand-tools. His abstract sculptures in wood, marble and other stone are mounted on stands around us.

[background music]

JC My name is Jacob Lucius Cartwright. I’m Australian. I’ve been living in Italy for the last ten years and I’ve been sculpting here in Pietrasanta in this studio, particularly for the last two years, La Polveriera, but coming to Pietrasanta for a long time.

SM This series of Embrace, are you doing work in wood and if so, how do you make those choices?

JC Yes, doing them both definitely, but more so on marble with this particular series. At the same time, when I was in Norway, I did sculpt a piece that was definitely a part of this Embrace series. In fact, this inspired other pieces in marble when I came back, like this piece I just finished recently in the corner there.

SM Brilliant. I love the Embrace. I think you’ve said before that the Embrace is like embracing the future as much as a person is that?

JC That’s right, yes.

SM It’s a state of being?

JC Yes, that’s correct. Yes, just life in general. Absolutely.

SM If you don’t mind me asking, I actually don’t know how old you are Jake?

JC I’m 39, 37. [laughs] 37, really.

SM Where were you born?

JC I was born in Melbourne, Australia.

SM Your parents were artists? Were your grandparents artists?

JC Yes. Both my grandfathers are artists. One was, and one still is.

SM What sort of training did you choose?

JC I come from a background of music, actually, apart from the fact that my whole family sculpted. When I was nine, I started playing the clarinet, and from there went to lots of different arts academies for sound and for composition. That’s my background. I’ve come back, done the full circle from my parents of sculptors, all the way back to being a sculptor again, but via that voyage of sound. For me, that’s a big influence.


JC That can be emotive descriptions of sound, or it can be even to the point that a sculpture might make a sound, so sound sculpture, or sound installations.

SM What was your movement? You went to normal school?

JC I went to the Victorian College of the Arts at 12, which was a music academy on a tertiary campus. Then at 15, went through the States on a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy for composition and writing music. Then went back to the Victorian College of the Arts but in the tertiary studies at 16 for composition again, and then did a sound engineering course. I was very much studied in sound. At the same time, my whole family being artists, I was doing that the entire time as well, but not with the same focus as I had for music and composition. The last ten, 15 years I have been moving back more and more into the visuals and it’s actually now more weighted towards that than sound.


SM You left Australia when you were 22?

JC Yes, 22, I was very much into writing experimental electronic music. I left because I just finished a long-term relationship, and I felt like it was the right timing to go back out into the world and because I’ve done quite a bit of travelling earlier in my life, I thought it was a good opportunity to do it on my own.

SM Then where does Italy come into the picture?

JC On the way through to London, I stayed six months in Italy and met some great people and one of which invited me to Madagascar to do this humanitarian aid job. I was there recording local musicians for the documentary that we’re putting together about the work they were doing. It was an amazing experience, and I travelled around for a month with Jacqueline, my wife, and that’s how we kind of fell for each other. I think I fell for her more than she did. [laughs] Then the reason why I came back to Italy is because she’s from Italy. Well, she’s actually Cape Verdean but has been living in Italy for the last 30 years, so I came back to be with her. That’s my reason for being here, actually.

SM That’s lovely. So you come back to the Pietrasanta area, and where do you put yourself to work at that point?

JC I have a studio, it’s called La Polveriera, which is actually one of the last remaining large studios in the center of Pietrasanta. It was run by Cervietti, who is one of the most famous artisans of this area. I work here in this space, there’s eight artists altogether, it’s more of a co-operative.

SM What does it mean to you, Polveriera? How does that support your work?

JC Apart from the fact that Pietrasanta is the mecca for sculptors, just for the fact that there’s everything you could ever need or need to know about sculpture here, so all the materials and everything, but the Polveriera itself, it feels great to walk into. It’s a beautiful place, not for the fact that it’s beautifully arranged or anything, but just for the fact that there’s been creators here for 200 years, or 100 years at least. I think it leaves a dust behind of some kind of energy. For me, it really gives me a lot of inspiration. I just feel at home here. Then there’s also the people, my colleagues there. It’s a wonderful group of artists, and we’re all very supportive of one another. I don’t know if it’s rare, but I feel very lucky at least to have such a supportive network of people. Lots of cultural exchange, really good ideas, and great discussions and dreams that get thought about, and everyone supports one another in their dreams. It’s really lovely.

SM What about the resources of the area?

JC Wow, they’re incomparable. There’s just so much here. There’s Carrara, just around the corner and there’s the Henraux’s quarries just a ten-minute drive away, so you have all the marble you could ever need. Not just Italian marble, but marble from all around the world for the fact that there’s such skilled artisans here that marble comes from everywhere to be worked upon by these people. Everything you could ever imagine in terms of material is available.

Then some of the best tool-makers are still here. A lot of them have closed, but there are still some amazing tool-makers, so you can find everything you could ever need. Then just more than anything, it’s I guess the history of Pietrasanta has meant that there’s a beautiful relationship that’s been built between artisans and artists, so you have this immense wealth of information here. If you need to find something out, you’ll find out and you do so by meeting lots of cool people. [chuckles]

SM How do the mountains and the sea and the nature of this bit of Italy inspire your work?

JC When I go and sit by the sea or when I go and sit by a river, the rivers are spectacular, and these mountains, they’re amazing. It balances me. I think more than anything, it’s about maintaining my capacity to be present and they definitely are influential. The nature around here is spectacular.


SM Do you do shows? Or do you work towards a body of work?

JC Yes, definitely work towards a body of work. It’s hard to say chicken or egg. Sometimes I’ll just be working for the sake of working and following a theme or following something that intrigues me and I need to explore at the same time. At the moment, I’m planning for an exhibition that’s going to incorporate these pieces that are free, but also more conceptual work, and that’s more of a plan for exhibition and it’s outlining something specific. Both ways, definitely.

SM Do you do commissions?

JC I do. I do commissions. I find commissions really challenging.

SM Why?

JC Why? [laughs] Well, because often, a commission comes from someone else’s inspiration, and it’s your interpretation of that. Sculpting, in the first place, I think you’re often in a battle within your mind about trying not to think of an audience but trying to be as honest as you can to yourself. So that’s complicated as it is. Once you add someone else into the mix, then it can become even more so because you actually do have to think of the audience. But then again, you have to realise that they’ve chosen you because they trust you as an artist. There’s all of those things to consider or try not to consider, while working. [laughs]

Then, again, sometimes people will do something like ask a piece to be done in another material, and that means you’re copying yourself. That’s really interesting too because you start looking at the piece objectively, and it almost doesn’t become yours anymore, and you’re copying it. You’re trying to find the same magic that you felt while doing it in a free process, and you’ll start to realise that there’s all these really intricate things that you didn’t even realise you’ve done, and try and catch up with that, again is interesting. There is one way of copying a piece which is using a very technical method, which I just refuse to do because it’s too technical. It’s all by eye.

SM Is that points or robot?

JC Yes. They’re all robot or points. At the moment, I’m not really even– haven’t even experimented with robot or not–

[background noise]

JC I can’t say for sure that it’s something that I– I don’t know what I feel about the robot yet. I have some ideas of how to use it, which could be fun, but the pointing thing is it’s very laborious and it’s a technician’s job, and I’m not a technician.


SM I’m back with Jake Cartwright in his studios. What are you working on today? We’re outside.

JC Well, it’s a beautiful piece of stone, it’s a carrara ordinário. I’m working on it by hand. The old school method’s like Michelangelo used to do, so no power tools at all on this piece. The piece is, I guess, the object is turning into something that seems a bit like a reclining figure, female reclining figure, but could also be a bird. [laughs]

SM Why have you started working by hand again?

JC Just recently, there’s been a whole lot of health and safety regulation things. There’s been a lot of studios closing down in Pietrasanta because of the big fines in regards to how we’re looking after our dust, so I’ve stopped working with any kind of machines that create dust. I just thought I’ll roll with the punch, and do that sculpting by hand. I had a good think about it and it’s almost like a moment of inspiration. I said, ‘Why not just learn to sculpt by hand so that I can work almost as fast as I would with big tools?’

SM It’s a funny kind of end to a technology trajectory we were talking about earlier. Last time we met. [chuckles]

JC Things change. I’m embracing it. For me, it’s become much more meditative, the process. Finding it is, actually, influencing all parts of my life just by being able to be peaceful for eight hours a day. It’s beautiful, actually.


SM I was going to ask you, how you go about choosing a bit of stone or whether a piece of stone chooses you?

JC Sometimes, it could be that a piece of stone talks to me.

SM How does that feel?

JC I guess the material itself gives me inspiration for a piece or it’s just there’s a beautiful looking piece of stone and I want to get my hands into it and get dirty. But then again, there’ll be sometimes a concept or perhaps, a development from a past piece, and I want to experiment with the form that I’d found and it requires something. I think some forms require some different kinds of material like a very clean, controlled form with beautiful lines, well, could often need something like a white statuario or something like this. Then again, a form that feels more, I don’t know, earthy and is expressing something ancient then perhaps something more like a marquina from Spain would be more appropriate because it’s got all these beautiful fractures and different discolouration that speak more of the earth.

SM I don’t know that. What’s it called, marquine?

JC Marquina or marquina, depends who you speak to, but there are different names. It’s black, and it has a lot of fossils in it. White fossils usually of shells. Then it also has white veins running through that as well, and sometimes more fissures and cracks that don’t affect the quality of the stone, but just give it that rustic feeling, more earthy, it’s more earthy feeling.

SM It’s really interesting. If it’s not a commission if you’re making pieces, do you make them in something else and then carve them in stone? Do you start straight on the stone?

JC Yes. I work directly. Sometimes I’ll start with something in my mind’s eye. Occasionally, that piece that I’ve seen in my mind’s eye will come out as I’d thought of it being in the first place, but often the process of, actually, working on a piece, you’ll discover things that you hadn’t anticipated. There could be problems with the idea that don’t translate into a three-dimensional form as well as you’d thought or it could be that you get this beautiful opportunity to express something new that you would have never found. If I didn’t have that flexibility or freedom, then I wouldn’t find these beautiful new directions that, in fact, usually inspire the next piece.

SM What about other materials?

JC I love wood. It’s incredible how it gives you a different process. The material definitely, especially, if you’re working in a direct way. The material really counts for something in terms of how you create and what forms come from it because wood has got an
obvious grain to it. Their fibres and you don’t have to but it’s fun to work with those and becomes more fluid if you work with them and understand how things can split or break. It’s much faster than stone. It requires a different kind of energy.

Stone is so demanding of time and focus and physicality. Wood is like that, but to a much lesser degree and can be much faster, and therefore more fluid because of that different forms come from it. For me, anyway, wood’s a beautiful material. I love it. I also like to burn it and cover parts with nails, so there’s all these different textures. Wood is beautiful for texture, that’s for certain.

SM Can you talk through a little bit the series you showed me you did in Norway?

JC Yes, sure. I got invited to this symposium, it’s a biannual symposium, has been going for 20 years. It’s been run by an amazing man who, more or less, came to this area, Pietrasanta and Carrara, fell in love with the energy here and wanted to bring that home somehow. He’s a sculptor himself. He started this symposium. There’s been artists coming from this part of the world to Norway, to this place called Os, which is just near Bergen. It was an amazing experience. I love Norway. Oh my gosh, Norway is visually spectacular. We were right on the coast on the fjords.

I was invited there because this year, they have decided to diversify the medium. This year, for the first time, they’re working with wood, so I was asked to come and work with wood. These big huge blocks and I had the chainsaws and everything going and working like crazy, but I managed to get two big pieces made there, and inspired by this piece which I did two years ago. It’s been sitting there. It’s a beautiful piece. I’ve just been wondering, ‘What is the next extension of that? What are the new pieces?’ I did two pieces related to that.

SM Can you describe them because we haven’t got a picture?

JC How can I describe them? Well, the piece that it’s inspired by the main- like the roots of this series is a piece which is a big trunk that has been carved as a hole that goes straight through the trunk. It’s almost like a vortex, this hole. To me, it represents our place in the universe. It also looks almost like a womb because it’s not a complete circle. It’s divided on one end, which almost looks like the umbilical cord or something like that. For me, it represents our natural state of comfort in our world, almost like the way we felt when we were in the womb. A lot of my work, actually, has something to do with how we relate to our life or my philosophy at the moment of how to live. That was what that was about.

The other pieces that I did there were variations on that theme. One is linking the two themes that I’m working on at the moment. There was that symbology of the womb and feeling one with our surroundings. Then also the Embrace, the resonance that comes from your person when you’re open and receiving. It’s almost like two arms but these arms are almost like large dishes or something. If that makes sense.

SM It does. Then the colouring on them, you said you burnt them. How did the burning process come about?

JC I think I just wanted to experiment with colours. I, at one point, was looking into stains and how stains work, and I wanted a dark piece, so I tried burning them. It was amazing what came from that because then you experiment with these things. I started, once I’ve burnt or charred it with a blowtorch. I then got the oils in and smudged around all the charcoal and then I realised that the charcoal was becoming almost like an oil paint in itself.

Then what that did is it softened all of the textures because I often leave rough chisel marks because I love that texture and then burning that softened all those off. Then it also takes away the softest material in between the fibres, so you get these beautiful grains that become more prominent because the softwood deteriorates and hardwood remains. It’s actually a process that has been happening for thousands of years. The oldest wooden structure still standing is 1,400-years-old, and it’s a temple in Japan. That is the process that they were using at that time. I think they still do.

SM Burning it?

JC Yes, they’ll burn it and then they would oil it.

SM Wow. What about choices of wood and supply of wood? Presumably in Norway, you got pine?

JC Yes, in Norway, we had a type of pine and there was laminated. Wood’s interesting because you can use a big trunk of a tree, but what will often happen is that it will move, you’ll get cracking and opening and closing, and depending on the temperature and humidity. If it’s laminated wood, so wood that’s been sliced and then stuck back together, then that prevents all of that. In Norway, we were given these huge blocks of laminated pine and fir.

SM How long does wood last, or when do you start getting problems?

JC That’s something that collectors need to decide about how they go about looking after work. It’s probably more advised to have somebody look after pieces. For example, marble, if it’s outside, should be looked after once a year. If it’s inside, then it’s much less than that. That will be the same case for wood. Wood going outside, you’re going to have a limited lifespan. If it’s burnt, then it can last a lot longer. If I was to show in Asia, somewhere like Hong Kong, for example, they’re much more inclined to be interested in stone than in wood, just for the fact that humidity in places like that can be more problematic for a material like wood.

SM How does the context of where the piece is going to live affect how you create it? Do you know where these pieces are going to go?

JC That’s a beautiful question. I like the fact that you said, ‘where it’s going to live’ because it’s true. I think a piece is not really finished until it’s got a home, and it’s living with people. How does it affect by the way? It depends. If it is a commission, then of course it affects the way I’m thinking about it. I think sometimes it becomes apparent while I’m making it, where a piece like this would be beautifully set. Apart from that, I don’t really let that affect the creative process too much.

SM What is your opinion about us using resources, marble, and wood and the discussions about the finiteness of the quarries?

JC I’m in two minds about these things. I think it’s a real shame that these quarries are being used mostly for large scale architectural projects like malls and things. Just because it’s in at the moment to use something like statuario, which for hundreds of years has been reserved for figurative sculpture because it’s the only stone that really allows a sculptor to represent somebody and not be worried about a blemish in the stone affecting the way that the face looks or the expression or something like that.

It’s really hard to come by because you have these huge walls of marble. It’s not like there’s one quarry that has statuario. There’s a massive wall of white marble, with veining going through the entire thing or clouding and different densities and things like that. There’s these tiny pockets and this massive wall of pure white of a certain density and that’s statuario. They cut those little blocks out, it could be very small to medium, it’s very difficult to get large blocks of it, and it was until now reserved just for the sculptors.

Now it’s being sliced up, sliced and diced, and sent off to put in bathrooms and stuff. That’s a very limited resource. I just think it just needs to be managed a bit better. I’m not a quarry owner, but from my perspective, what I see, I think, using resources to be turned into beautiful objects that remind people about life or the beauty around us, then I think that’s a valid use of a limited resource.

SM What would you say influences your work? What inspires you as an artist?

JC It’s a good question because a lot of things inspire me. Seems like at the moment, the thing that’s inspiring me most is my approach to life. My wife, Jacqueline gave me a hug a few months ago. I think because of my history with music, when I was improvising, I would see what I would hear. I’d hear something and I’d see it in my mind as three dimensions and colors and things. I think that translates, I’ve noticed that if you’re aware of it, you can pick up these images from other things.

When my wife gave me a hug, I saw a certain form, and that’s turned into a piece now. It’s becoming a series of work about the embrace. Embrace is a paradox, you’re giving and receiving at the same time. It’s like two things at once and everything at once.


SM Thanks to Jake Cartwright. You can see his work on his website at, and follow him on Instagram, @jacobcartwrightartist. For photographs of all the work discussed in this series, check out our Instagram or our website And don’t forget to join the mailing list to hear about upcoming episodes.


[00:26:13] [End of audio]

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