Jean-Francois Furieri:
The Artists’ Perspective

Shary Boyle

The Veteran Meets the Shaman

By Jessica Mendes
August 2015

In observing the European Renaissance, writer and former monk Thomas Moore once spoke of the imagination as essential to keeping ancient ideas and traditions fresh through reflection, interpretation and re-presentation; as having more weight than certainty. Fueled by kinetic thought, we know it as portal to all possibility; central to cultivating true artistic vision. But where the more technical trades are concerned this kind of openness is not necessarily the norm. A highly specialized skill set can shape a certain myopia when mental fixations take root.

This predisposition is of course most evident when working outside one’s typical frame of reference. Auspiciously, and by many accounts, we find an anomaly in Jean-Francois Furieri, evidenced in the words of Shary Boyle — a renowned contemporary artist based in Toronto. The two have worked together on numerous occasions, beginning in 2009 when she approached him to mentor her.

“I wanted to learn how to make a plaster sculpture in a traditional European manner,” she tells me. “He had profound knowledge of the history of that material, and his process was deeply established.” He is not only a specialist, she explains, but possesses a broad range of skills and a grasp of plaster from many angles; he combines creative sensitivity with craftsmanship. “This gave him a real advantage. A regular tradesperson might not be receptive to my ideas, but he had great affinity and respect for them. He was an excellent teacher, happy to share his mastery.”

A telling testimony, especially from someone of Boyle’s stature, whose award-winning, multi-disciplinary work has been exhibited internationally. “He volunteered an unlimited amount of time in properly instructing me. He was very strict about the correct methodology and did not cut corners. A real professional, with an artistic sensibility in preserving form. He integrates all aspects in trade, art and conservation — three distinct skills which give him a holistic perspective on any given job. It was educational. A lot of people might not be appreciative of the level proficiency involved with what he does.”

Their professional relationship evolved. “He taught me how to make an armature from the base up and apply all the finishing techniques, in the manner of Rodin or Henry Moore,” she recounts. Two years later, with Boyle on commission with the Bank of Montreal Project Room in Toronto, she created a series of 55 bas-relief clay portraits which he then cast in plaster. Entitled the Canadian Artist, it was exhibited throughout 2012 and led to their third collaboration for the 2013 Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition.

“It was the largest sculptural installation I ever made,” she says, “a ten-foot long figure. I recommended Jean-Francois to the National Gallery, my commissioning institute, requesting he be my assistant and cast the final form. I wanted to use plaster to create this monolithic sculpture because plaster feels natural rather than synthetic, and is a traditional material in Italy. I felt his European expertise and understanding made him a perfect fit to engineer the work. We hired him. He and his team were with me in my studio off and on for three months.”

Though she creates all her own originals, Boyle explains, it is Furieri’s technical know-how that ensures it is viably constructed, materially sound and archive-worthy. “When a creation can be acquired by a national institution, you need to be confident it will have a long life, that it is well constructed technically.”

To accomplish this, Boyle created a substrate of foam in her studio. After covering it with plaster, plasticine and the desired finish was in place, Furieri and his team made a complex latex waste mold of it — with the exception of the hands, which were cast from an RTV silicone mold. “There was no safety margin for potential error,” he stipulates. “Only one shot for this highly technical procedure.”

Furieri’s understanding of how to create something in an archival manner so that it has the classical strength of the form is highly respected by Boyle, but there were other challenges as well. The piece was so heavy and large that in order to ship it to Venice it had to be cast in two parts. This was no small feat, but Furieri was up to the task. A mechanical assembly system had to be designed and installed before the completion of the plaster work. The two-part figure was separated at the waist. “He engineered a clever joint locking system that allowed it to be re-connected seamlessly on site so it looked like a ten-foot long reclining figure,” she recalls with obvious esteem. “He is a gifted problem solver.”

The piece was installed and exhibited for six months in Italy at the Canada Pavilion in 2013. Titled The Cave Painter, it was a widely-lauded theatrical installation; a grand mise en scène featuring the mermaid figure reclining in a grotto-like cave, flooded with colorful light projections. It was subsequently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada for their permanent collection, joining the first piece Boyle created with Furieri’s guidance, the Virus.

It goes without saying that Shary Boyle is a great admirer of her friend and mentor, a convergent thinker whose technical prowess routinely courts the artistic. But it’s also worth noting the intelligence behind these observations. Reputed for her adherence to articulating the inner voice, she once described her relationship to creativity in fascinating terms. “It’s maternal, but it’s also weirdly Gepetto, shamanistic, Doctor Frankenstein…like your saying to the work you make: I know you. I don’t really know you yet, but I want to help you come out. I’m like a midwife or something.”

In closing, she speaks to me of conservation as a crucial aspect of contemporary art; of the craft of plastering as the kind of trade young people need to pick up. “These skills are becoming rare,” she states emphatically. And of Furieri, her regard is clear. “He has an ingenious mind.”