Adam Capone is a sculptor living and working in Lambertville, N.J. Where the rest of the world sees trash, Capone sees potential. He shapes what is unwanted into pieces that teem with surrealistic life. What follows are his thoughts on the artistic process, the potential of what we discard and working through self-doubt. You can see Capone's latest exhibition starting April 7 at Sidetracks Art in New Hope, Pa.
Tell me about your process. How do you take an idea and transform it into a sculpture or a piece of furniture?
A sculpture starts with collecting materials at flea markets, junk stores, garbage piles, yard sales, etc. I collect broken antique furniture. The stuff that restorers see no hope for. I'm looking for hardwoods mostly, things with interesting contours, textures and colors. Then I take them to my shop and dissect them, sometimes methodically, sometimes with a pickaxe or a sledgehammer. Then I organize the parts according to shape and scale. Once they're deconstructed like this, for me, they become just raw material, like lumps of clay or a sack of concrete. The next part is the real fun. I basically dump out a bunch of material on my bench and start trying to find ways that these disparate parts can align to start implying a greater form. So, a door rosette attached awkwardly to the weathered claw foot of a mid-century table can start to look like the face of an owl , a goddess or a psychotic elf. Once I see a form emerging the process becomes a series of physics/aesthetic puzzles to solve. The problem is that I have to make this phoenix, or this giant elephant head and I have to do it with this pile of discarded material and it has to stand or hang with structural integrity. So I go about solving the physics puzzle within the confines of a particular aesthetic. With the re-purposed furniture I make the process and materials are similar but I have to also consider the clients requests. This takes more time.
I have no artistic knowledge or skill, but I've always thought sculpture was the most difficult form because it's more taking away than adding on -- revealing what's within. What does sculpture do for you, creatively? What's so difficult about it? What's so rewarding?
I have always recognized that I have a compulsion, good or bad, to take objects and/or images apart and make something new out of them. I'm not pleasant when I don't do enough of it and I feel content when I do a lot of it. For me the reward is in the magic of it. I don't plan out imagery or any element of a sculpture. The magic lies in setting my ego aside, becoming a passenger and seeing what will emerge from the material marriages, from the universe. When a face appears or a chair arm starts to become a bird wing it is a surprise to me every time. The second reward comes from watching other people find the images, objects and other surprises in my work. When somebody sees something novel, sees some small part of the world (even just furniture parts or a rusty hinge) as different or potentially more that feels like I'm not wasting my time. I think that is my job as an artist -- to help people see the world differently. Honestly the difficult part of being a sculptor is in life balance, because this life doesn't make sense. It's certainly not logical. The hard part is getting the world around you to accept that you are just gonna go ahead and not live conventionally, that all your clothes will have stains, you'll be lost in thought and you will almost always skip a party for studio time.
I've noticed you work a lot with wood. Why wood? What's the appeal?
Old furniture and weathered lumber was the stuff that I grew up immersed in. I grew up in New Hampshire in an old colonial era house, my parents were antique dealers. All this stuff I sculpt with now was everywhere that I looked as a kid. Things were always being fixed and rearranged. In New Hampshire we forested and split our own firewood. Wood has always been familiar to me. I like how wood breaks, sounds and grows. I get lost in the images hidden in wood grain. Wood can be manipulated perfectly. It can become steel or water or wool, if you know how to play with it. Of all the materials, for me , it is the most alchemical. Some people can transmutate paint or stone. My friend Scott Riether can do it with light through a camera lenses. I cant do that.
Tell me about a time you most doubted yourself as an artist. How did you get past it? How did you find a way to make a living doing what you do?
The most doubt I ever had was my first semester in graduate school. They showed us our studios, gave us huge reading lists and said "OK smartypants, what brilliant thing are you gonna make," or at least it felt that way at the time. Create content to be publicly critiqued by a panel of grizzled U of C professors -- a daunting task. "What the HELL do I have to say?" was my inner panic-mantra. The answer was and always is to just start. You can't get stuck on doubt. Being an artist is a process of doubt. "Does this communicate what I think it does? Why am I making this? Why did I make this? Should I bother dragging this discarded chair back to the studio? Where should this be placed? Is that red enough? Should I burn it or paint it?" I doubt everything from material collection to exhibition. Of course there is also the doubt that you'll be able to make your student loan payment if you are an artist. I'm not sure it's a matter of making a living as much as it is living with what you make. I have to wear a lot of hats to make it work. I have a part time job building homes with Habitat for Humanity, make commissioned furniture , sell sculpture through galleries, help other artists with their installations, etc. People hire me for all sorts of creative carpentry solutions. I'm always working but, I really do find meaning in every job I have and if sculpture-time has to happen at ungodly hours then it does. It often does. I live simply and drive an old truck.
However, if I'm giving out advice based on life experience I would say that the best hacks to living comfortably as an artist are to marry somebody with a degree outside of the humanities & more earning potential than yourself. Move to an artistic town and happen to have generous siblings, neighbors and friends that buy your art. It takes a village.
You and I train Jiu Jitsu together. How, if at all, does that inform your process as an artist? Does it help with creativity?
Jiu jitsu is the perfect supplement for making sculpture. I found this to be especially true after getting accustom to training early in the morning* on some of days that I dedicate long hours in the studio. It's almost like taking a magic pill that clears all the B.S. out of my head and so I create with less doubt or tension. In that way I think it facilitates the aha moments for me in the studio. Jiu jitsu is also great cardio for sculpture. I lack the discipline to exercise unless somebody is trying to strangle me.
Jiu jitsu absolutely helps expand creativity. Both are creative processes that contain limitless amounts of problems and solutions so you exercise allot of the same mental muscles, have the same mental practice as a goal. When you are a student and you see the work of a Jiu jitsu master like Marcelo or a master sculptor like Brancusi you can see that they've really found the "flow state" in their process. Their work doesn't just synthesize the fundamentals to an artful level. Masters expand the Art and their process becomes their language. Masters can find that Zen state, open up to all possibilities and their honest, informed and experienced reactions don't have to be calculated just released. It's beautiful to see when somebody is that good. Students of both arts have these experiences in small doses. When muscle memory leads you through a guard pass or when you have an "aha moment" making sculpture. These are very similar rewards. Most of the time I'm on the receiving end of somebody else's jiu jitsu "aha moment," but it's all fun for me.
Do you ever feel blocked, creatively? How do you deal with it?
I haven't felt blocked creatively since my panic early in grad school. This is because I've gotten totally comfortable with failure and I dropped the silly notion that sculpture can't be whimsical at least in part. My materials are all recycled and recyclable. So there is also this built-in "smash it and start over" button in my process. Some of the sculptures that work best for me came from failing at another sculpture and hitting that button. Also, like I said, I wear a lot of hats so I always have a wide variety of projects on my bench. If a sculpture is being obstinate I move on to something that can be accomplished and I then return to the problem with a different perspective. More than being creatively blocked I feel blocked by not having enough time or space to make all the sculptures.
Ripoff question 1: What's something unconventional or unpopular that you believe is true?
I believe it is entirely possible that we are living in a computer simulation.
Ripoff question 2: You can put a billboard in Times Square. It can say anything you want. What does it say?
This would be a job for a poet, not a sculptor. I would quote my brother, poet/philosopher/rapper M.C.Capone.
The only rules I follow
are beautifully written love letters in
an ocean bound bottle,
signed, 'Know thyself.'