Ivan Cohen – Sculpting in retirement!

Ivan Cohen sculpted Piano


During the month of September 2009 my wife Helen and I spent some time with my brother Basil & his wife Adele in Italy.   During our stay we had occasion to re-visit various museums in Florence and to view the works of art of the Renaissance Masters. Whilst looking at some of the superb sculptures in marble I jokingly thought to myself . . . .

Just who was this guy Michelangelo anyway?  If he could do this, why can’t I?

On our return to Spain I passed by the premises of a marble dealer in the San Pedro poligono, around the corner from one of our favourite restaurants and decided to go inside and look for a piece of marble with which to commence my looming career as a master sculptor.   I found a small off-cut lying around, fully expecting the owner to say “take it” (in the Spanish vernacular of course).   Unfortunately he had other ideas.  I paid the required 15 Euros and left, not knowing or caring if I had wasted this “considerable amount” of money

I have quite a comprehensive workshop but looking through my tool collection all I could find was a couple of cold chisels which were OK for rough jobs in building but no good for any type of (reasonably) fine work.  And so, off I went to the local tool hyper where I bought a small masonry chisel and returned home to see if I could make some impression on my off-cut.

The first step required was of course the choice of a subject.  Being limited by the size and shape of my off-cut, I came up with the idea of trying to reproduce a hand playing a chord on a portion of the neck of a guitar.  I was fully aware that a hand is considered extremely difficult to draw (which fortunately I am able to do) but being a little ambitious, optimistic and perhaps a little stupid I decided to proceed anyway.

I found out that my new chisel was inadequate for many of the required tasks so I returned to the hyper where I bought a small set containing different types of chisels as well as 2 new hammers – not cheap, but I bought them anyway. I also purchased some threaded brass inserts and Allen screws to mount into the top of the old workbench in Helen’s garage – to hold the marble in place whilst working on it.  The proposed system required clamps which I fabricated from wood.   The clamp idea stemmed from my days visiting toolmakers when I was in the plastic moulding business.

The lighting was inadequate so I installed another lamp and then hijacked an old sheet to make a curtain to contain the flying chips and the dust.  I bought a pair of goggles, a mask and initially used a pair of old winter gloves to protect my hands.   Being a beginner, I was hitting (klapping in SA parlance) the non-striking hand with alarming frequency with my new, but unsympathetic hammers!

I found that the fine work needed different techniques and this resulted in another visit to the tool hyper where I purchased a DREMEL grinder and some ridiculously expensive grinding points (fresas in Spanish).   Many subsequent visits followed to increase the range of these tools and gradually, I was able to get the basic shape to start emerging from my little off-cut.

Working in 3D is a totally different experience from drawing or painting.   I have carved a little in wood and like many kids, played around making models and toys.  Being born in South Africa during WW2 meant that toys were in short supply for a considerable number of years after the end of the war.

Working in marble has added issues – it is extremely hard and brittle.  Mistakes are costly – one cannot replace the chips or pieces that seem to fly off at will.   As a result of one of these “accidents”, the tip of the unused baby finger in the selected chord of C Major, had ideas of its own and fell off.  With a little thought I was able to change the subject and its title from C Major to C7. I decided that I would aim for creating something that was realistic and not abstractive, particularly as I believed it would help to develop my skills.

It should be noted that during Michelangelo’s days, they had no tempered/hardened steel to work with and creating shapes by removing unwanted material must have been incredibly difficult and time-consuming.

I found some useful information on the internet  . . . . a system to hold the piece in place whilst hammering, grinding etc.   We cut the legs off a pair of kid’s jeans purchased at the market for a few Euros and filled these with beach sand.   We also did this with a couple of old pairs of socks.   These made great “rests” against which the piece could be leant to permit work at odd angles not afforded by my home-made bracket system.

So that’s how it started.   I was pretty happy with my first attempt and decided that I possessed the patience required to try again.  C7 took approx. 300 hours to complete.

My next efforts would require “real pieces” of marble and so Helen and I were off in her car to drive the approx. 330km to Macael (near Almeria).  This is where the reputed Spanish equivalent of the famous Cararra marble comes from.  We had ordered 2 blocks (each of which weighed approx. 100kg) and returned home to my new workshop/studio . . . .  my car’s garage.  I had prepared for this by building a new workbench, installing suitable lighting as well as curtains to prevent the dust from destroying the other contents of the garage.  I now have a significantly greater range of tools, including a compressor, air tools and the required cutting and grinding accessories.

During my last years at school I was a member of a rock band called The Cyclones.  Our pianist was classically trained and went on to further his studies in the UK.  He ultimately became the Cultural Director of Ontario, Canada!  I asked him to take a few photos of his hands playing chords on the piano in such a way that they would not overlap and that all fingers would be visible.  He chose a Debussey piece and consolidated 2 bars for convenience sake.  These pics were the basis for my second effort which is called A75 Debussy Etude No.9.  This took approx. 800 hours to complete and bearing in mind that I work the odd hour or 2 when I get the chance, this added up to well over a year.  The devil really is in the detail!

Now I’m about 85% of the way through no.3 which also has a musical theme.  I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t devote more of what time I have left on the planet to artistic endeavours. I received a substantial offer via an agent for the Debussey piece.  Fortunadamente or desafortunadamente the deal was not completed as I was not really ready to part with it.  I have a Masters degree in Business Administration and sometimes wonder if I actually found the plot in the Spanish business environment!

Next Up….

Jose Gonzales Bueno – Hyperrealistic Unique Watercolours


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