Tête-à-tête with Skye Ferrante
Skye Ferrante is a writer, fine artist, and ballet dancer. Burlesque performers are a frequent and favorite subject of the artist who works in continuous wire and words to capture their stories.
We talked to Skye about his process, his connection to burlesque, and finding art that “works”.
How did you discover burlesque?
I was sculpting live models in Dumbo for an exhibition around 2009 and a number of people who were posing kept bringing up burlesque. I knew about burlesque as a vaudevillian concept, but I didn’t understand…was it coming back? A few of them mentioned Jo Weldon specifically, so I went to The Slipper Room and met her. We immediately liked each other and she let me sculpt her in her office in the basement of The Slipper Room. And because we got along well and all of our portraits sold, she introduced me to some other top performers including Gal Friday, Peekaboo Pointe, Ruby Valentine, Nasty Canasta, Miss Tickle, Julie Atlas Muz…
After sculpting them, I was in and started sculpting more people in the burlesque community. I’m not a joiner, I’m an artist that passes through many worlds but for the first time I felt I had found my people. I didn’t know how to define them, but I knew that these were my people.
What worked creatively about working with performers?
I was drawn to working with performers because they’re aware of their bodies. Not all burlesque performers have a dance background; but I tend to gravitate towards those who do. Like Dirty Martini for example, has a dance background. She, Julie (Atlas Muz) and I would sometimes take ballet together at 890 Broadway where I danced growing up in the 1980s at the Feld New Ballet School on the 8th floor.
You trained as an elite ballet dancer from a very young age, how does that affect your work?
It all starts with ballet. I’m a dancer first, ballet informs everything I do. Art is movement. When art works, it moves. So while I happen to be using the medium of continuous wire, I can extend that metaphor to writing and any onstage performance as well— if you’re able to hold the audience’s attention you’re maintaining movement. A good sentence moves, a page turns. When an actor delivers their lines, it creates movement. Even in the silences and pauses in between the words, that silent bond is connecting you. If the movement stops, you lose the momentum. Dance influences everything I do, certainly in knowing the bodies I sculpt. I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t study anatomy, it’s just from my own experience.
How did you transition out of dance?
I was at The School of American Ballet, and I injured myself. I tore my ACL which gave me an eight-month window of recovery, during which I discovered jazz and for the first time thought about doing something other than dance. But I recovered and went back to my dance career for a short time because ultimately, I wanted to do more things creatively. I started ballet when I was very young, and I was tired of it. I first explored being a jazz musician, playing saxophone, but I realized I didn’t have it in me and the late nights just didn’t work for me. So, I shifted again and focused on becoming a writer.
Not a sculptor?
I didn’t plan to be a sculptor, but that may be what ends up financing the writing because I think that’s how my work has evolved over the years. I remember hearing about Gene Hackman who thought his acting could support his painting career. I was a writer who had to sculpt to pay the rent. I hated that. It was a conflict for quite some time.
A few years ago, around the time when Dirty and Julie visited me at my studio in Paris, I started writing about the portrait sittings and some of the crazy experiences and about the models I was working with. I took every portrait sitting as an opportunity to write a profile and that finally resolved the conflict. I could write about sculpture. It wasn’t fiction, but it was creative.
What do you consider your primary art form now? Writing, sculpture, performance?
I would say that my portraiture is secondary to my writing. I don’t always write about the person I’m sculpting but I always think about the portrait sitting as a performance on stage. The theater is the artist’s studio and every sculpture is a performance— I cannot take back the wire once it is bent and I want to know about the person I’m sculpting.
If there’s clearly a story I’ll take notes and I may write it after that sitting or I may say we need to do some more sculpture because I want to hear more about you. Some people whom I’ve sculpted multiple times, I’ve never written about. Other people, I’ll sculpt once and it’s the kernel of a story.
During the portrait sitting, are you writing in your head while you sculpt? Or do you recall it afterwards?
Afterwards. In the session, we’re working, we’re drinking, we’re talking. They might say something I need to remember and I’ll write the quote down on the sketch pad. I always do a quick sketch before I sculpt.
I’ve had many sessions filmed live when the subject is comfortable with it, but I don’t take photos as I feel that’s intrusive. There’s an intimacy to the portrait sitting in the studio that even my most exhibitionist performer friends recognize. They often tell me they’re much more exposed in the privacy of the artists studio, when they’re on stage they can control what they’re showing and how the audience views them. That being said, even my experienced performer friends are not naked, they’re nude.
Explain the difference…
Amateurs who come to pose are in their mind naked, not nude. Nudity is the costume for the job they are about to do, just as the blue mechanic coveralls that I always wear while I work are my costume. I often tell this to the model if they’ve never posed before, that once we both have our costumes on, then it’s time to get to work. They can see within seconds that this is a professional environment and they can relax.
Has your professional blue mechanic coverall persona developed over the years? Is that a character that you step into?
It has developed, from a point of ignorance. In the beginning when I started working with live models I didn’t understand the dynamics between artist and model, and there were cultural differences and expectations depending on where I was sculpting.
I’ve had amateur models who undress and expect a male gaze. I’ve noticed with some, that while they can see that I’m working, they’re wondering “why isn’t he responding to me in any way.” But I’m working. I have a complicated thing I’m doing. I’ve got wire in my hands. It’s tricky to figure out how to get from one section to the next with one continuous piece of wire. And to make it work structurally as well as aesthetically, but I’ve definitely evolved my role during the artist sitting.
I’ve developed theatrical techniques to keep the model comfortable, particularly the inexperienced ones. I call it my “Columbo Routine”. I make sure at the moment they drop the robe, I’m doing something else to remove any possibility of a “big reveal”. I make sure I’m frantically looking for a marker or sketchpad or playing with pliers. Whatever it is…I’m not paying attention. And I slowly start talking and barely looking at them to the point where they’re bored with my intent. Then we get to work.
How is your art similar to the art of burlesque happening on stage?
My performance background affects the way I deliver a story, the way I build momentum or break it into acts and deliver an ending. Like a successful burlesque act, it’s all about telling the story.
I’m reminded of something the incredible composer Gerald Busby told me at the Chelsea Hotel, something that he had heard from Leonard Bernstein. He said “The next note must be both inevitable and a surprise”. To me, that boils down the essence of the intangible moment when art works, regardless of the art form. I can clearly see it on stage when art works.
Talk about when burlesque or when other art forms “work”?
There are people that I’m inspired by who always have the ultimate goal of “arete”—the Greek word meaning the highest level of human excellence. As an artist, I know it exists. It’s fleeting, but I know it exists because I’ve attained it. It’s also hard to hold on to. I think that artists that have experienced this moment either in themselves or in others, get it. And if you’re not exposed you’re not going to get it.
I don’t believe it’s subjective when Charlie Parker does the acapella solo in “Night in Tunisia”, it’s not subjective. It’s fucking brilliant. Same when I see Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz do a number together I’m like, “Yes. That is it.” That thing that’s “it”, “it” exists.
The preconceived notions about who can be a brilliant burlesque performer are more fluid than ballet for example, does this affect your work?
I was told by a really big ballet master “You’re a great dancer, but you’re too short. You’ll never make it.” Despite him, I did have a career but that was painful. I was only 13. Ballet is an aesthetically discriminating art form in terms of what is acceptable and what isn’t. In burlesque, there are endless opportunities.
The difference with ballet is that the form is inherently discriminating. Classical ballet is simply outdated, and while it can be appreciated, it may be time to retire it, to a museum or the archives. When was the last time you saw a live production of Gilbert and Sullivan? In neo burlesque, as in neo classical ballet, the frame is infinitely wider; instead of set lines, set angles and set looks, the only measure is that ‘it works.
Do you think about the pose before the session, or think about it together with the model?
I try not to think about sculpting at all. I have zero interest in sculpting until I begin and then I’m forced to finish the damn thing. There are moments when I’m enjoying the sculpture or when I’m finished and it’s good, if it’s good. But, I’ve learned to always finish what I start because I’m often surprised by the ending, just like burlesque.
It’s an impromptu performance and my studio is the stage. I have three hours or less to finish a piece and 50’ of wire in the spool. I have limitations of line choice because of length of wire, limitations of time because either I only have the model for so long or I don’t want to break up the sitting because I don’t want to lose the momentum. Also, I’ve learned I only have 3 hours of focus in my head and my hands.
What else are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working with Ferrari sculpting their cars. It’s interesting and they fly me all over the world to do performance sculptures of their latest cars. I think they hire me for some level of gritty authenticity while the other people around me are representing luxury watches or yachts.
Today, I sculpted a jellyfish, a pastrami sandwich, and golf clubs in a bag. Those were actually sculpted to accompany short stories. They don’t pay the rent, but hopefully, I’m adding something of value to the world.
I’m working on numerous books. “A Book of Words and Wire”, which is a series of shorter caption stories and pictures. And a second book called “The Naked and the Nude”, which is a collection of longer profiles of fascinating people. Each chapter is titled after the portrait of the performer, many of whom are burlesque performers, of course. From each initial portrait, I might then branch off into other memories and other portraits.
In these books, I’m able to do what I’ve never been able to do in my gallery shows, which is to explain that my work is not just a pretty thing I’m selling to put on the wall. There is a story here. I want you to know that this sculpture represents a person. The wire has been touched by hand so it is also somehow imbued with the story of that sitting. I want the story to be told.
To keep up with Skye, follow him here Skye Ferrante Studio (@manofwire) • Instagram photos and videos