Of form and fauna

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Photos by Philip Monteleoni

Philip Monteleoni’s sculptural menagerie on view at Arts Society of Kingston

Back in the ’70s when he did his first stone carvings of animals as a diversion from his architectural practice, Philip Monteleoni’s intention was to capture their beauty. But in recent years, after retiring in 2007 and taking up sculpture again, depicting animals became more about “a mission in my mind,” as he puts it, “to help reawaken feelings in people that might help slow down the extinction of species all over the world.” By portraying his subjects as faithfully as possible with proportions as correct as he can make them, he hopes to contribute to the viewer’s empathy for animals.

The Arts Society of Kingston is exhibiting “Menagerie: Sculptures in Marble, Stone and Metal by Philip Monteleoni” through Saturday, October 31. Gallery hours at 97 Broadway are Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m.

The Olivebridge-based sculptor works in a studio over his garage. Carving stone is “a messy business,” he says. Monteleoni often lets the shape of the raw stone suggest the animal form that it becomes. He’s also motivated by interesting coloration; onyx is his latest thing. He turns to photographs that he has taken in zoos or in the wild on trips to places that include Tanzania and India. A trip to Costa Rica to observe birds is next on the horizon. He has also taken the opportunity to sketch after hours in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they have a program for artists to draw from the animals in the dioramas there.
After retiring from his architectural practice, Monteleoni studied sculpture at the Art Students’ League in New York City. When he and his wife, Carol, moved up to the Hudson Valley to live full-time in what had been their weekend home – one that he’d designed and built himself – he studied figurative clay sculpture with Tricia Cline at the Woodstock School of Art. Monteleoni credits her with teaching him to be disciplined in using calipers and other forms of measurement to communicate form without simplifying or cutting corners.
He enjoys the physicality of sculpting after the years of architecture, “which is all paper-based and involves lots of talk and years-long delays before any outcome.” He was happy to be an architect, he says, “but looking back, this was a second part of me that was subsumed initially and now is coming out. And I’m just marveling at it and happy about it. It was in there, but it was untapped.”

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During his architectural career, Monteleoni specialized in creating healthcare facilities that provided aesthetically pleasing and stress-reducing environments for patients, their families and medical staff. “I really felt that, as architects, we solved the museum, the airport, the bank, the opera house…and they’re places for people in a fairly positive state of mind. But when you go to the hospital, nothing is hopeful at that point. You lose control over parts of your body and you don’t know what’s going on. If you’re accompanying somebody, you don’t know what kind of news you’re going to hear. And if you’re a staff member, you never know what type of difficult things are going to be a part of your working day. So designing for this underappreciated building type is the ultimate challenge, I think, for an architect.”

Of the many projects that Monteleoni worked on in this country and abroad, the one that he’s proudest of is the Sheikh Khalifa Specialist Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. It was the last project that he designed before retirement. Most of the time healthcare architecture involves adding onto campuses that already exist, he says, but in this case his firm was given a blank slate to create a hospital from the ground up. It was built just as planned – a rarity in architecture, he notes – and the building embodies all the principles of good design and patient-centered planning that he tried to incorporate into all his work over the years.

Monteleoni began life as an Italian, born in Padova, Italy during World War II. When Allied forces invaded Italy in September 1943 and Italy changed sides, his father, an officer in the Italian Navy, avoided being rounded up by occupying German forces and went to New London, Connecticut, where he was put in charge of Italian submarines being used for military exercises by the US Navy. He eventually earned commendations that allowed him postwar to become a resident. “I was still in Italy with my mother, and it took us three years to get our visas to come to the US,” Monteleoni says. “My father became a businessman, got into importing and exporting, and he imported us.”

Arriving in this country in 1948 speaking only Italian, the six-year-old was put into the first grade. “It was sink or swim with the English language,” he says now, but he did well, in time attending Harvard and then Yale for a graduate degree in Architecture. “I’ve been extremely blessed with privilege and education. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
Monteleoni currently enjoys spending his mornings on sculpture and his afternoons playing guitar. As for what the future holds, the birth of his first grandson, Calvin, may have sent him in a new direction in terms of sculptural subject matter. After his son and daughter-in-law sent ultrasound pictures last year with the news that they were expecting, Monteleoni was inspired to create a piece in onyx depicting an embryo in the womb. That work is on display through Saturday in Kingston, along with approximately 25 other stone sculptures and metalworks and a selection of drawings.

“Menagerie: Sculptures in Marble, Stone & Metal by Philip Monteleoni,” Tuesday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m., through October 31, free, Arts Society of Kingston, 97 Broadway; (845) 338-0333, www.askforarts.org.

There is one comment

  1. George de Menil

    More than a review, this story is a moving testimonial about Philip Montelione, and about the creative tension between sculpture and architecture.

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