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Flashback

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Sculp­tor He­laine Blu­men­feld re­mem­bers a life-chang­ing friend­ship

EVEN BE­FORE I MET Sem, I had heard about him from sculp­tors who worked in Pi­etrasanta, in north­ern Tus­cany; he was a leg­end. At 15 he was a leader in the par­ti­san move­ment in the re­gion dur­ing the Se­cond World War – so wily and in­tel­li­gent – work­ing with Amer­i­cans who dropped off money to fund them. Then in the 1950s he opened a mar­ble stu­dio in Pi­etrasanta. This pho­to­graph, taken at an ex­hi­bi­tion of mine in a small gallery there, re­calls not only our re­la­tion­ship but a change that came about in my life be­cause of him.

The piece we are look­ing at, Psy­che, I went on to do three me­tres high – these are ini­tial mod­els. Sem was quite close to the end of his life [he died in 1997]. He said that when he first saw my work, he knew I had some­thing new to say; he wanted to tell me his be­lief in me had been ful­filled.

We met 20 years ear­lier, in 1974, when I went to Pi­etrasanta for the first time to look at the bronze foundries. I was al­ready quite suc­cess­ful, mostly work­ing in clay and cast­ing in bronze. I had done a lit­tle bit of mar­ble carv­ing – enough to see that it was re­ally dif­fi­cult – but when the sculp­tor Ali­cia Pe­nalba saw my work, she said, ‘You’ve got to meet Sem, this should be in mar­ble.’ So I was brought to the bar where he held court, drink­ing grappa.

He was so charis­matic. I im­me­di­ately thought about Pi­casso be­cause he had that same vi­tal­ity. When he saw my mod­els he was ex­cited. He took me up to the quar­ries in Car­rara and Pi­etrasanta – places of magic, seren­ity and beauty – and I knew I wanted to work in mar­ble, though it would be rig­or­ous. I’d al­ways thought my work was spir­i­tual; the white mar­ble and the abil­ity to have it be­come translu­cent seemed the way to re­alise my vi­sion.

On that visit, Sem gave me a blank cheque, which I still have. He said, ‘If you ever need money, I want you to use this.’

Back in Eng­land, my hus­band, a writer who worked from home, en­cour­aged me to start go­ing to learn from ar­ti­sans at Sem’s stu­dio in Pi­etrasanta. At that time, women weren’t mar­ried and didn’t have chil­dren if they pur­sued this kind of ca­reer. My so­lu­tion was to di­vide my life – I worked flat-out in Italy for two weeks at a time, and when I was home, I was a bet­ter mother to our two lit­tle boys than I had been be­fore I left.

In the mar­ble yard I was the only woman, with a group of tough men. It was very hard. But it was a re­lief to find a com­mu­nity where every­body was com­mit­ted to their art. Pi­etrasanta is also where I first met Henry Moore, in the 1970s. Sem was mak­ing big pieces for him and he came to su­per­vise. Later, in 1985, Moore and I had a joint show in New York. When the dealer Alex Rosen­berg first told me he wanted to ex­hibit me with an­other artist, I said, ‘I pre­fer to have my work shown on its own.’ He replied, ‘Maybe you won’t feel that way when I say who the other per­son is.’

Sem ar­gued that ex­per­i­ment­ing should take prece­dence over ex­hibit­ing, and said the most im­por­tant thing for an artist is to de­velop their own voice. That is ad­vice I’ve fol­lowed ever since. —In­ter­view by Tina Nandha

A ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion by He­laine Blu­men­feld OBE is at Ely Cathe­dral, Cam­bridgeshir­e, un­til 28 Oc­to­ber

‘In the mar­ble yard I was the only woman, with a group of tough men. It was very hard’

 ??  ?? He­laine Blu­men­feld with Sem Ghe­lar­dini in Italy in 1994, 20 years af­ter they first met
He­laine Blu­men­feld with Sem Ghe­lar­dini in Italy in 1994, 20 years af­ter they first met

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