Studio HistoryKayla Malouin
~Heritage and Cascieri di Biccari, Inc.~
Throughout the history of sculpture the relationship between master and apprentice has been integral to the continuation and development of the art. Had Bernini not honed his craft under the watchful eye of his father, had Michelangelo not received instruction from Bertoldo di Giovanni in the Palazzo Medici in Florence, the world would have been robbed of countless masterpieces. Skylight Studios is like many studios of the past where the traditions and techniques were passed from teacher to student through several generations of craftsman. These men, through their ability to combine the great European figurative tradition with uniquely American subject matter, thrived during a period of change in art. First came Augustus Saint-Gaudens during the mid- to late 19th century, next Bela Pratt, and then Frederick Allen. Then came Robert Shure’s mentors, Adio di Biccari and Arcangelo Cascieri.
Born in Revere in 1914, Adio di Biccari was so fascinated by drawing that even repeated physical reprimands from his teachers could not make him turn his attention away from his art to arithmetic and letter writing. Recognizing di Biccari’s artistic potential, his father hired a young artist named Arcangelo Cascieri to come to the family’s East Boston home and act as a tutor, not realizing that he was initiating what would become a long and fruitful artistic relationship between Cascieri and di Biccari. Cascieri, twelve years di Biccari’s senior, introduced his precocious pupil to Ernest Pellegrini, a sculptor who ran an art school in Copley Square. It was while taking drawing classes at the Pellegrini School that di Biccari found himself increasingly possessed by an interest in sculpture: peering through the window at a sculpture class in the school, di Biccari began to feel that the dynamic motion required to create three dimensional forms made drawing seem static in comparison. Di Biccari soon elected to switch out of his drawing class into the sculpting class, and after only a few lessons realized he had found his true artistic calling.
Following his graduation from high school, di Biccari applied to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, receiving a full scholarship and the opportunity to take classes with Frederick Allen. Allen left an ineffable mark on di Biccari, who later remarked: “No schools could teach me more than Allen had…I could recreate a figure-every muscle-by heart. But I worked from intuition. Allen introduced me to interpretation. When you understand what you’re seeing, you can do so much more.” Di Biccari did his teacher proud, earning the Museum School’s prestigious Traveling Scholarship in 1936. The scholarship allowed him to travel throughout Germany and Italy, where he was exposed to classical and Renaissance art as well as rich European culture. An exuberant and outgoing man, di Biccari was able to transcend language barriers and make lifelong friends during his experience abroad.
When he returned to the United States di Biccari began creating sculptural figures in a style he described as “elongation, inspired by [Italian painter] Modigliani,” which owed the most to Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. One such figure, Resurgam, was the centerpiece of the Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Independent Artists on Newbury Street in Boston in 1939. Gothic in its slender and graceful elongation but unique and innovative in its delicately modeled tiptoe pose that imparted a feeling of levitation, the piece had a positive critical reception and was a harbinger of the artistic success di Biccari would enjoy in the coming years. His work was interrupted by America’s entry into World War II in 1941, but despite his wartime job as the foreman of a steel foundry he still found the time to do the occasional sculptural work with his old tutor, Arcangelo Cascieri. At the end of the war di Biccari took a job making silk-screened and wood-carved signs for an advertising display company, but found himself enjoying his side projects with Cascieri more and more as time wore on. In 1952, despite the offer of a sizable raise from the advertising company, di Biccari decided to leave in order to start a business with Cascieri, which they named Cascieri di Biccari, Inc. They set up an active studio in Arlington, MA at the old Scwhamb mill complex. Then in 1954 they purchased the studio of Frederick Allen, who was di Biccari’s former teacher, at 27 Tavern Road in Boston. Allen was retiring and desired that di Biccari have his studio, ensuring that it would continue to be home to a rich and unique artistic tradition. Allen had bought the building in 1921, then an old brick stable, and remodeled it in the Florentine style as his personal studio. After he was finished, the building had the feel of an Italian Palazzo: stucco walls, a grand dining hall featuring a 16th century table, furniture and tapestries taken from an ancient Italian castle, and a backyard complete with a grape arbor and pond. With their purchase of the studio, di Biccari and Cascieri gained another workspace rich in heritage that would serve their burgeoning studio well for years to come.
Fueled by demand for sculpture and architectural decorations from the many churches that were being built in the 1950s and early 1960s, Cascieri di Biccari, Inc. was perpetually busy completing commissions. The majority of their body of work was ecclesial, with a few well-known examples at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the Christian Science center in Boston, and the Boston University Chapel. Libraries and colleges throughout America also benefited from the fruit of the partnership. A very small selection of other notable projects completed by the artists include the Husky statue for Northeastern University, three statues representing Education, Industry and Religion at Parkman Plaza in Boston, and four American War Memorials in France, Holland, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Though they were effective business partners and shared an intense passion for sculpture, Arcangelo Cascieri and Adio di Biccari’s personalities couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Di Biccari’s personality almost seemed a reflection of his preferred artistic medium, modeling. Because of the fluid and highly malleable nature of the clay medium, an artist could start working with little preparation and quickly complete a piece. Di Biccari would often fly into the studio late with his pet poodle and a little brown bag containing his lunch and, with little to no prior planning, fall to work on a piece with a burst of energy and activity. In contrast, Cascieri’s defining characteristics seemed to be shaped by his love of woodcarving, which required an extensive amount of forethought and design. Cascieri was always at the studio on time, dressed in the natty fashion of a master artist, and spent long periods of time making preparatory sketches and thinking about a project from every conceivable angle. While devoted to his craft, di Biccari was always a very social man who enjoyed entertaining friends and throwing parties, while Cascieri was more inwardly focused and tended to spend his leisure time writing poetry or making cards from woodcuts.
Arcangelo Cascieri was born in 1902 in Civitaquana, a town in the Pescara Province of Italy. Lured by rumors of easy money, his father immigrated to Boston in 1906, sending funds a year later for the rest of the family to follow him to the land of opportunity. Unfortunately, harsh economic realities collided with the his father’s dreams of quick riches and Cascieri was forced to quit grammar school and work in an East Boston shoe factory to help support the family. Still required by law to attend a vocational school until the age of sixteen, Cascieri took woodworking classes, eventually becoming quite proficient in the craft. A friend of his father, noticing Cascieri’s artistic skill, informed the family that the chief sculptor at the W.F. Ross Studio in Cambridge was looking for an apprentice. In 1918 Cascieri started a four-year apprenticeship under John Kirchmayer at the Ross studio, thus embarking upon a sculptural education that would last his entire life.
From Kirchmayer, Cascieri learned to form sculpture from solid blocks of wood and stone, a technique known as direct carving. He earned four dollars a week in Kirchmayer’s studio and was further enriched by the advice and friendship of numerous artists who collaborated with his master. Despite his talent for sculpting, Cascieri harbored a desire to become a doctor at the end of the apprenticeship. This dream was crushed by the financial situation of his family, which still depended on Cascieri’s support to make ends meet and simply did not have the funds to put him through medical school. Cascieri responded to this disappointment with a flurry of activity, deciding to continue his sculptural career and his formal artistic education simultaneously.
After weighing the benefits of a formal college degree program, Cascieri determined that such a traditional course of study would not fulfill his educational needs. Instead, Cascieri took liberal arts classes at the Massachusetts College of Art, Harvard, and Boston University in the evening. During the day he studied at the Boston Architectural Center, where his artistic skill enabled him to enter directly into second year classes. Somehow, while planning out and undertaking this unique and rigorous course of education, Cascieri found time to work as the Assistant Director of Sculpture and Woodcarving at the Ross studio to support himself and his family, and supplemented his earnings as a tutor to the young Adio di Biccari.
Upon his graduation from the B.A.C in 1926, Cascieri was elected by his classmates to the respected position of “Massier of the Atelier,” thus beginning the long relationship he would have with the school as a teacher and an administrator. The position made him the leader of the B.A.C. student’s studio, managing day-to-day affairs as well as providing guidance and instruction to students in need of assistance. In 1932 he began teaching classes in earnest, a role in which he was so successful that he was promoted to “Head of School” in 1937 and finally became Dean in 1943. A deeply thoughtful and supremely inspiring teacher, Cascieri is recalled by his pupils as “a man with the uncanny ability to draw the best out of others…the living personification of the best that we are capable of in the ‘profession’ of life.” Cascieri was also a talented administrator: during his tenure, the B.A.C. evolved from an informal evening school to a fully accredited, degree-granting architectural school. Cascieri also personally convinced numerous skilled architects, such as Walter Gropius, to teach at the college. Partially out of a need to support himself because he never accepted payment for his services to the B.A.C., but mostly out of his love of the craft, Cascieri continued his sculptural career, joining the Schwamb Studio as Sculptor and Director in 1941. Perhaps to preserve a buffer space between his and di Biccari’s rather diametrically opposed personalities, Cascieri continued working at Schwamb through the boom years of Cascieri di Biccari, Inc. while di Biccari was operating out of the 27 Tavern Road studio.
~Cascieri di Biccari Shure~
Robert Shure was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1948. His mother recalled that he never gave her any trouble in his childhood because she could sit him down at the kitchen table, give him paper and a pencil, and be sure that he would be absorbed in drawing for hours on end. In third grade Shure employed his artistic talents at school and won a statewide poster competition. Unlike Adio di Biccari’s grade school teachers, who rewarded art with beatings, Shure’s teachers were so impressed with his work that they gave him his own “studio” (a closet) to work in. Shure continued to hone his skills in high school and at the New York Institute of Technology, where he enrolled in 1970 as a Bachelor of Fine Arts major. The Institute had recently created its art department and boasted an impressive faculty with many prominent contemporary sculptors and painters active in the New York City art scene. Shure became close with one such artist, Julius Tobias, a sculptor from whom he learned a great deal about aesthetics and fabrication in general. Shure graduated, cum laude, in 1970, earning the coveted “Gold Medal in Sculpture Award,” the highest honor in sculpture given by the college. He decided that attending a dedicated art school for graduate work would be a logical next step in his education. He applied to several schools and received a full scholarship from Tufts University, which had a joint program with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Though he had never before been in Boston and didn’t know a single person in the city, Shure nevertheless packed up his belongings and headed northeast with his wife, Kathleen, to pursue his artistic education and future. His old instructor Tobias introduced Shure to the Parker 470 Gallery in Boston where Shure obtained studio space in exchange for performing various and sundry tasks. Though the gallery was in such a dangerous neighborhood that Shure took to camouflaging the door to his little studio with refuse to prevent robberies, it would soon become apparent that the benefits of the location far outweighed this inconvenience. One night in 1971, as Shure and his wife were cleaning the gallery, he happened to point out the building across the street to her, a classic Italian-style building that seemed to be an artist’s studio. With encouragement from Kathleen he decided to go over and introduce himself, and in this manner the Shures came to know Adio di Biccari and Arcangelo Cascieri.
When Shure walked into the studio, with its Italian Renaissance furnishings and wealth of statues in various states of completion, he knew “within five seconds” that he wanted to dedicate his life to making figurative sculpture just as di Biccari and Cascieri had. Learning of Shure’s sculptural zeal, the elder artists took him on as an assistant, an arrangement that would prove to be a great opportunity for all involved. By the late 1960s the upswing in church construction had subsided, leaving Cascieri di Biccari, Inc. without one of its main sources of commissions. As a response to the decline in work the Schwamb Mill studio was closed and Cascieri began to work at 27 Tavern Road with di Biccari. Little new business came in because no attempts were made to advertise, and slowly the Tavern Road studio transformed from a bustling enterprise employing six to twelve artisans to a quiet, languishing operation in which Cascieri and di Biccari worked alone and barely spoke to one another. Shure’s vigor and passion revitalized their enthusiasm for the partnership as they turned their attention to passing on their sculptural knowledge to him and continuing the work of the studio. For Shure, the arrangement entailed receiving an invaluable education from the most qualified teachers imaginable, as well as essentially gaining a new family: Cascieri and di Biccari, with their characteristic warmth and hospitality, essentially adopted him and Kathleen. The Shures traveled into work with the artists in the morning, ate dinner with them at night, and made fast friends with their large extended families.
Business slowly picked up after Shure joined the studio as the pendulum of public interest swung away from architectural minimalism, requiring sculptures and ornaments to be restored and replaced where they had been removed from buildings. The renewed importance of public monuments honoring veterans, municipal workers, historical figures and events also kept Shure busy and eventually became the focus of his work. Though Shure’s official position as an assistant remained constant over the next 14 years, he slowly took on more and more responsibilities from his aging mentors. By the late 1980s Cascieri’s health was fading fast and he turned over all his work to Shure. Di Biccari remained physically healthy, but his avidity for his craft waned as it became vogue for amateurs experimenting with clay to call themselves sculptors. For him sculpture was like a religion, and he believed that only those with years of training on the intricacies and nuances of the craft could call themselves sculptors. For this reason, along with pressure from Northeastern University and real financial necessity, Cascieri and di Biccari sold the Tavern Road studio to Northeastern University in 1990. Though the artists sold the building thinking it would be turned into a dormitory, it was demolished before the ink had dried on the bill of sale. Today, with a parking lot in its place and Tavern Road itself destroyed to create a new area of Northeastern’s campus, the only reminders of the studio’s existence are the memories held by those who worked and learned there.
~Skylight Studios: Inception and Present Day~
With the Tavern Road studio sold, Adio di Biccari and Arcangelo Cascieri officially retired, leaving the business to Robert Shure. They had dissolved the corporation in 1983, working afterwards under the names Cascieri di Biccari Shure and Studio 27. In need of a new workspace to replace the Tavern Road studio, in 1990 Shure moved his studio to its current location at 105 Salem Street in Woburn, an ideal building due to its ample space and easily adaptable floor plan. While they were renovating the building to optimize it for studio use the Shures decided to raise a portion of the roof to add height and skylights for natural light. With the building ready, the new studio lacked only a name; after much deliberation the Shures chose Kathleen’s suggestion, Skylight Studios, Inc.
Over the past twenty years Skylight Studios has thrived, becoming one of the most active and diverse sculpture studios in the United States. Dotting the landscape throughout Boston, New England, and the country are countless monuments, sculptures, and restorations completed by Shure and his team. Twelve artisans currently assist Shure in the day-to-day work of the studio. The relief portrait of Ted Williams at the entrance of the tunnel that bears his name, the Korean War monument at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Charlestown, MA, and the Cy Young monument at the site of the first World Series are just a few of the noteworthy public commissions completed by the studio in the Boston area. The work of Robert Shure and Skylight Studios can be seen at the Smithsonian, Mount Vernon, the Massachusetts State House, the Bennington Battle Ground, and Yankee Stadium. Also significant is the heroic size sculptural relief of George Washington in the Washington Monument, which earned Shure the Federal Design Achievement Award in 1995. Additionally, Skylight Studios has performed a significant amount of conservation work, helping to preserve and restore Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Adams Memorial and Shaw Memorial (which the studio also reproduced), the Yale University plaster cast collection, and the plaster sculptures of Katharine Lane Weems at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Though the Internet has found its way into the business side of studio work and new materials and techniques have been integrated into the mold making process, in many aspects the studio at 105 Salem Street has changed little since its inception more than 150 years ago: inside the building the smell of clay and plaster is strong, the sound of craftsmen’s tools rings through the air, and casts and original sculptures crowd every inch of free space. If you watch Shure and his assistants work, you will see living embodiments of a sculptural tradition spanning many generations, men and women who are in the process of creating a new chapter in the history of Skylight Studios.
Nathaniel Shirley with Robert Shure