Modern Michelangelo Jyl Bonaguro

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Jyl Bonaguro with Modern Athena

Having taught herself to sculpt marble, Jyl Bonaguro has set her sights on a contemporary re-imagining of one of the medium’s towering masterworks.

For years, Jyl Bonaguro had a vision so clear it was almost haunting: sculpting a female figure in marble on the scale of Michelangelo’s David.

Bonaguro, the current president of Chicago Sculpture International, is fundraising for her project to create Modern Athena, which has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Cliff Dwellers Arts Foundation.

Bonaguro tells Fra Noi about her passion for art, how she found her way to sculpting, and her determination to see Modern Athena become reality.

Elena Ferrarin: Tell me about your upbringing and your Italian roots.

Jyl Bonaguro: I was born in Chicago Heights and I grew up in northwest Indiana. I have five siblings. I am No. 4, and I will respond to “No. 4!” We all know our numbers. My father is Italian, my mother is Polish and Slovak, and we were raised purely Italian. We still make homemade gnocchi every Christmas.

EF: When did you get into art?

JB: At age 7 an aunt noticed I could draw and said I should get training, so I went to a group class in drawing from charcoal. I had a wonderful art teacher in high school who had me go to the (School of the) Art Institute on weekends. I took figure drawing I and II and got college credits. I went to Loyola University in Chicago, and also to its Center in Rome, and graduated with a bachelor’s in English with a major in creative writing. I took all my arts classes but I didn’t pursue a degree because they said I needed to choose one medium.

EF: Over the years you lived in South Korea, New Orleans and Hawaii, all the while creating art like photography, oil painting and Chinese oil painting, and doing solo and group exhibitions. How did you get into sculpting?

Goddess Floras by Jyl Bonaguro.

JB: I worked part-time at the Evanston Art Center and I could take a class for free. I took figure sculpture in clay and I tried to practice how to carve. The instructor, Shencheng Xu, then suggested snow sculpture. That was a much faster way to teach myself subtraction, which is what carving is: You remove instead of adding. Then I asked Shencheng to teach me casting, and I created my first official series of sculptures that were cast plaster. I had already bought my first chisels in New Orleans and by 2014, I had 1,000 pounds of Italian marble from an old friend who gave it to me in exchange for building him a website. I had taught myself coding. I never really went back to oil painting after that.

EF: How did you teach yourself to work with marble?

JB: I started in November 2014. Back then there was almost nothing on YouTube on marble carving, just a few videos I could reference. I had the hardest, most difficult way to learn: with no instruction and doing direct carving. Direct carving is what Michelangelo did –– you look at the stone and you start finding the sculpture by carving. The other way is the point method, like Canova. You make dots on the marble for reference, and it’s very academic and precise.

EF: Tell us about Modern Athena, this 17-foot female-figure sculpture you want to carve.

JB: I’d had the idea of sculpting a female figure for a long, long time at the scale of Michelangelo’s David. I am inspired by the goddess Athena and so I created this female warrior sculpture that symbolizes strength, beauty, wisdom and the arts. Modern Athena is really about not accepting prior limitations — not just for myself, but for everyone. I have been fundraising for years; the goal is $400,000. I have created a 4-foot scale model in marble, so people can visualize her. My style is hybrid: not quite mythological, not quite classical. I did not want her to look like another Western Civilization neoclassical sculpture. I like a sense of universality, and I deliberately tried to create a “fusion face” and a “fusion body” that celebrates all women.

EF: You wrote a book, “Hammer & Stone,” to help with fundraising. What is it about?

JB: It’s a book on how to sculpt or carve stone. Without being highly detailed, I really tried to demonstrate the process with photographs. With the lack of art training in school, especially for stone carving, people don’t understand art, and if you don’t understand it, how can you develop an appreciation for it?

EF: You’ve done about 15 public art installations. Is anything currently on display?

JB: I have one titled “Vane” at Wood Street and North Avenue in Chicago that is part of the Chicago Sculpture Exhibit. By May or June, I will have “Transmigration” at Jan Metzger Court at 1260 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, and “Hermes in Blue” elsewhere. I am also going to be carving a 20-foot elm tree with a team of artists in collaboration with Chicago Sculpture International and the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest.

Viola Twelfth Night by Jyl Bonaguro.

EF: Tell us about the stone-carving workshop you teach.

JB: It’s a one-day workshop with no more than five students. I started it to raise awareness about Modern Athena. The Chicago chapter of the Awesome Foundation gave me a grant to purchase equipment and stone to start the class, which teaches how to design, carve and polish your own sculpture in alabaster. My first class was in December 2022. I am really proud of it. People write lovely reviews and write little notes. It’s really gratifying.

EF: Who takes the workshop?

JB: Surprisingly, the demographic is broad. Last month, I had a retiree in her late 60s, a married couple in their 40s and a woman in her 20s. I have had very few art students, mainly hobbyists.

EF: You also work on commission for private clients. How do you handle that creative process?

JB: I don’t make copies; everything is original and I retain the copyright. It’s a nice process if you’re working with the right person. There is mutual respect, I understand their vision, they have amazing placement for the piece, and you both want to work together — that is the best way to have a client. The person has an idea but allows you enough room to make it your own.

Wing Marble In Flight by Jyl Bonaguro

EF: You are also a playwright. Tell us about that.

JB: I love plays, and I love Shakespeare. Just like the Modern Athena project, I get these things that tug at me and just won’t leave me alone. Playwriting provided a different outlet for me. I have written two full-length plays, “Urania, The Life of Emilie Du Châtelet” and “Swan Soong,” both historical, about women in history, and short plays. “Urania” had a staged workshop production; the others had staged readings.

EF: Anything else you want to share?

JB: People say, “You want to do this big sculpture, but can’t it be done with a machine? Why bother working with your hands?” I do believe the hand, with its tendency toward mistakes and exaggerations, reveals our humanity — and that’s important. Otherwise, there is a lack of depth, and everything can look too perfect.

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The above appears in the May 2024 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.


About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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