It was one year ago that I first met sculptor Joe Menna at Toy Fair a year ago. He was walking the floor with my friend, and fellow sculptor Paul Harding. I didn’t know Joe at the time, but I certainly knew his work from his projects at DC Direct. He had an ipad with him loaded with images of projects he has worked on not only for DC Direct, but also Dark Horse Deluxe, Bowen and others. Then come to find out he also worked for the U.S. mint sculpting coins so it’s likely that not only do you most likely have some of his work on your collection shelves but also in your pockets and between your sofa cushions.
The other point of note about Joe is that not only is he a classically trained traditional sculptor and illustrator, but he also made sure he embraced technology and changes in the industry and is now one of the premier digital sculptors. That is a rare thing in the industry these days with many sculptors being either/or. I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone that has been on both sides of the sculpting world to talk about techniques, tools and
Action Figure Insider: How long have you been sculpting?
Joe Menna: 25 years….ackk!!
AFi: Can you talk a bit about your training for both traditional and digital sculpting?
Joe: I went to college at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and grad school at the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan. I supplemented those degree programs with studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League, and the Sculpture Center. During that time I also studied privately with a group of classically trained Russian Artists who all possessed skills rivaling those of the greatest 19th century masters. To me these guys were like the last of the Jedi and their work blew anything I had seen in the contemporary American figurative art scene completely away. I knew that if I wanted to be as good as these guys, there was only one path to follow. I worked as a waiter for a few years, saved all that I could, and headed to Russia to finish my studies. My time there exceeded all of my expectations and became one of the core experiences of my life. After coming home from Russia I worked as a figure sculptor at a fine art foundry for 8 years sculpting monumental and life sized statues and portraits. During my tenure there, the foundry decided to transfer a large part of my department’s workload over to their then new digital scanning and enlarging division. The place was also beginning to downsize dramatically so I realized that I it was in my best interest to adapt to the new situation as soon as possible in order to continue to provide for my family. At first I very grudgingly taught myself the new skills I needed to be a “digital sculptor” but my heart wasn’t in it ( I had barely touched a computer in over 10 years at that point). I actually even did a 30 foot tall monument of folk hero, John Henry in protest of the new technology. The more I studied it, though, the more I began to see how incredible it’s potential was and my reluctance transformed into a genuine passion to learn everything I could about this new technology.
AFi: Can you remember the first thing you sculpted in both formats?
Joe: The first sculpture I ever did was a bas relief of a live model during a sculpture class at a high school summer art camp.
The first thing I sculpted digitally was a copy of the torso of the central figure from the ancient Hellenistic Laocoon sculpture.
AFi: Who would you say are your biggest influences?
Joe: The core ones that have stayed with me my whole life are comic books, Star Wars, and Doctor Who with Bowie, the Police, and Peter Gabriel playing as the soundtrack.
AFi: You’ve done everything from sculpting life-sized figures all the way down to sculpting the back of the new 2011 penny. Can you talk about the differences in approaching projects in radically different scales?
Joe: When you work life sized, your whole body gets involved as you prowl around the piece and room, attacking it from every angle while trying to compel the clay to command the space around it. When you work big, you sculpt from your gut and engage all of your senses as you try to make a poem of shapes, weight, and energy come to life. You almost learn to taste the forms with your fingers and it’s an amazing experience. Honestly, I never got that same rush from working small scale. It’s the digital stuff that makes it bearable for me to work small in any field as I can work at any scale I want to and feel at least in some way like I’m still working big. I really don’t have the discipline, skill, or patience to sit there with a wax pen and magnifying glasses to do the incredible things that other folks in this business can do. It’s only now that I have a few years in working on action figures that I am developing the patience to develop my detailing skills. Whether you are working traditionally or digitally, I really think details come down to patience.
AFi: Can you talk about the differences in sculpting something embossed like a coin and a full figure like your work at DC Direct?
Joe: I do one during the day and the other during nights and weekends. Seriously, I love every gig I get to work on and am privileged to have such a variety of opportunities to exercise my craft.
AFi: Are your strictly digital now or are there projects you think should still be sculpted traditionally?
Joe: Most of work is digital now. I don’t think there is anything that cannot be done digitally. The printing and milling technology is already amazing and only going to get better every day. With it I can keep my freelance action moving at the speed of business and still have a great day job and family life. Digital artistic media also allow me greater freedom and flexibility as a creative artist. Digital technology allows me to maximize my time and squeeze quality out of every possible second. This is not to say I’ll never work traditionally again. I still work traditionally and love it intensely. I’ve just got an artistic bucket list a mile long and for now digital is the right tool for me.
AFi: What’s one character you haven’t sculpted professionally that you would like a crack at?
Joe: Personally, I’d love to do my own line of statues and busts and am trying to get that rolling as my schedule permits. As a fan, my ultimate grail project would be to sculpturally recreate in the round the classic Infantino, Andru, and Giordano cover of the original Superman VS. The Amazing Spider-Man, Empire State Building spire and all. I’ve been told it can never happen but man, that would be cool. Besides comics I would also love to do a sculpt of Elric of Melnibone’, Tom Baker’s Doctor, and Ruter Hauer as Roy Batty.