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.
AFi: What’s the first thing you sculpted for DC Direct?
Joe: The Gotham Stories Batman. I was stoked beyond stoked. I interviewed with DC to be a penciller back while I was in grad school (the master plan was to sculpt all day and draw comics all night to earn a living) but abandoned my comic dream to finish my sculpture studies in Russia. Being able to finally work for DC Comics, even in a roundabout way, was a dream come true.
AFi: What’s your favorite thing to sculpt?
Joe: Anything challenging. I’m really striving to totally make a break with the style in which I’ve been working the past few years and try to reinvent the way I work. I want to completely up the level of detail and realism I can get into a piece so the more challenging the subject, the better. I kind of got into this superhero stuff coming from a clean line, classic silver and bronze age approach and am trying to shift to a more intensely detailed and tricked out level of finish.I’m doing a cool project now that I hope embodies those traits but it won’t be out for at least a year. I still get a lot of gigs that require a very stylized look and am happy to do as many of them as I can but really want to expand my artistic range as much as possible.
AFi: What’s your least favorite thing to sculpt?
Joe:I hate to sound all rah-rah but honestly, I’m grateful for every gig that I can get (especially in this day and age) and try to get myself motivated for every project even if I’m not into the subject. Tim Brucker says something about that in his recent Pop Sculpture book and I think it’s good advice for anyone in or trying to get into this business.
AFi: You have been sculpting for the U.S. Mint since 2005. Do they have art directors that help guide you on the coin projects?
AFi: You are also trained in drawing/illustration. Do you get to do very much of that professionally?
Joe:I do a lot of concept drawing and a some of it is on my site. I do get to do concept designs and drawings for the statues and action figures I sculpt once in a while and wish I could do more. My drawing skills inform my 3D work in a big way, too. I think it’s my classical drawing background that made the transition to digital sculpture relatively easy for me. To me digitally “sculpting” is a lot more like classical 3D, Renaissance style perspective drawing than sculpting a lump of clay with my hands. Sculpture is all about touch and material. One of the first criteria for good sculpture for me used to be, “does it feel good in your hands?”. Drawing with a digital pen on a pane of glass is a whole different animal.
AFi: What is a typical day like for you?
Joe: I sculpt and draw pretty much all day and night (minus my time on the commuter train to and from work) but also make sure that I spend plenty of quality time with my family. I’d be doing this 24/7 whether I was getting paid for it or not and love EVERY SECOND of it…except for the commute
AFi: If you had unlimited free time and resources what would you like to sculpt?
Joe: My own stuff. I’ve got a ton of different original character ideas that I’d like to fully realize as sculpts someday. I’d also like to get back to doing gallery and monumental work. Being a freelance artist is kind of like being a session musician in a band…you’re always playing someone else’s song. I am grateful for every gig I get but would love to write and perfom my own music, too.
AFi: What would you say is the most interesting/unusual thing about the way you sculpt and the way you approach it?
Joe: I think the thing I have going for me (and a lot of my other traditional/digital sculptor buddies have, too) is that despite the fact that I work digitally, I have decades of traditional experience to inform what I do in software. You can’t just know how to use piece of software and make an action figure. You have to know the ins and outs of how things are made by hand and manufactured in order to make a product that can go to market without forcing your client to babysit you and the piece all the way down the line. With statues and busts, it’s a little easier but unless you are going to abandon your project before it’s really finished and let some prototyping shop make all of the final decisions and cuts (that either make or break the final effect of your sculpt) you still need to know how things work and look in the real world of sculpture in order to make sure you are making the best piece possible.
Thank you so much to Joe for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer all of our questions. You can see lots more of Joseph Menna’s incredible work at his official website. Also, Saturday was Joseph’s birthday, so a BIG HAPPY BIRTHDAY from all of us at AFi!