Joseph Sulkowski: Transforming a Painting Into a Sculpture

dog painting
The three hounds in the “Apokalupsis” mural represent Love, Beauty and Joy.

The Three Graces

by Brooke Chilvers

As the wife of a professional hunter, editor for many years of African Hunting Gazette, and art columnist for Gray’s Sporting Journal, I’ve attended my fair share of safari conventions. 

Always looking for artwork that knocked my socks off, in 2006, in Reno of all places, I saw paintings whose ivories and chocolate shadows reminded me of Rembrandt, whose viscous glowing surfaces suggested Vermeer. 

Among the big-game McCanvases stood Joseph Sulkowski (b. 1951), whose five-kid family took advantage of the magnate-built cultural institutions of their native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Joseph attributes his path to “poetic realism” to his early exposure to Renaissance and Impressionist masterworks, as well as to Da Vinci and Rubens. If Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art failed to resonate with him, the magic of Rembrandt’s brushstroke drew him in. 

At the Art Students League of New York, he studied with Frank Mason, who’d mastered the materials, recipes, and techniques developed by Rembrandt, van Dyck, and Rubens. Joseph learned how to grind his own pigments from powdered plants and minerals, mixing them with the finest hand-prepared linseed oils, amber varnishes, or Venice turpentine. The result is the rich texture and buttery shine, mostly absent in today’s ubiquitous acrylics.

Joseph’s steady stream of collectors and art exhibitions resulted in his book The Sporting Life — The Art of Joseph Sulkowski.  

Today, he is working on his magnum opus, a multi-media traveling exhibition named Apokalupsis, a word which in its purest sense means uncovering or unveiling; in this case, to reveal truths about human nature. 

In Apokalupsis, the artist combines his oil mural of foxhounds running through the countryside with interactive experiences with light, sound, and video. Although he’s done no sculpture since art school 50 years ago, he decided to turn his keyboard of colors into a three-dimensional piece of art.   

For this, Joseph collaborated with Diana Reuter-Twining, a prolific animalier artist with a Masters in Architecture, who also studied at the Corcoran School of Art, Loveland Academy of Art, and the Scottsdale Artists’ School. Her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, including at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Society of Animal Artists, and the National Sculpture Society.

Artist and sculptor worked together in recreating the mural’s three hounds in 3-D.

In Joseph’s three-dimensional Three Graces, which are the focal point of his large-scale composition, the three hounds are metaphors for Love, Beauty and Joy. They are symbolically moving from a state of being in time and space, to one of transcendence and transfiguration.

Diana and Joseph knew they didn’t want the sculpture to be merely a detailed rendering of dogs, but rather a work of art expressive of the essence each hound represents. Working from her farm in Virginia, Diana created three clay mockups, on a one-fifth scale, of the hounds for   Joseph’s review.   

Having each hound on its own sculpture stand allowed Diana to manipulate them individually in relationship to the composition.  Once she had prepared the armatures and formed the clay figures, Joseph and his wife, Elizabeth, traveled to her studio in March, 2021.

Joseph’s focus was to manually twist and bend the clay figures into the gestures as expressed in paint on canvas.  He quickly learned to manipulate his sharp knife, small tools, “and a microwave,” to move ahead over the next two days, using his hands almost as if they were paintbrushes as he worked his fingers into and over the clay. 

Letting the work “rest,” Joseph returned three months later, for the third and final session. “At this stage, we let the sculpture ‘speak’ to us as to how it wanted to finish itself. This is the part of the creative process where art is actually made,” says Joseph.  

They then loaded the trio of hound sculptures into Diana’s SUV and headed to Baltimore to meet at the office/workshop/thinktank of fabricator and technician Harry Abramson of Direct Dimensions, whose engineers and 3-D artists work with clients from the industrial, governmental and scientific world; they also make space and time to share their talents and knowledge helping artists fabricate their ideas in three dimensions as sculptural works of art. In many cases, these projects are on a grand scale.  

“Three Graces” is the collaborative effort of artist Joseph Sulkowski and sculptor Diana Reuter-Twining, realized by Harry Abramson of Direct Dimensions.

“What works in two dimensions doesn’t always in three,” says Joseph. 

Joseph began drawing his vision of intersecting circles to represent portals out of which the eternal enters the field of time, with the hounds walking through them. Each hound would have a different texture and finish to symbolize their transformation from the earthly reality of the physical to the transparent state of transcendence. 

The combined efforts of Joseph, Diana and Harry have resulted in Three Graces, an unforgettable piece of artwork that embodies a symbolic three-dimensional representation of Love, Beauty, and Joy moving through time and space towards transcendence.  

Brooke Chilvers wrote the text for Joseph Sulkowski’s first book, The Sporting Life, and is now writing the text for his second book, Apokalupsis, for the traveling exhibition.