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Sculptor E.S. Schubert On Stoicism, The Importance Of Statues, And Crafting A Marcus Aurelius Bust

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Have you noticed how much of Marcus AureliusMeditations is about other people? The opening, “Debts and Lessons”—seventeen entries in which he reflects upon the various influential individuals in his life—makes up nearly ten percent of the book. Almost every other page has at least one quote or one story or one mention of a story about somebody else. This passage in Book 6 explains why he does that:

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”

Seneca similarly wrote that “our predecessors have worked much improvement…They deserve respect…and should be worshipped with a divine ritual. Why should I not keep statues of great men to kindle my enthusiasm?” Which is why Daily Stoic collaborated with E.S. Schubert to create a 5.5” tall, hand-sculpted pewter portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius. Schubert is a sculptor from Kansas City and a passionate student of Stoicism as you’ll see in our interview below. As an artist, Schubert believes that portrait bust should not simply capture the rigid anatomy of a subject’s face, but also the spirit of the person and the impact they had on others, and he details how he aimed to do just that with this statue of Marcus Aurelius. Please enjoy our interview with E.S. Schubert!

First, could you tell the Daily Stoic community a little bit about yourself?

Sure, I am a sculptor. Born, raised, and living in Kansas City. My wife co-owns and manages the studio with me, and we have two children. We typically focus on creating larger than life-size monuments. I have a degree in sculpture from The University of Kansas. I have always loved making things, from my earliest memories. I am a sculptor because of that inclination, and a few spectacular teachers who helped me along that path. I am thankful everyday single day that this is my job.

We know you’re a student of Stoicism and were even inspired to sculpt portrait busts of Zeno, Epictetus, and Seneca. What was your first exposure to stoicism? Do you remember your initial reaction? How did your study progress from there?

Tim Ferris’s publishing the audiobook of Ryan’s Obstacle is the Way was the introduction for me in 2014.  I have a weekly mastermind group and one of the guys recommended the audiobook. I am a voracious reader, but have never had much patience for things that aren’t of my time unless they are fictional. Also, I am super focused on actionable non-fiction, so… philosophy had always been, “meh” to me.  When I started reading (listening) to Obstacle, my first thought was “this is my jam”.  And my second thought was “I wish someone had given this to me in high school!” After that I immediately moved to the source material, and began reading The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of Epictetus by Sharon Lebell. Stoicism, and how to apply it in today’s world is a constant theme in my conversations with my wife and mastermind group.

Do you have a favorite Stoic? Any favorite quotes? Any favorite practices that have become part of your daily routine?

Epictetus. Hands down.  I just love the frank, no nonsense delivery of the Enchiridion. Especially the audiobook, as it is read in a kind but firm voice. A few favorites from The Art Of Living are “Some things are within our control, and some things are not.” “First say to yourself what you would be, then do what you have to do,” and “We always have a choice about the content and character of our inner lives.”  Regarding my daily habits, I am certainly no Marcus Aurelius, but my practice of Stoicism has absolutely made me more patient and loving with my fellow humans on a daily basis.  I journal in the morning and the evening. In the morning it is things I am grateful for and setting my intention for the day and reminding myself who I want to be today.  In the evening it is a quick story about the day, one way I could have made the day better, and one bad idea. The “bad idea” is stolen from Seth Godin. He quips that “if you claim you don’t have any good ideas, first show me all of your bad ideas,” which squares with my thoughts about life and creativity in general.

We’ve talked here quite a bit about why statues and honoring the greatness of the past is so important. Seneca talked about choosing a Cato and how “Our predecessors have worked much improvement…Why should I not keep statues of great men to kindle my enthusiasm?” As someone who has dedicated their life to it, we’d love to hear: why do statues matter?

Selfishly: Because I want to make them!  Unselfishly: We all need Lodestars, and we all need constant, daily, hourly, and minute by minute reminders of how we want to act in the world. Obviously, portraits and monuments of great thinkers, philanthropists, and innovators are a great way to do that. And it isn’t a realistic expectation for every statue to matter to every person. So, it’s fine for some monuments not to speak to you, because they are for someone else.

And then more broadly, there is joy to be found in things that exist for no “definably productive” purpose. In a culture increasingly focused on measuring everything and supremely valuing “productivity,” it is difficult to quantify why we should spend money on art, both publicly and privately. But… this isn’t a race. There isn’t an end goal, just an end, so how we enjoy the journey matters. Beautiful things that exist just because they exist make the journey better. It’s ok to for us to just want to look at beautiful things.

We recently collaborated to create the Marcus Aurelius bust. You talk about your artistic philosophy and how a portrait bust should not simply capture the rigid anatomy of a subject’s face, but also the spirit of the person and the impact they had on others. Could you explain to readers how you aimed to achieve that with this Marcus bust? What elements and characteristics of Marcus did you want to portray?

Marcus is important to me and many of us because he is the man that wrote Meditations.  I re-read Meditations in preparation for sculpting the bust, and in doing that I decided that I thought he should be portrayed as an older man. Mainly because I see the wisdom in Meditations as a hard won, experienced person’s wisdom. Many of the portraits of Marcus have a very youthful treatment, either because the sculptor was actually creating a younger Marcus, or they were exercising a sculptor’s license to soften the rough edges of the Emperor.  So I went looking for a bust of Marcus that portrayed him as an older man, one closer to the age that he was when writing Meditations. The bust that I based my likeness of Marcus on is from the Musee Saint-Raymond in Toulouse, France. I took the things I liked about this likeness, the introspective gaze, the slightly older face showing a bit less youthful facial fat. I then added clothing that is based on the antique marble portrait of Marcus that Ryan owns. In a situation like this, where there is tons of historical precedent and existing classical examples, it gives me a bit more license to tell a story and to pick and choose which pieces of the historical sculptural record I want to include.

This is the first small-batch busts you have done. How was this project different? Did your process change from how you approach the public monuments?

This is the first time we have created portraits this small. Interestingly enough, much of the process is the same.  When we create a large monument, we first create a scale model called a maquette, typically 1/3rd the size of the final monument.  Then, we enlarge the monument from the maquette. In this case, we still created a scale model, but instead of being smaller, it was about 3x larger.  Then, once all the sculpting decisions had been made at the larger, more manageable, scale we reduced the bust to the smaller size.  After that, things proceeded as usual. We create a rubber mold and cast the metal sculptures, then using a chemical process we patina the metal and then seal the metal with paste wax.  All of this is much of the same process for metal casting that was used in Ancient Greece.

People may not realize how much reading and researching about a figure a sculptor does to produce their likeness. Of all the busts you’ve crafted, who have you particularly enjoyed learning about?

Every project is a new opportunity to learn things that I didn’t know, and they are all my little children, so it is impossible to pick a favorite.  I created a large portrait of sculptor Auguste Rodin a few years ago, and I had a surprising revelation while reading about him and creating the sculpture.  He is a lion in the sculpture world; he totally changed the course of figurative sculpture with his innovative way of capturing the form.  He was wildly successful, famous, and beloved as a sculptural genius across the world. And for much of my college experience, I idolized him. Who wouldn’t want to be that kind of sculptor?  But, as Epictetus has taught me, “All advantages have their price”. Rodin was also a narcissist who alienated many, cheated habitually, and essentially abandoned his son and lover in his pursuit of sculpture.

What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

Well… of course all of the Stoicism books, The Obstacle is the Way, A Guide to the Good Life, Art of Living, Meditations, etc. My favorite book on creating artwork is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  It is very Stoic in its discussion of art creation, mainly saying that a person who wants to make great art should be prepared to make a lot of bad art first.  Essentially, you can’t control how much talent you have, but you can control how hard you work, and hard work over years, combined with an attitude of loving the hard work, will surely result in someone who looks “talented”.  I would imagine my bookshelf looks like any other self-driven, middle aged, white, male entrepreneur’s bookshelf. My mastermind group, after 5 years of weekly meetings, has in the last year continuously been talking about how almost all of the books we read repeat the same themes in varied ways. Which is great, in part, because we need repetition and novelty to learn and re-learn these lessons! But recently I have been looking for books that encourage me to open up my mind and try to see the world as other people see it.  Books like, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. If anyone has any recommendations, I would love to hear them!