Gym combines artistic assets

Sculptors Darla Jackson and Justin Grant are working to open the Sculpture Gym – a communal workspace for sculptors. For sculptors, one of the difficult parts of the job is finding a place to do

LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ TTN A sculpture sits in Darla Jackson and Justin Grant’s studio. The couple is working to open the Sculpture Gym with the help of a grant from the Knight Arts Challenge.

Sculptors Darla Jackson and Justin Grant are working to open the Sculpture Gym – a communal workspace for sculptors.

For sculptors, one of the difficult parts of the job is finding a place to do their work.

While some still enjoy the perks of being in art school with spaces dedicated to their craft, others out of school have to make way by sharing a space with others, renting a garage for themselves to work in or just not sculpting at all.

Local sculptor and founder of the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym Darla Jackson’s idea aims to remedy this problem that so many sculptors face. Enter, the Knight Arts Challenge, a competition that awards grants to art projects in the city.

Jackson decided to take the chance and submit her application to last year’s competition. It wasn’t until it was confirmed that she was a finalist that she decided to finally tell her husband and fellow sculptor, Justin Grant.

“I was having a particularly bad day at work, [and then] I actually got some good news, which was nice to hear,” Grant said.

“We submitted our proposal and waited a few months and heard back that we were winners but had to keep it quiet for a month while they announced it to the world,” Jackson said.

The facility, according to Jackson, will include a woodshop, a mold making shop, a metal shop, classroom space, gallery space and a satellite program with a foundry so people can cast their own works in bronze.

With all of these amenities, Grant hopes that fellow artists will have the resources to continue their craft.

“A lot of times you need to make something dirty and huge, or it’s material that’s a little bit toxic and you can’t set it up in your apartment,” Grant said. “For the gallery it’s going to be great to be able to have a venue to show where you made the work. There are going to be membership based shows where everyone’s going to get the chance to show something.”

Another feature Jackson has planned for the Sculpture Gym is a foundry where sculptors cast their metals – an amenity that can’t be found in Philadelphia other than a couple of commercial foundries.

“There are a few people who have small foundries, but for people who don’t have access to those it’s hard,” Jackson said, regarding the importance of having access to these tools.

Jackson also hopes the gym will serve as a place for artists to work together and network. The website and press coverage has already been garnering attention for the project.

“Since we’ve been named a Knight Arts Challenge winner we have been approached by people and approaching people,” Jackson said.

“Networking is the glue that holds any art scene together,” Grant said. “It’s all about meeting people and getting to know people. As the word’s gotten out people have been really excited, wanting to help in any way they can or be a member.”

Students and professionals have workshops to look forward to with the gym’s opening, including classes on animal and figure sculptures, wood and metal working and casting. And students and recent grads may also find the gym an opportunity to meet other artists in the field.

“It’s going to be a nice landing place and springboard for them right after school,” Grant said. “To be a part of something that’s already established and has a network base of other artists and other people.

“It’s going to be great for students in school trying to work on their own thing, and get a taste of what the art world will be like,” Grant added. “[They can] make a connection outside of school before they finish.”

The gym’s outreach isn’t limited to college students. The pair has hopes of helping out high school students at schools lacking arts programs.

“We really want to reach out to the school board to see if we can do something for precollege level students as well, maybe have a youth program or do lectures at the local schools,” Grant said. “There’s two creative arts high schools in Philadelphia, one of which is walking distance from our proposed location.”

The couple first met when Jackson was a student at Moore College, where Grant ran one of the shops. Their relationship has always involved working together in one way or another. Jackson was originally in school to be a graphic designer but said she had a change of heart when she realized what she could produce with her hands. Grant also transitioned into sculpting from painting, after a curiosity of sculpture drew him in.

“We started out working together so it’s been nice to continue that,” Jackson said. “We of course make each other nuts but who doesn’t in a relationship. Our differences are enough that aside from driving each other crazy really complement one another.”

While Grant focuses more on relief and figurative sculpture, Jackson thrives on animal sculpture and instillations. She said she finds her biggest inspiration to be their 2-year-old daughter Olivia, who is described on the Sculpture Gym’s website as “known for her amazing dancing, her legendary Kung-Fu skills and her beat-boxing ability.”

“From the get go we’ve been working together,” Grant said. “This is just basically going to reel it back in to be the main focus of our lives instead of us having to work day jobs and trying to get together again on certain projects. It’s really going to fuel both of our work and continue the wonderful creative relationship we’ve had.”

While the idea of a sculpture gym may seem a little abstract, it all reflects the art of sculpture itself.

“Sculpture is a lot like chicken soup,” Grant said. “It’s all chicken soup but if you ask anyone how they make chicken soup it’s going to be different.”

Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at

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