Philip Monteleoni

When I first became interested in carving marble, I was in my early 30s, reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy. I was fascinated with Michelangelo's passionate relationship with stone carving.

Ithought to myself: I should do that. After all, I'm Italian, my father is from Florence, and some of Michelangelo's spirit could be coursing through my veins. Banging away at stone would be a great, physical antidote to my architectural career, which was based on paper, talk, and delayed gratification.

So I went to the local sculpture store, bought chisels and picked out a hunk of soapstone that spoke to me. I don't know why I chose lions' heads as my first two pieces, and a cheetah out of marble for my third, but my love affair with doing realistic animal sculptures began then and has not abated. I think of each piece as a learning exercise, setting a high bar for myself – realistic representation, not abstraction or simplification. So I try to convey in stone not only the essence of a particular animal but also its volumetric truth.

Polar BearI find a deep satisfaction in studying animals, particularly in light of the precipitous decline of large mammals in the wild. Nature photographers are doing heroic work, and often for me one of their images becomes the initial spark that gets me going. The other starting point, the convergent force, is the stone itself. A multicolored stone with deep reds and greens suggested a poisonous tree frog from the Amazon, another in white and gray strongly implied the head of a wolf, and white alabaster, with its haunting translucency, was perfect for a polar bear family on an ice floe.

For me, nature photographs, or chance snapshots that I've taken in the wild or in zoos, are often the first source of inspiration, catching a particular pose or feeling. I then search for other images on the Web that can complement my understanding of the creature in the round. Early on, I was lucky to have a teacher who instilled in me the discipline of scrupulously measuring the model – whether live or in photographs – to be able to convey, without simplifying or cutting corners, the full three-dimensional proportions of my subject. I paper the walls of my little studio with a collage of dozens of images of my current subject, and get to work.