The Art of Bryan Rasmussen

 

Bryan Rasmussen Studio (10)

Bryan Rasmussen in his studio

 See more of Bryan’s art at: Bryan Rasmussen

For interviews with other sculptors see: Turry Lindstrom / Maria Willison

As a sculptor, Bryan works primarily with steel and his studio, designed around the manipulation and fabrication of that metal, has an almost industrial feel. “I’m here most days, all day,” he says, “except for ‘relationship days’ that I spend with my fiancé, Christine. After my morning run I come in, put on some music, crank the volume up, and get to work.” Music is important to Bryan and his tastes are eclectic. He spent a few years after high school in the Chattanooga music scene where he played bass for several punk rock bands as well as being a photographer for various groups.

Growing up in the small north Georgia town of LaFayette, Bryan Rasmussen had one goal, and it wasn’t making sculpture—he didn’t want to work in a factory when he grew up. As a boy he was often drawing and his family, particularly his grandmother, encouraged him. In time he got a camera and became interested in photography. As his interest in that medium grew, he left his bass guitar behind and enrolled at the University of West Georgia as an art major with a specialization in photography. He was the first person in his family to go to college and get a degree and it was there, in the UWG art program that he discovered his artistic path.

“As part of the art program I had to take a sculpture class and I became very involved with the techniques for metal casting. The immediacy of the work appealed to me. In photography I could shoot two or three rolls of film photographing some object, then spend eight hours in the dark room and come away with a pounding headache from the chemicals and maybe a few prints I thought were really good. On top of that, it was the late 1990’s and photography was rapidly going digital. That, too, made it less appealing, since the digital process seemed almost surreal to me as an artist. On the other hand, with sculpture I would spend the day working and feel like I’d made some real progress, say building a mold or finishing a casting I’d done earlier. The physical labor was good; it gave me a sense of satisfaction. My hands would be dirty, maybe I’d have a cut, but there, at the end of the day, was the evidence that I’d done something. I found a reality in sculpture that was missing for me in photography.”

“I like to think of my work as objects of contemplation, that is, when placed in a space, they create a charged area for meditation and contemplation.”

With this early exposure to sculpture, he didn’t abandon photography immediately. Rather, he sought to incorporate a sculptural feel in his photographs and he began cutting up negatives and pasting them back together, forming what amounted to sculptural collages and making prints from the manipulated negative. Eventually a photography professor told him, “you’re not really doing photography any more, you’re trying to make sculpture with photography so why don’t you go do it for real?”

And Bryan did. He began studying with the sculpture professor at UWG, Kevin Shunn and it was an important formative experience. “He allowed his students to follow their ideas in a way that was unconstrained by his own preconceptions. Some teachers try to produce young versions of themselves but he didn’t. In addition, we were always free to explore the more conceptual aspects of sculpture and not just focus on object making. He was a great resource on technical matters, too. Mr. Shunn always seemed to have a lot of knowledge about any medium that you might want to work in.”

Echo maker Steel brass copper

Echo Maker– Steel/brass/copper

In 2005 Bryan received his BFA with a double concentration in photography and sculpture, but rather than go on to graduate school for an MFA, Bryan worked for next two years as a studio assistant to Carrollton, GA sculptor Gordon Chandler. In 2007 Bryan moved to Chattanooga, TN, where he was hired by the internationally recognized sculptor, John Henry (www.johnhenrysculptor.com), as a studio assistant. Bryan spent the next six years doing the hardest work of his life fabricating, delivering, and assembling John Henry’s designs on site.

“It was a really hard job—very intense and physically demanding. We worked in all weathers. Sometimes it was cold but the worst was when it was hot. Remember we don’t do anything to cool metal down, it’s the opposite, what we do, welding and all, just heats it up. You have to get used to burned hands and blisters. Then, after working for eight to ten hours it’s time to go to your studio and do your own work.”

Yet his time with John Henry was not without benefits for the young artist. “I’ll always keep what I learned about construction, engineering, and fabrication. Plus, I made contacts in the art world that would have taken me much longer any other way, and I really had a chance to learn the business side of the process.” A friend, the established sculptor Hank Lautz, advised him to learn everything he could in this area as it would be essential for his professional progress.

John Henry also helped Bryan by giving him a critique of his work. Bryan showed him several of his most recent pieces and John Henry, after looking the body of work over carefully, said that all of it was good, but each piece looked as if it had been made by a different artist. He saw no cohesiveness, no unity of vision. “I could see the links”, said Bryan, “but he couldn’t and it caused me to rethink my approach.”

51 elle se tient Steel

Elle se tient– Steel

“I stripped everything away and asked myself ‘what am I trying to convey through my sculpture?’ I want a sense of contrast and I want the feeling that something is being revealed, that something is coming apart.” His new work became more visually simple and direct. “I thought, what’s the simplest most direct thing there is? For me it’s the line, and to convey a line sculpturally I turned to square tubing. Then I made a cut and had the tube (or line) come apart to reveal the unseen. I added contrast using color both flat and glossy. Having the work stripped down to its very ‘seed’ allows it to grow in any direction and become more complicated and different.” But it is complication that is defined and controlled by the essence of his vision.

Bryan’s early sculpture was never painted. “I believed you needed to let the properties of the metal show and that you could get a sense of color through things like patina and rust, the natural oxidation of the metals.” Seeking additional textures he included such things as beeswax and cotton in his work.

With time and experience he changed his mind about the idea of paint and he now sees it as another tool, something to catch the eye and draw the viewer further into the work. “I don’t let paint overpower the piece—the form is important, indeed, the most important thing. That’s why I don’t put any text on my work, because I feel it then becomes about the text and the sculpture becomes just a sort of canvas. I want the form of the sculpture to be the most important thing.

Bryan’s use of color is carefully measured to get the necessary visual impact with an economy of means that harmonizes with his elemental shapes. He uses complementary colors but seeks subtly in their use, for instance employing near complements such as a rusty orange with a powder blue. “Complementary colors, if they are balanced right and lit correctly, are going to vibrate and catch the eye.” In seeking interesting color harmonies, Bryan utilizes everything from a close observation of nature to seeking out the color combinations seen in fashion magazines. His metal working studio must be one of very few that has back issues of Vogue magazine lying around.

Bryan’s approach to developing all aspects of his art is a methodical one. He keeps carefully written journals of his thoughts on art and sketchbooks of future projects. “I like to write about things, collect ideas, and even gather natural things like seed pods or the vertebrae of small animals that can inform my thinking. It’s very important to the evolution of my work.”

Bryan Rasmussen Studio (23)

Notebook, sketchbook, and reference materials

That evolution now includes works in both large and small formats, though larger formats are a newer and less comfortable thing for him. In the past his use of such materials as beeswax and cotton precluded outdoor display. “I think of my work as objects of contemplation and for that they don’t have to be big. I find that sometimes with bigger pieces the size is more impressive than the concept. Of course you get more recognition because your large work is out in public, but smaller pieces can be more personal and immediate.”

Rasmussen #2

Untitled No. 3 Charcoal/pastel

 

In addition to his main focus on sculpture, Bryan also works with two-dimensional media drawing images, which he describes as being, “what my sculptures would be if they were drawings”. Yet even with these drawings, requiring as they do techniques so different from those he employs with his sculptures, he has an approach that rises out of his work with metal. After a base image is created he uses a sander with fine grain sandpaper to work over the surface of the drawing, thereby creating a subtly varied surface.

And as for the future?

“I’m working on making my shapes more complicated in order to give my work more interest. I guess you could call it enhancing the visual terrain. I want any piece I make to be the most interesting thing in the room. I’m always seeking to push to the next level.” And that search for the next level is an unending process for Bryan Rasmussen. As he says, “I am an artist. I don’t feel like I could truly be anything else. Nothing else would satisfy me. I’d rather do this than anything.”

 Return to Interviews with Artists

INTERVIEWS WITH ARTISTS

Quicklinks to interviews and articles on Chattanooga artists

Ellyn Bivin / Josiah Golson / David Jones / Turry LindstromJames McKissic / Art Nomad / Renel PlouffeBryan Rasmussen / Brad Shelton /James Tucker / Maria Willison / Larry Young 

Interviews with Chattanooga area artists

in alphabetical order by last name

Because of its high quality of life and relatively low living expenses, Chattanooga has a vibrant arts scene featuring artists who show their work in both local venues as well as galleries all over the country.

The following articles take two forms. In the “A Conversation with ….” format, piece is presented in a traditional interview style. “The Art of…” format is also based on an extensive interview, but is presented as an article on the artists work. There is little qualitative difference between the two, though “The Art of …” approach does allow me a bit more scope in writing about an artists work. 

One final caveat. Artists grow and change. These articles express their approach to making art at the time the piece was published. I have provided the year with each interview in order to make clear at what time the interview was conducted.

The Art of Ellyn Bivin (2014)

Ellyn in her studio

Ellyn Bivin

Having been a printmaker in her early career, Ellyn Bivin has moved in recent years toward monoprints and painting. Her work is characterized by subtly of color, careful composition, and often an undeniable humor. Ellyn did a joint show with Renel Plouffe at Graffiti Gallery entitled Texture and Shadow.

See additional work or contact the artist at:Ellyn Bivin

A Conversation with Josiah Golson (2014)

Josiah Golson

Josiah Golson

Josiah is a young artist noted for the his energetic line drawings, which draw from current events, his passion for music and cinema, and his love for his African-American heritage. A very active member of the art community in Chattanooga, Josiah is involved with numerous organizations and events.

See additional work or contact the artist at: Josiah Golson

The Art of David Jones (2013)

David in front of Warmth of Silence 2

David Jones

David took up painting relatively recently. Primarily a color field artist, he has developed a interesting technique using oil pastel on Hardie Board. He has had artwork purchased by the Univeristy of Tennessee, Chattanooga and has done a substantial commission for Memorial Hospital, in addition to his other sales.

 

A Conversation with Turry Lindstrom (2014)

Turry Lindstrom

Turry Lindstrom

Turry makes sculptures that seem to be pure energy hanging in air. Working with plate steel, he creates complex forms that are by turns thrusting outward or turning inward. In addition to his many other showings, Turry had a one man show at The Northshore Gallery of Comtemporary art entitled, Fire and Steel.

See additional work or contact the artist at: Turry Lindstrom

A Conversation with James McKissic (2014)

James McKissic photo

James McKissic

James is an artist and prominent member of Mayor Andy Berke’s administration in Chattanooga. His paintings are colorful, richly symbolic, and influenced by his knowledge of the culture of the African diaspora. He did a joint show, Abstract Expressions, with Larry Young at Graffiti Gallery.

See additional work or contact the artist at:   James McKissic

A Conversation with the Members of Art Nomad (2014)

The Members of Art Nomad --- April Bell, Caitlyn Sciscoe, Jordan Bailey, and Le Le Leseur

The Members of Art Nomad

Art Nomad is a collective of photographers who met at the Atlanta branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). They came to Chattanooga to do a special show at Graffiti Gallery. The members have since held both joint and solo shows around the southeast.

The Art of Renel Plouffe (2014) 

Renel Plouffe

Renel Plouffe

Renel is originally from a town just outside Montreal, Canada. She has shown her work at a number of galleries, most recently at Reflections Gallery. Her work displays high energy and careful attention to surface effect. Renel did a joint show with Ellyn Bivin, Texture and Shadow, at Graffiti Gallery.

See additional work or contact the artist at: Renel Plouffe

The Art of Bryan Rasmussen (2014)

Bryan Rasmussen

Bryan Rasmussen

Bryan is an up and coming sculptor who works primarily in steel. A studio assistant for the world renowned sculptor, John Henry, Bryan’s work is simultaneously elegantly clean in form and subtly provocative. He has had a growing number of commissions and installations around the country.

See additional work or contact the artist at: Bryan Rasmussen

A Conversation with Bradley Shelton (2014)

Brad Shelton self portraits-5

Bradley Shelton

Bradley is an architect and photographer. His work exhibits a singular sense of place. Most often shooting in black & white, he likes to explore his subject thoroughly by creating photo essays. Please Seat Yourself, his photo essay about Zarzour” Cafe, became the basis for a show of his work presented at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art.

See additional work or contact the artist at: Bradley Shelton

A Conversation with James Tucker (2014)

James Tucker

James Tucker

James is an artist who depicts the natural world along the Tennessee River and city life he encounters in his travels. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has worked in art and written about art for a number of years. He had a joint show with the sculptor, Maria Willison, at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art. He presently shows at Locals at Sewanee in Sewanee, TN

See additional work or contact the artist at: James Tucker

A Conversation with Maria Willison (2014)

Maria Willison

Maria Willison

A rising star in the Chattanooga art world, Maria is a sculptor, 2-D artist, teacher, and studio assistant for the noted sculptor Cessna Dicosimo–all while  still in her twenties. Maria did a joint show with James Tucker, Figuratively Speaking, at the Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art. 

See additional work or contact the artist at: Maria Willison

The Art of Larry Young (2013)

Larry Young

Larry Young

Larry is an abstract expressionist whose knowledge of 20th century art is unrivaled. Dividing his time between Chattanooga and Florida, Larry teaches art classes as well as paints. In 2014 he did a joint show, Abstract Expressions, with artist James Mckissic at The Northshore Gallery of Comtemporary Art.

 

 

A Conversation with Turry Lindstrom

Fractal Vortex with Artist Heavy outline

Turry Lindstrom

 See more of Turry’s art at: Turry Lindstrom 

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Maria Willison

 Turry Lindstrom comes from a family of artists: his father and sister are professional portrait artists, and another sister is a talented vocal artist. Turry’s  own early artistic efforts came in junior high school working with clay. He won an award for his work, but found he did not really enjoy that form of sculpting. In 2007 he learned to weld at Chattanooga State College and realized that he had a  love for the process of cutting, shaping, and welding steel.  When working as an assistant on an ornamental iron project, he began to tap into his artistic leanings  by creating human and animal figures from leftover scrap metal. He enjoyed every  aspect of making these small figures for family and friends, and began to  experiment with different means of fabricating art objects in metal. In the spring  of 2013 he took the leap into the world of art, building a small studio at his home  to work full time producing metal sculpture. His work has found a very positive reception, selling in Atlanta as well as at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival in Chattanooga. He has a one man show at Graffiti Gallery, also in Chattanooga, and has then been invited to show his work at the Gallery DeRubeis in Key West, Florida.

Where do your ideas for your sculptures come from? Do you keep an idea book or sketchbook in which you evolve your designs?

No, I just keep ideas in my head. Lots of ideas cycle through my mind constantly and sometimes one will stand out, but it’s rare that I’ll ever start working on it right away. I usually have to stew on an idea, working it out for days, if not weeks, in my head. Sometimes it helps to do things that help trigger the creativity, like listening to music with my eyes closed as I play with various sculptural images in my mind. I read that Thomas Edison used to doze in a chair with BBs in each hand so that if he left the half-awake/ half-asleep state and began to sleep more deeply, he’d drop the metal balls, and the noise would bring him back to a half-awake state. That was when he was at his most creative, letting his subconscious do the work.

Saguaro 2

Saguaro

  How long do you “stew” on an idea before acting on it?

It varies. Eventually the idea becomes so complete and so compelling that I have to create a work of art. The energy just builds and builds until I almost feel like I’m being shot mentally and physically out of a giant slingshot. At that point I’m really manic in how intensely and rapidly I work. Even though an idea can take weeks, maybe even longer, to come to completion in my mind, it’s usually executed in just a few days of really intense work. When a piece is finally complete, sometimes my arms feel like wet noodles and I’m utterly spent. I’ll get a cup of coffee and sit down to talk with my wife and just fall asleep. It sometimes takes a few days to rest up after I finish a sculpture.

The fact that you plan your work without any aids beyond your mind and memory amazes me since it’s not simple in concept. For instance, in your appropriately named piece “Complexity”, you’ve created a spiral shape that loops around to create a sense of a geometric shape, a circle, that seemingly arises out of a Dionysian vortex of lines.

Complexity 2

Complexity

Well, I’m not saying my way doesn’t have some disadvantages. It’s like my ideas are in folders in my mind, but I’m sure there are some ideas that get lost. That’s just the way it is. The things I see in my mind I can’t get down in a meaningful way in two dimensions. That’s just not in my nature; it just doesn’t work for me. My ideas go straight from a mental state to reality expressed in steel. Of course, there are happy accidents that happen while I’m working on a piece, and those get included in the finished work, but I pretty much know how a piece will look before I begin. Planning the way I do, in my head, is the only way I feel comfortable. For me there’s just a disconnect between the 2D and the 3D worlds—the 2D/3D divide. 2D just does not work in my world. Frankly, when I’ve reached the point where I could model a piece, I might as well just make it. Doing drawings and making models will just sap the energy I try to bring to my work and which is essential to its existence.

Well, your work is all about energy. Each piece almost crackles with energy and movement. Do you feel the immediacy of your process drives this effect?

Absolutely! As I said, I don’t want to use mental energy on anything but the sculpture. That other stuff would just clutter things up. All that stewing on an idea is to lead me to the slingshot moment when the energy is released and the idea becomes the work itself.

Let’s imagine that the slingshot moment has arrived and you go into the studio. What happens next

Well, as you know, I work with steel plate. I’m restricted on size at this point because I have a really tiny studio—I can touch both walls with my hands by holding out my arms going one way, and the other way is about ten feet. It’s okay, I manage, but it’s more like a welding closet than a studio. The steel I use is ¼ inch thick, 12 inches wide, and as long as I need it. For the realization of my ideas at this point that’s just fine. I can see a time when I’ll want to work bigger but my studio size prevents that right now. Still, I’m really excited by the work I’m doing even with these physical limits.

What happens next?

Well, I’ve visualized the finished work, and as part of that process I’ve visualized the cuts I’ll have to make on the flat piece of steel to get the shapes I’ll work with later. I guess you might think of the steel as my canvas. Anyway, then I start to cut.

Radial Convergence 2

Radial Convergence

With what?

A plasma cutting tool. It weighs almost nothing. I’ve known older steel workers who find it’s too lightweight. They want an acetylene torch that’s heavier. The plasma tool is like a little plastic whip and I can just fly with it. It allows me to come at the work from different angles and just keep moving. The energy flows from my mind, through the torch, and into the steel. Some of the cutting can be repetitive at this point. Normally I hate anything that’s repetitive. When I was punished as a boy and was made to write something over and over, I was, like, just beat me and get it over with! But when I’m making art I just get into a rhythm and it’s okay. I’m planning future steps even as I’m cutting. I work really intensely and really fast at this point. I move so fast that when I’ve worked around other welders I make them nervous and they start saying, “slow down! slow down!”, but that’s just my natural way of working. It’s just the speed I need to go. I know my boundaries and I know I’m safe within them.

 So you’ve cut out a shape, but it’s flat. Then what do you do?

Well, at this point in the process the hard work is done. Now the real fun starts. It’s my reward for doing the construction part: the planning, the layout, and the cutting. It’s where the really creative stuff happens. I use an acetylene torch to heat and bend the plate I’ve cut into the larger shape I want. I just keep the torch going and the metal glows red and idea flows out of me and into the metal. In “Complexity”, the torch never went off for 45 minutes as I bent and twisted the 6 foot long piece of steel I’d cut into the sculpture. I was so fired up with my idea for that piece I bent it all up in one go.

How do you bring a sculpture to its finished ‘gallery ready’ state?

I didn’t say it earlier, but I smooth the edges of my cuts before I start bending. In my work, there isn’t a lot of finishing I want to do to my work. I like the viewer to see hints of the process that made the piece, the color changes that result from heating the metal and the marks of the tools. I just take a wire brush and get off the flaky white stuff that oxidizes on the hot metal, then I put on a clear coat. Sometimes I use color, but more often it’s a clear coat. There’s a lot of me in every one of my sculptures: all the music, and movies, and thinking, and just my life generally. I can see it all there. That’s how I know if a piece is any good. I can see me in the work—see me looking back at myself from the finished piece.

In looking at the pieces you have on your website, it seems to me that your work falls into two broad types: a style that is almost a fevered evocation of energy, and another where that energy is somewhat restrained by more geometric elements. Do these two realizations emerge from a common theme?

 (To see a larger image, please click on a picture below)

                      

Yes. I think I’ve been wrestling with bringing a more structured, ‘engineered’ aspect to my ideas. You might say I’ve begun to play with the idea of harmonizing energy and structure. It’s not easy. I thought over Fractal Vortex longer than any other of my works and in the end, when it was about half finished, I had a sudden insight and took it off in a very different direction than I thought I would go.

Your work has so much movement and energy—we keep coming back to that word—that I have to ask if you’ve considered making mobiles?

No, I don’t want to go that route. It wouldn’t work for me. Kinetic involves as much engineering as anything else. It’s very different from the much more spontaneous way I work. Even so, I think the ‘kinetic’ aspect of my sculpture, its appearance of movement, is important. I like it that people touch my sculptures thinking they will move. I take that as a compliment.

I know you’ve told me about the constraints you have with your studio size but will we see some larger pieces coming from you?

I’d like to work bigger someday, but I also want to remain an artist working in metal and not an engineer assembling and erecting big things. Frankly, at this point I don’t see how I can harmonize my way of working with the lengthy process needed to make something really big. Luckily, I have a lot left to do working in my current studio and with my current materials.

What artists have influenced your work?

I have people who I think have influenced my work but it’s not really other sculptors. I like Jackson Pollock and his free and unrestrained approach to the process of art. Otherwise, it’s mainly people working in the movies, H. R. Giger, James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick. I really admire Kubrick’s attitude. He didn’t make his movies for anyone but himself. He didn’t repeat himself, and he put his soul into every one of them. He shot many takes of just about every scene. He once said, “I don’t know what I want but I know it when I see it.” I understand that.  I really only look to myself for the source of my creativity. I explore myself. I challenge myself to keep innovating, keep expanding, and never to repeat.

 

Turry at 4 Bridges

Turry Lindstrom at the 2014 4 Bridges Art Festival

 Return to Interviews with Artists

A Conversation with Maria Willison

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maria Willison moved to Bristol, Tennessee when she was six years old, upon her father’s taking a position at King University. Her interest in art began in high school, where she pursued painting and drawing, though she didn’t learn much about technique in her classes. “It was all about expressing yourself, without much mention of how to do it,” she says. After graduation she enrolled in Covenant College, graduating with a BA. Currently she works as a studio assistant to Cessna Decosimo and has taught at the Townsend Atelier. She has had work in several shows, most recently at the 2014 Four Bridges Festival in Chattanooga, where she received a grant as an emerging artist. In October 2014, her sculpture was featured in a joint show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art, “Figuratively Speaking”, which also included the paintings of James Tucker.

See more of Maria’s art at:  Maria Willison

For interviews with other sculptors see: Bryan Rasmussen / Turry Lindstrom

Maria Willison photo

Maria Willison (photo: Samuel Burns)

 So how did you find your way to sculpture?

I took a sculpture class during my sophomore year at Covenant College and thought: this is exactly how my brain works! This is exactly how I can express myself! Sculpture became my passion.

Did you have an art professor who was exceptional and who triggered this reaction or was it the medium and its possibilities that so excited you?

Both. The messier I am the more fun I have, and with clay you’re basically working with mud (laughs). My teacher was Kayb Carpenter– her married name is now Joseph–and she was trained in classical sculpting techniques in Florence, Italy. She has a deep knowledge of anatomy and figurative sculpture. I just fell in love with that approach and put a lot of effort into anatomical studies. She was very inspiring and really pushed me a lot. At the beginning of her classes we would often have quizzes on anatomy—the muscles of the arm, the back and so on. We also built a sculpture muscle by muscle. In addition to that, I took an anatomy class in the Biology Department to add to my knowledge base.

Esther

Esther

Why does the human form attract you so much?

Throughout history it has been a subject that really draws people in. You can work directly with human emotions, and people understand that because, after all, we’re all human. I love that. There is also the complexity and the challenge of it. The human body is a really hard thing to sculpt well, and I’ve set myself the goal of mastering it. I mean, really, if you can sculpt the human form you should be able to do anything else. The human form is exciting because it is so complex, but also it can be posed in meaningful ways that allow me to work with complex negative spaces around the figure.  Often I don’t see all the implications right away, but I’ll come back to a piece after a while and it will just hit me: ‘ Wow, that side form was really what I was looking for!’

In an artistic statement you wrote, you said that negative space, dramatic line, and the dichotomy between peace and tension were what you thought about when making a sculpture. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, I’ve already talked about negative space, but that integrates with the line of the form. Negative space is defined by the empty spaces around the sculpture, whereas the dramatic lines lead the eye through the sculpture. The human figure, with its limbs and lines of muscle movement, gives you the chance to really point the viewer’s eye where you want it. It’s a cool way to work with the viewer and draw the viewer into the work. By establishing the pose, I can both define the figure and move the viewer mentally through the work.

My piece, ‘Grace and Disgrace’, is an example of what I mean by the peace and tension dynamic. The rising figure is almost the very essence of tension. It’s a pose that is almost painful to look at and would be impossible to hold, and yet, if you look at the face, there is a sense of peace and joy. If you look at the other pose, which is that of a person crouched and hiding herself, it’s physically peaceful, but it has psychological tension. It is the face of anguish and sorrow. A further dynamic comes in play because the two figures have to work together, pushing and pulling each other.

Grace & Disgrace

Grace and Disgrace

 

Do you have a preference for working with the male or female figure?

I do more female figures, I suppose because I connect with a female’s emotions more. From a conceptual point of view, I tend to think more in terms of the female figure, but I really enjoy working with the male figure, too. I like working with both. I usually choose male or female figures based on which one best helps me get my ideas across. In really simplistic terms, I suppose you could say that the male presents a more powerful muscular form and the female a more graceful, poetic one. Frankly, though, sometimes it’s just who is available as a model!

Vertigo

Vertigo

Why realism? We live in a world that is obsessed with being modern. It’s almost a fetish in some quarters to be continually on the ‘cutting edge’. Do you worry about your style being perceived as passé?

I just see the world that way. I find great beauty in the way in which the world, and particularly the human body, actually appear. I take great joy in rending it as it actually is. I enjoy helping people see what’s already in front of them, what’s already there. And I love the challenge of taking and working with what’s already there, but shaping it and molding it to make it my own.

That brings up an interesting idea. To what extent is your work not realistic?

Art is about personal expression, so I do emphasize certain things, but the distortion is subtle. Usually I try to pick a model whose appearance is close to what I want aesthetically. If I have an extreme pose, one that a person can’t hold long without hurting themselves, I might push the pose beyond where the model actually is, based on my knowledge of anatomy. Since I’m working in a realist idiom, the figure has to ‘read’ as correct, and that is, of course, my goal, but often there are small exaggerations made to better express what is inherent in the pose.

When you have an extreme pose like the ‘Grace’ figure in ‘Grace and Disgrace’, do you take photographs to shorten the posing time for the model?

I do take photos for reference, but a method I often use in that situation is to have the model do partial poses that she can maintain. For instance, in the ‘Grace’ figure I had the model sit in a chair and bend backwards as I worked the top half of the of the figure.Then I had her kneel and bend backward in a less extreme way that I exaggerated in my work, so her body was consistent with the more extreme bend when sitting. The hard part is making sure you have the rhythm of the overall flow of the body when working from partial views. That’s tricky, but it’s essential. It’s all in handling the transitions correctly, and I’ve gotten better and better at doing that.

Where do your ideas for new sculpture come from?

Usually they come from my own life experiences or those of the people around me. I think there’s a lot of anguish in my work, though people may not see it. In ‘Enervare’—that comes from a root word that means ‘enervate’ or drained of energy—the concept is about someone who has done something wrong and has done it over and over, becoming completely drained of energy, wondering, ‘why can’t I stop?’. When I have an idea, I try to figure out what it would look like visually. In this case, what it would look like if you were utterly exhausted.

Enevare-- in progress

Enevare– in progress

Evevare-- finished piece

Evevare– finished piece

You’re saying that you begin with an idea and then work out a physical expression of that idea?

Sometimes, but not always. There are two basic ways I approach making a sculpture and that’s one of them. Sometimes I work in the opposite way. I wonder if it wouldn’t be cool to have the model pose in such and such a way, you know, an intriguing and visually interesting pose, and then I work to give that pose additional levels of meaning. I may begin with beauty for beauty’s sake, but I rarely end there. The knack for brainstorming a concept is a work in progress for me. That wasn’t the focus of my training, so it’s something I’m learning to do now.

After you’ve got the beginning point of a sculpture, how do you turn this idea into an actual artwork? What are your methods as you proceed from that point?

I’ve started doing some preliminary drawings. I used to not do those, but I’ve started finding them useful. I draw four or so different angles to think through the pose. Then sometimes I do a maquette, which is like a small three dimensional sketch, just to be sure my thinking is solid enough to carry through. Then I build the armature, which is the wire framework that gives strength to the clay. One of the things that I love about sculpture is that there are parts of the process that are very mechanical, and since I’m a very mechanically-minded person, I find that stuff fun. Once that’s done, I move on to getting the pelvis and the ribcage situated correctly. That’s got to be right. It’s not unusual for me to work on that aspect even before I engage a model. Once I’m satisfied with that, it’s just a question of building the work on out: first the figure is roughed in and then it’s defined and the transitions are smoothed out.

Willison-- Drawing #4 Willison-- Drawing #3 Willison-- Drawing #2

I’ve read that you work with both clay and plasticene.

Yes, I use both, and they are rather different. With traditional water based clay, you have a limited time to work on a piece. Though there are ways to keep your work from drying out, the drying can’t be delayed forever. You either have to fire the piece or make a mold from it while it’s still wet. And of course, once a piece is fired you can’t change it. Plasticene, which is oil based, never dries out. When the sculpture I’m working on is ready, I make a mold and then take a casting from the mold. At that point the casting becomes the finished piece and the plasticene image can go back in the tub to be used over and over. The torso I had in the last show at The Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art was made that way.

Do you have a preference for clay or plasticene?

I really don’t. I tend to work in one until I get tired of it and then I switch. Water clay allows me to go really fast. I like the speed and immediacy, and it really shows the process because it’s so sensitive to the touch. You can get that appearance with plasticene, but it usually means working on the surface with tools. It’s easier to get that look with water clay. Also, plasticene is harder to control with just your fingers and often my hands get really tired when I’ve working with it. However, with plasticene there is no time constraint, which encourages a push/pull, add and subtract exploration process that isn’t hurried. You can leave a piece for a long time and then come back to it

Graphite Female Torso

Graphite Female Torso

Female Torso

Female Torso

 

How did you do the finish on that torso? The surface had delightful quality about it.

I use a wax finish. I brush it on and it hardens pretty quickly. Then I polish it until it gets a nice sheen to it. I love that wax and use it all the time. That particular finish shows the marks made in the process of making the piece, which I think gives the work a warmer more immediate feel.

You use a variety of finishes: gray and bronze, among others. Are those your color signatures for a given sculpture? Are they meant as an immediate draw for the viewer’s eye?

I suppose so, though the best patina emphasizes the form and doesn’t call attention to itself. The ideal is to have the patina catch viewer’s eye, drawing him to experience the form and the dynamic tensions in the piece.

What artists have influenced your work?

Rodin, of course. His poses are really amazing! He’s very exciting to look at. And Bernini. The detail of his work is fantastic. I’ve only seen photos of his work, but in September I’m going with my husband to Florence, Italy, and I’ll finally get a chance to see the real thing. The movement in his Apollo and Daphne is amazing. He gives you visual motion and an incredible level of detail, but keeps it all subordinated to the needs of the piece.

You’re at an early stage of your career; where do you think your art is headed?

That’s a good question. I can see it becoming more abstract in time. Historically, that seems to be how it goes with many sculptors. I can see me breaking down the human form and manipulating it more obviously. My way of working is getting increasingly internalized, and my muscle memory has really developed to the point I’m often working without having to think everything through. As the process gets more automatic, it can get more creative.

 Return to Interviews with Artists