Ah..."the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd..."
Seven-year-old Willa Grace Vaughn (full disclosure: my granddaughter) sings to everything: the rocks she is painting; the dog she is carrying in both arms and the needle for making pillows for her “stuffy zoo”—each animal gets its own pillow and cardboard box. I’m her audience, but she doesn’t know I am listening.
I’m old and I don’t sing when I sculpt anymore, but I should. I guess I do sing in my head to an audience I can’t see. Always have. Some people need an audience, even an imaginary one.
Some are terrified of audience. I need one, real or imagined. It lets me be me, maybe ugly or dumb, maybe brilliant, but I need one. It seems odd for a sculptor who largely works solo. I need an audience to keep me going. I imagine success and people to notice it. I also imagine failure and the prospect of disappointing an audience. That helps me clean out the losing ideas.
Covid vaporized most of the obvious audiences. Relating to little Zoom squares makes me dizzy and distracted. Masks filter and distort human interaction, even at a “live” assembly. Cancelled sculpture shows thwarted my ability to measure an audience. Even the surviving shows with masks made it difficult to measure a successful sculpture.
Measuring success only requires looking and listening. A comedian measures laughter. No laughter, no comedy. Sculpture success is measured when a viewer stops and either says (or mouths), “Wow.” The more the better, but masks throw off your count.
So now that we are between Omicron and Spawn-of-Omicron, HOORAY. Audiences await and the road beckons. My annual May-June sculpture installation tour takes me and bride Deborah to nine states, this time crossing into Wisconsin (after vowing not to place sculpture east of the Mississippi River). Oh well. John Denver sings in my ear, “I’m going to see some friends of mine and some that I don’t know, some who aren’t familiar with my name.”
And finally, my audience awaits.
Write if you see beauty,
In my studio, DVDs of “Northern Exposure,” always make me smile. One forgotten episode, called “Cicely,” reached out to bop me on the nose.
“Cicely” contains the origin story for Northern Exposure’s backdrop Alaskan town, Cicely, and involves a hundred-year-old legend of ladies Roslyn and Cicely, partners, setting out to make a utopia for their dreams of freedom, art and self-expression. This delightful and convoluted story won Director’s and Peabody awards in its day, but one scene stood out to me.
After a hard winter, Cicely takes ill. Roslyn, her lover, distraught, begins blaming herself for risking Cicely's life for the sake of her own dreams of an art utopia in Alaska.
In a frontier bar with friends Franz and Mary, sour and woozy, Roslyn laments,
“If you were in a burning house, and there was a cat and a Rembrandt, what would you save? The cat. You would save the cat, because the cat is alive. Art is dead, it is just paint on a canvas, ink on a page. To live for art is to deny life. It destroys life.”
Franz: “She is right!”
Mary: “No. No Franz. Without art, the cat does not live. Without art we cannot speak of the cat. We cannot know the cat. We cannot see the cat. Without art, there is no cat.”
This exchange placed me directly on the knife’s edge of my beliefs. Do we pursue art through the world or the world through art? I guess I have done both, but at different times. Looking through the lens, which direction is real? Or, are they both real, or both not real? What is a cat but our thoughts make it so.
How about you? This seems like a conversation for late at night, but if you too are up late at night, I would love to hear your take.
Write if you see beauty,
My computer occasionally tires of waiting for me to brilliantly push its keys and it flashes over to screensaver photographs selected randomly from my (its) picture file. The file sags under the weight of roughly 10,000 (count ‘em) pictures digitized from all the photos ever taken by me, Deborah and anyone in my family back to my great-great-greats in the mid nineteenth century.
This parade of photos switches out one of the eight-or-nine images every three seconds or so—just enough time to remember the happy in the photo and not enough time to mull what might be sadder. Photos of the departed flash up long enough to feel the joy of seeing them again but short enough to avoid the tears. This magical screen-of-my-life fits curiously with an ancient conceit of mine.
You see, in high school I was certain that I was SO important that there was some magical recording angel who captured everything I saw or did and he/she would somehow, ultimately, on my command, play back any chosen event for my reminiscences. Such was the narcissism of a seventeen-year-old.
But in a curious sense, this screensaver IS the playback of my life. (I also was curious how I would be the first-ever immortal, but that’s another story.) As these photos flash by, I see me and my friends long ago when all our possibilities were in play. I know now how a lot of the stories ended, but I didn’t then. It seems strange to think of all the doors which could have opened—and which ones actually did.
I find myself talking to my earlier self, issuing warnings and wondering what might have been if. . . well, just if. I see losing my best friend from college over my stupid comment about his fiancée. I see Grandma who did all she could to encourage my artistic side. (Thanks Grandma). I see my best high school friend mugging for the camera before heading to Northwestern U. for some mistakes I would now warn him about, but I was clueless then.
There before me parades visual evidence of the joys and catastrophes which made me me. But what made me a sculptor? The sculpture door opened later in my life and no earlier photos even hint at it. Still I am who I am because of these memories and, ever the sculptor now, I wonder how this path shows itself in my art.
I seek joy in my sculpture. I believe heaven is right here on earth and all who seek beauty will find it. Amateur psychologists might assume this compensates for some deep grievance or depravation in my past. But no, no prison time or sad affairs or personal catastrophes form my worldview. I had some medium bumps growing up, but some medium-to-large joys to go with them.
My best theory (and you are welcome to take a shot too) rises from my teenage conceit that I was so special the path would clear before me and my only duty is gratitude. As I age, I see I am not so special, but the path did clear, and Lordy, I am grateful. And I get to sculpt.
The city council met last night, the vote was nine to two,
The town was lacking culture and they knew just what to do,
‘Cause sculpture rhymes with culture and everybody knows,
The pedestal in city square is where it has to goes.
They put a call, ’twas sent to all, the sculptors--any ages,
They checked the prisons, bars and gutters, then the yellow pages,
But no-one answered, no-one came, the city was aflutter
To think nobody would step up, not even from the gutter.
The city clerk was hard at work but thought she could recall,
A note shoved underneath the door by someone in the hall.
“Be there noon on Sunday. Be at the city square,
Bring your gloves and welders. Show up if you care.”
The city crews were ready, but what before their eyes,
No one had ever seen, no-way, no-how, no-wise.
A pickup truck sat silent, not a soul in sight,
And sitting in the bed was—well--was just delight.
The cargo was a heavy one, a giant sprawling mass,
Erected out of chewing gum, marble, bronze and glass.
Some thought Mona Lisa smiled, some just felt elated,
Some said Jackson Pollock, some thought of “The David.”
The city crews went straight to work and blocked off center lane.
The doohickey was heavy, and they’d have to get a crane.
By four PM they had it up, it seemed like it was sparkling,
They moved that empty pickup truck over to the parking.
The men now stood like young boys; the wrinkles left their flesh.
Their hands were soft and tender; their breath was minty fresh.
Townsfolk heard the rumors, “Come and see this Whoosits.”
Soon the square was packed with kith and kin and nudists.
People gawked for hours, the youthful lost their zits,
Tattoos were removed, by what this thing emits.
Hippies had their visions. Geezers found their swing.
The crowd was rock and rollin’ while social distancing.
The moon stopped in its orbit, hanging overhead,
to expedite the growing crowd, extra light to shed,
Vegetables grew larger, clocks an hour fast.
Cars were running smoother; horns began to blast.
Busses soon were filling up, Amtrak added trains.
People came from miles around on boats and cars and planes.
Maple trees were growing money on their lower branches.
Morning came, two suns came up, what could be the chances?
A coin tossed at the sculpture bounces back as gold.
Sister’s magic wand turns her brother into toad.
Word about this sculpture got back to a troll,
some financial devil who finally made parole.
He made some frantic calls to his Chinese knock-offers.
He told the evil story of how they’d fill their coffers.
They had to hurry to the square to take the measurements.
They’d take the knockoffs on the road, it all made perfect sense.
They raced to be the first, they had to move like rockets,
to knock the sculpture off and then to fill their pockets.
But when they came upon the crowd, it seemed to be withdrawn.
The pedestal stood empty. The pickup truck was gone.
The moon was back to normal, only one sun shone.
The secrets of The Sculpture never would be known.
Write if you see beauty,
So here we are. Our special moment. All the stars align as never before, on their way to never-have-been. This is now. But what IS now? How do we speak of now? What does now contain to inform us, to comfort us, to challenge us. All we know is that now has never been before.
Historians describe how the great artists were "of their time" and how their works gave guidance and inspiration "in their time." In their now. Serious contemporary sculptors (like me!) feel this obligation deeply. To properly do my work as a serious sculptor, I must somehow express MY now.
Each artist works from a palette they know, looking for a shade expressing some version of now and hoping that magical force which made them artists will guide that shade in their hand to an understanding of--now.
Happily, I find myself composing my next sculpture and again looking for that perfect shade. It is a struggle, but worth it in the end. I feel that my now is the clash of joy and hope against a backdrop of politics, despair, and disease. Don't worry. I'm not about to cut my ear off. But, you notice, the essence of sculpture--uncertainty-- hits its peak during composing time.
When I look at history to find other artists' expressions of nows which enlightened, arrested and informed their contemporaries, I find “Guernica,” by Picasso, “The Terra Cotta Warriors” (by who-knows) and “Liberty Enlightening the World” by Bartholdi as examples of a now-connect in art. Many others exist. These describe fully the devastation, the fear, and the aspiration of their time. Their fame in our time comes from "nailing it" in their time.
So, what to do? What to make of my now? What DOES the world need?
I thought about this lots and discussed it late at night with my muse. (The muse works overtime--no union.) I plan a sculpture combining joy and despair together, a monumental contradiction, but, I believe, the essence of our time.
I never did this before, but I plan also to elicit your ideas as the sculpture progresses. The idea resides in my head now, but I know that as it pushes out into designs and then permanence, it will take many turns. Turns you can be part of. In future letters I will describe more details, but for now, I envision a figure seated on a park bench in stunned despair while an etherial ballerina dances unseen behind both him and the bench. As sculptural permanence approaches, ideas will yield to form, and form to solid art, but along the way, I would love your ideas and help.
After all, it is YOUR ’now,’ too.
My dear friend Carolyn Alexander shared a writing with me. A writing by Canadian Native American Elder Oriah Mountain Dreamer (her shamanic name). It describes perfectly, the goal of my life’s journey. Mind you, I said “the goal,” as each day I re-read this to remind me why I am here. I am at a loss to write or deduct a word to improve this gentle bidding to be more than I am, so I will pass fragments along to you as her, and my, and Carolyn’s gift to you.
It doesn't interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for,
And if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love,
For your dreams, for the adventure of being alive. . .
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own,
If you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you
To the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to
Be careful, be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself,
And if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
Since March, dentists everywhere share stories of cracked teeth like they never saw before. The pain drives patients to dentists despite the virus. It seems jaws at night clinch tight enough to crack the strongest bones in our bodies. How come? Fear.
So many of us fear so many things, and the list gets longer every day. Conversations with our friends seem to begin and end with fear. Phrases like “Stay safe” punctuate every conversation. Walking around town, every sign warns us of something to fear. “Stop” (or someone will drive into you), “Put your money here“ (or someone might steal it), “No Parking” (or your car will be towed). Fear? It’s everywhere. The Bible is said to mention “fear” 365 times—I didn’t count, but it seems right. It is a big deal. So, what is the answer?
No really, sculpture.
Every sculptor I know (outside New York) wants you to feel something to solve a fear. I choose joy as that something, but others choose youth, whimsy, romance, nature, nostalgia or a dozen other topics intended to lead you away from fear into understanding and peace. Ironically, sculptors must defy their own fears to create these refuges. But not your problem. Task yourself only with engagement.
A rose offers marvelous beauty, aroma and taste (if you are a deer) but only for those souls who pause to engage. The rose stands fearlessly tall for all passers-by, but only some benefit. Same with sculpture. Someone fearlessly placed a sculpture amongst the warning signs and fears to give you an oasis. Self-select to calm your soul. Walk by the fear signs. Ignore them, but open your soul to the sculpture you see.
The teeth you save may be your own.
Write if you see beauty,
What Shapes the Sculptor?
Almost every time I attend an event, someone asks me how I became a sculptor and how I get my ideas, so here's my attempt at answering.
Sculpture occupies the public square—and the private self. Done right, sculpture offers a vital spark of new meaning for anyone passing by who pauses to allow a connection. But what gives the sculpture meaning? Who originates the vital spark?
As one who made my life shaping sculpture, I often wonder which parts of me make up what I make. All of my sculpture comes from all of my self. I occupy the time and space called Right Now. I cannot do otherwise. So, when I make the ten-thousand decisions which create a sculpture, they undeniably come from me and all that I have felt and failed and learned over the decades. I think I started this process young.
Going to Hell
I grew up in a religion-based community. Though I had my own religion, it was not accepted by my young friends who announced that their mothers told them I was going to hell—whatever “hell” was for a six-year old boy. I asked why, and was told it was because I didn’t go to church. I told them I did go to church, but that didn’t matter, I didn’t go to their church and therefore I was the other—alone, while a neighborhood full of children my age played together.
It hurt and I didn’t have the social tools to either understand or stand up to being the Other. Growing older did not help much. Junior high was a nightmare. I found some friends who were also Other and together we fumbled and found ways to deal with the hurt. We dealt, but I know it shaped me in all my life’s relations. I dove into science and engineering with their safe, predictable outcomes governed by formulas and equations, not personalities or prejudice.
I don’t write this in search of sympathy. Many others suffered worse. I write because after all these decades I see the effect of these lessons on me and my sculpture. In fact, now I am grateful to have walked through that fire. Here’s why.
In making my sculptures, I don’t seek nor expect the approval of others. Some will like me and my work and some will not. . . and for sometimes unfathomable reasons. I’m OK with that. This quality frees me up to follow my own music and not look to see if the parade galleries are full. Also, “good” is when I say, “Good,” not when someone else decides. For any kind of artist, following one’s own spirit requires the ability to ignore the ghosts. The fire blessed me with that ability.
Diving deeper into my subconscious, my sculptures for the last dozen or so years have no “insides.” They stress gesture with the least possible volume. In photos, my sculptures appear mostly complete, but up close you see I represent the volumes, the insides, only by their bounding shapes—the gesture markers—the sinewy essence of flowing movement. This concept pulls on all of me as I sculpt. Why?
Looking inside me deeper still, I believe this style, unique to me, comes from being uncomfortable depicting what lies inside someone else. What I can see, I understand. People’s “inside” matters would confuse and sometimes disappoint me in ways where I was extra-sensitive. I feel uncomfortable with what I cannot see or understand.
The Joy is in the Gesture
Not so with gesture. Gesture, especially in dance, communicates pure emotion—our best offering, pure beauty, grace, motion, joy. So I decided. Sculpt gesture, not insides. I delight in the beauty, grace and purity of gesture. As a bonus, the implied “inside” forms create complex and sweeping shadows, tracing the gesture once again. As I create more and more gesture sculptures—I call them Swoopies—their force on me snowballs, convincing me I’m on the right track. The right track for me, anyway.
Another deep question remains: Why do I ache to create sculpture? Why spend every uncommitted moment in the struggle for “better still?”
OK. Here goes. Three things: The challenge, Exploiting me and Legacy.
I’m too busy chasing the dream. Embrace your own dreams, and stay healthy.
While that may seem like total creative license, there is a Book of Iron-clad Requirements, built over centuries, looming over every sculptor. Just look at any art museum (from a social distance, mind you, they’re all online for tours these days--try it yourself). As you look, ask:
Were rich old men in waistcoats really that interesting to artists?
Where did the school of socialist realism find all those happy workers? Why are children always depicted with only their mothers or alone. What were the fathers doing?
In my virtual visits to the worlds' art galleries I have discovered happy news! Time ripped entire chapters from the BIR.
Think about this:
No longer requirements (now, at least)
These requirements, I feel, went away when we lost our respect for institutions, respect which was lost when we were betrayed by their outrageous crimes and corruption. (Just a fact, no time for outrage. See Twitter or Facebook for that.)
So where does that leave me. I no longer need to please people I do not care for. But there are still whole BIR chapters which still apply.
I promise to concentrate on pleasing YOU. To this end, I will follow what remains of the BIR.
I will do art, not technique. Art education seems to teach how, and only rarely, why. Art is in the why. The questions count.
I will be “of my time.” Tougher than it looks. Ask, “What is MY time?” Hint: Don’t look back.
I will ask sculptural questions about engaging, important things. While Art is in the questions. The answers are in you.
I will be unique. No derivative sculpture. If somebody, anywhere, did it, it’s been done. I will do the totally new or pack it in.
Perhaps this is a bigger load for me than before. I can no longer seek the hint of a smile from My Master as a signal to affix my signature and quit. There is no longer a filter between me and transcendence. If I fail, there is no Great Influencer to bail me out.
Trust me, this load is plenty, and I am daunted, but YOU TOO have a new freedom and a new load.
The BIR’s gone. Nobody sets rules for you to like, or not like, particular sculpture anymore.
You are free to love or not love, understand or walk away, be inspired or disgusted, all with no ghosts on your shoulder to point at what you must like or reject.
You stand free to find your heart, and to step ahead of yourself in the soft hands of beauty. And that is what it feels like. You step ahead of yourself. It sounds corny, but I see this miracle all the time. I’ve been you, standing speechless before an unexplainable message.
In the song “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog said it best, “It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” It sits there, but it's inside me, inside my head, inside my soul, sometimes with tears.
Go find your something. If you find it in my sculpture, I am thrilled. If you find it somewhere else, I’m thrilled.
So give yourself permission to completely engage with sculpture you like. Hear its message. Feel its texture. Listen for the echo in your heart. It’s alright. The BIR doesn’t apply to you today.
Maybe it never did.
Embrace your circles, and stay healthy.
Write if you see beauty,
Harold is an out of the box sculptor of swooping white figures. He's been at it for about 30 years and considers sculpting to be play.