My year-long sculpture fellowship in France (part 2)

Hi all,

This past spring I sent an email about the first half of my sculpture fellowship in southern France, which was part of being awarded the 2022-2023 Prix Henry Clews by the La Napoule Art Foundation. The fellowship and exhibition are now finished, and it was a life-changing year.  So I’m sending out the second installment, showing the works I created and a quick mention of what I hope comes next.

Out and about at the Château de La Napoule, just west of Cannes, France

I had two main themes guiding my work during the year — (1) deeper explorations of balance and equilibrium, and (2) creating highly site-specific works by capturing essential, sometimes ephemeral moments around the Château de La Napoule and its gardens. These aims guided most of the projects I undertook, so they’re good lenses through which to see the projects below.

It wasn’t until I got home that I started to see another thread connecting them, one that has been present in my work for some time, but that this fellowship clarified for me (this is what a year away from ‘normal life’ can give one!). I’ll describe these realizations at the very end of the email, for those who are interested.

There are 10 projects to show, and this would be way too long if I included all the photos and a full description of each. If you want to see more, I wrote a blog post for each on my Updates page, with more pictures (some have a short video, as well), or click on the images below.

The projects (listed roughly in order of completion):
1)  “Forms On a Catenary Curve” (maquette)
Dimensions: approx. 3.5 feet x 10 feet x 3 feet
Materials:     wood, steel, steel cable

Forms on a Catenary Curve (maquette)

A catenary is the curve a cable or rope takes under its own weight. It has one level spot, parallel to the ground; then in either direction it becomes increasingly angled. I was interested in the question of how a single form could achieve equilibrium on surfaces both level and out of level in each direction. Here, I started with the central sculpture, which stands on the one level platform. Then the other four forms have the same parts, but by varying the angle between two of the elements in each form, each is able to stand in balance, adapting to its particular circumstances.

2)  “Centripetal, Centrifugal”
Dimensions: approx. 20 x 30 x 25 inches
Materials:     wood
Centripetal and centrifugal are opposing forces – one outward and one inward – but when forms are in motion, both can exist simultaneously, and this has always interested me. Here, I explore the interactions between five forms in a group that, together, suggest a circular motion. Each individual is, on its own, out of equilibrium, yet as a group they remain upright, thanks both to their connected and opposing masses (physically) and to their suggested motions (gesturally). I plan to adapt this idea into a large-scale outdoor piece in steel next year.

3)  “At the Edge of Together”
Dimensions: 55 x 82 x 4 inches
Materials:     carbon fiber composite
Two forms are perched as if staring out at the sea. Each rests at the edge of equilibrium, balanced as it inclines towards the other. Each is in a state of stasis, stillness, but barely so. There is tension, they are drawn together, yet if either leaned any further toward the other it would risk a loss of stability.

These are installed near the tomb at the bottom of the ‘Tower of La Mancha’ at the Château de la Napoule . The bottom level of the tower is the tomb of Henry and Marie Clews (their sarcophagi are still visible), the couple who purchased the chateau in 1918, rebuilt it, and later turned it into the La Napoule Art Foundation. Above the tomb was my studio, and on the third level is an empty, entirely unaccessible room that the Clews designed to be a place for their spirits to meet after their death. I knew I needed to build on this story somehow, and this is where my idea came from for a pair of anthropomorphic, yet ’empty’ forms, staring out to the sea, not quite able to be in contact with each other — yet clearly responding to the other.

4)  “Emanating From Above”
Dimensions: approx. 4 feet x 7 feet x 3 inches
Materials:     Wood, carbon fiber composite, steel cable

This sculpture is in the Château de La Napoule’s large, gothic-era dining room. Before the time of recorded music, musicians would sit in a small room on the other side of these three arched openings at the top of this picture, hidden from view. The music they played would emanate out of these windows and down into the dining area for the guests below.

I loved this story, and wanted to find a way to visually tell it by creating a gestural, sculptural form ’emanating from above,’ as music would, to make visible just the smallest hint of this long-gone history — not through any literal interpretation of music, but just by hinting at it… by trying to create similar emotions in present-day viewers as might have been felt by those dining in this room decades or centuries ago.

5)   “Murmuration”
Dimensions: 67 x 87 x 3 inches
Materials:     carbon fiber composite, steel cable

My aim with certain projects, like this one, was to capture and reformulate moments that defined the place for me. Sometimes to do that I had to figure out how to site a project in some rather unconventional places.

The title “Murmuration” refers to a flock of birds flying in a coordinated yet seemingly random way. I think the word is relevant to more than birds, though, as it suggests the intersection of chance and instinct, intuition and improvisation. What would be the physical form of wind, if it could be embodied? Whether this work suggests wind, birds, or something entirely different to the viewer doesn’t matter to me. It is the energy, the suggested motion, and the attempt to make permanent in space something that was fundamentally ephemeral, that drove me with this piece.

6)  “Forms on a Catenary Curve”
Dimensions: approx. 50-meter span
Materials:     Carbon fiber composite, steel, steel cable

 Forms on a Catenary Curve (outdoor version)

This is the large-scale version of the smaller maquette (see project #1 above). The ideas behind the piece are the same, but the technical challenges of making a 50-meter span that would hold five sculptures, plumb and vertical, outdoors in the fierce winds that hit that region, were significant. I learned a huge amount from this project, and it won’t be the last time that I explore this type of direction.

7)  “Up, Over, Around”
Dimensions: approx. 10 x 16 x 1 feet
Materials:     Carbon fiber composite, steel cable
Up, Over, Around
From the start of my time there, I was interested in this bridge, which is also a tunnel. It has no real function in this location, its main purpose is to create an experience of passing through and over spaces, from one place to another. I started with this observation, and created a sculpture with the same multiple natures: mine is a form to be passed through, over, and under. Both structures are made to provide an experience of transitioning, where that experience itself is more important than what comes before or after.
The stone bridge uses substantial weight to achieve this; the sculpture uses as little mass as possible, belonging more to the air than to the earth, thanks to its cantilevered and suspended structure.

8)  “L’Envol” (French for ‘the moment of taking flight’)
Dimensions: 50 x 63 x 4 inches
Materials:     Carbon fiber composite
This sculpture started and ended with the garden’s cypress trees, a species I’ve always loved. Early in my fellowship, I watched as a windstorm whipped these trees back and forth, their tops moving several feet in either direction. They were filled with a sense of animated life, simultaneously grounded and seemingly about to take flight. I tried to imagine myself up at the top of one — what would be one’s experience there? I wondered how I might emphasize this movement, even in times of less wind, and the sense of tension I felt around whether the tree would remain rooted to the ground, or would lift off. I decided to figure out how to place a sculpture right at the very top of one of these slender trees, to emphasize the tree’s vulnerability to the winds that pass through there, but also its incredible resilience to these forces.

9)  “Interdependence, a Study”
Dimensions: approx. 8 x 15 x 5 feet
Materials:     Wood, nylon thread
 Interdependence, a Study

Here are ten forms, held in tension as five pairs. Thin threads connect them into a mutually-dependent system, but the interdependence is also literal, each stabilizes the others to allow them to stand, poised in space. Removing any one of the ten would bring others down. This is the interdependence that is often hidden, but is at the heart of so much around us.

In my studio, each of the parts was connected to the others only by these thin strings, such that each was held in tension and enabled the others to stand, unsecured. That sort of delicate counterbalance isn’t possible outside with wind and rain, so these are secured to the ground.

10)  “Torn”
Dimensions: approx. 10 x 3 x 2 feet
Materials:     Salvaged wood, carbon fiber, paint
This is a different type of piece for me… yet it’s still an exploration of the themes I’m so interested in — same language, different dialect, perhaps. This wood came from the branch of a huge, ancient tree in the château gardens that fell during a recent storm. Its smooth outside was such an interesting juxtaposition to the savagely torn (but strangely compelling) inside, yet both are inseparably parts of the same entity. I saw in the two fractured ends a visual recording of the immense energy of the wind that tore it down, and in this work I try to reveal that.
I rearranged the two halves of the break, rotating one in relation to the other and perching them precariously tip-to-tip in an attempt to bring back to the form some of the sense of tension, the vulnerability, that was in the branch all along and which that particular wind storm revealed.

For those of you who have made it this far, I wanted to talk about what comes next. 

After the fellowship ended, I had the perspective and time to consider all the projects above as a whole. I saw that while each one hewed closely to my aims for the year, the body of work as a whole transcended them, and there was an unexpected quality that all the works had in common, something I recognized then that had always been in me and in what I made, but that had been obfuscated until now.

Nearly every work I made that year was about more than itself. I started each with something I sensed, existing but unseen, in a place or in a time, that I wanted to reveal, to share with others. And what made the works successful, to me, was not so much that they were compelling forms in their own right, but that they communicated this ‘something beyond the form’ to those who saw the exhibit last summer. I hint at this in several of the descriptions of the forms above.

I realized that the key to this was the inherent, fundamental vulnerability at the core of each sculpture, and its equal and opposing resilience. The vulnerability comes from the same exploration of the edge between poise and instability that has fascinated me for decades, where the smallest change in the thickness of one part, or the angle of one joint, would cause it to topple. Resilience, on the other hand, keeps it from toppling, and maintains its poise, standing in a state of heightened but stable potential energy.

Vulnerability and resilience, and the tension between the two, are also fundamental human experiences that our bodies feel, our minds understand, and our psychologies react to. The connection this establishes between sculpture and viewer is evocative and powerful. They open up the viewer to something deeper — not just intellectually, as conceptual art might do, or just visually, as decorative art might do — but at a fundamentally human level that can be penetrated by few things, vulnerability being one of them.

So, going forward, I’ll continue to make some smaller works in wood and other materials, but I’ll also create works that start with this insight about vulnerability and resilience creating a connection between sculpture and viewer, and then further connect the viewer to something poignant and unknown. In France I worked reactively, finding elements around me that piqued my interest, but now I’d like to start with the idea, the unseen element that I want to connect viewers to through each sculpture, then seek out the place, and finally conceive of the sculpture itself.
Thanks for reading. Send me a note if you have thoughts to share or questions, I’d love to hear.