Sunday, June 20, 2010

It Really Is About the People

When Steven, is in the midst of feigning off overly effusive praise, he sometimes shrugs and says, “I just make clay people.” We’ve now reached the conclusion of the John David Crow project, and I’m newly struck by how much our work revolves around people, clay or otherwise.

In my role at the studio and gallery, I often struggle to balance the commitment and passion I feel here with the demands of other obligations and work. Likewise the studio staff works to try to balance large projects with the daily business needs of the gallery, other sales and collector relations. Our work on the John David Crow project intersected directly with a host of other deadlines for the work I do outside of the gallery. And the sheer size of the project itself tested Steven and the team at almost every stage of production.

There definitely were times when things were, to put it mildly, falling between the cracks. Plans and projects (like this blog) that we had hoped to pursue, develop and expand on all fell by the wayside in an attempt to stay sane and keep the project, more-or-less, on schedule. Now that, except for the final patina stage and instillation, it’s done, I’m newly cognizant that we are both dependent and blessed by the people we work with and the huge family of friends that support us in a incredible variety of ways.

Last weekend, the foundry we used to cast the monument held an event and they included a brief ceremony where they unveiled the finished bronze of the Crow monument. Seeing the finished piece revealed and lit against the night sky was a spectacular moment, but looking around the dressed up foundry grounds and seeing so many friendly faces, who had had made the two hour drive to come and celebrate with us, was by far the most memorable moment of the evening.

The whole night had the special feeling that sometimes comes for me on Thanksgiving - when you look around the room at your friends and family and recall each of them for the role they play in your life and in that moment you take the opportunity to give thanks for the friendship and love you have had the benefit of throughout the year. While not everyone could be there, last weekend, in the shadow of the over twelve foot towering monument to an athlete who has now inspired us all, we toasted the friends that helped us move and set-up our satellite studio, the friend who, as a licensed masseuse, came and kept Steven in sculpting form, and the countless numbers who just understood that sometimes when you have to work all night what you want most is a little bit of company.

Looking at some of the photos of the event, Steven and I are both wearing ridiculous smiles – they are the result of exhaustion, of relief and of pure joy. We are both so blessed and so grateful. We work with some of the best most talented people in the region and we are lucky to have friends who are as much to fun work with as they are to celebrate with – to their credit they are equally present for both activities.

We do create monuments of people. We research their stories, their character. But our story and the story of our studio is a story about these people –our friends, our colleagues, our family, our believers. Thank you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What If?

One of the most common questions studio visitors ask is, “How did Steven discover that sculpture was his talent?” followed by, “When did he know that this was what he was meant to do?’ It’s the kind of query that you don’t get in more traditional occupations, but we hear it so frequently that we’ve developed a response that strikes Steven as, more or less, accurate.

We explain that Steven’s parents were in the Royal Air Force and that as a result he frequently changed schools. We add that he suffers from dyslexia and had a hard time catching up in more traditional subjects. It was in art, always in art, that felt comfortable.

It was art that became his constant. By the time he was ready to think about university the choice of focus was all but decided. In many ways, it’s been both a blessing and a great responsibility to have your chosen path appear so early and so clearly. Steven rarely suffers from the great debate of “what am I going to do with my life?” At that same time he feels a great responsibility to give voice and opportunity to his talent. It’s as if other careers are disrespectful toward his talent.

We found ourselves newly considering our origin story when Steven went this week to meet with a representative from Chartwell School about working with their art education program. The local school is specially designed to work with students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, with specialized education. Steven visited Chartwell’s beautiful eco-conscious campus and met with students, teachers and members of the administration. He left full of ideas about how to collaborate with the school, ways to give to others the resource that art was for him.

But at the same time, he wondered, “What if?” “What if he had gone to a school like Chartwell when he was young? What if reading had been easier? Would art still have been the obvious path? Would Steven still be “Steven” if he was doing something complete different?

It’s impossible to know, but were thrilled to be playing even a little part in the important work being done by Chartwell. They are providing children with options for their future, with the confidence that any career, even something as impossible a sculpture, is possible.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It Really Is in the Details

This week is our last scheduled week of sculpting time on the John David Crow project. Next month, the studio team will begin molding the piece. This means that the next seven days represent our last opportunity to see the complete sculpture in one piece until the finish casting is created.

Preparations and work on the project have been such a big part of our work over the past few months that it’s a bit overwhelming to realize how far along we’ve come. And, of course, there’s the immediate pressure of making sure we get everything exactly right. The general fear that many experience when they realize they might have included a typo in a blog post or press release is nothing compared with the fear that you’ve made a mistake on a monumental bronze sculpture that will exist and be seen by millions of people for perpetuity.

Of course there are the mistakes that are subject of disaster nightmares (four toes, untied shoes, etc.), but the reality of the more likely errors is just as frightening. The project itself is so important to so many people, Steven as an artist, John David Crow and his family, the A&M donors who are purchasing the piece, and the legions of fans, that the pressure to “get it right” is enormous.

To the outside observer the sculpture seems all, but finished. Crow nearly sprints off his clay grass. Equipped in his period appropriate uniform, the sculpture features everything from detailed spikes on his cleats to the unique stripping found on mouth guards of that era. And yet, there is still much to do before the sculpture can be deemed, “finished.” I know from experience that it’s this final stage that Steven finds the most challenging. His current work days don’t have the immediate gratification of the early stages of the project. He can’t leave for the day content that there is an arm or leg that wasn’t there before. Instead, it’s a constant processes of evaluating and perfecting - checking on the draping and seams of the uniform and making sure that the texture of the piece is cohesive and suggests the different materials and finishes at play on the figure. It’s a difficult balance between making sure every detail is correct and preventing the sculpture from looking over-worked.

It’s the kind of details that only Steven and John David himself can see. For this reason we were thrilled when John David called late this week to say that he would fly in from Texas to give final notes on the project. It’s clear that in the time between today and his first visit early this fall he has come to terms with the project and accepted both the honor and the responsibility of the recognition. He came to the studio with a small leather (maroon of course) notebook with the list of questions and suggestions that he and his wife Caroline had compiled.

He was concerned about the curve of one of the pads on the figure. Caroline had shared that she thought he might have more muscular carves during his college career, although Crow thought she might have been suffering from a bit of romantic reminiscing. Each comment and reflection brought the monument one step closer to the level of authenticity required to make the final sculpture a true resonating celebration of John David and the era of his great athletic achievement.

One example of the importance of this personal input stuck me as particularly representative of how wondrous this work can be. Before his visit, we had been in back and forth communication with John David about the size of the feet on the sculpture. He kept saying he thought they were too big and we kept 'replying' that they were exactly twice the size of his actual feet and were, as a result, exactly to scale. During his visit he looked at the feet up close. Anxious to prove their accuracy, Steven got out a pair of calipers and measured John David’s feet. As promised the feet of the sculpture were two times as big. John David agreed that this was the case, but off-handedly pointed out that he wore one size smaller shoes when he played at A&M since it had been hard to find a size 10.
With that new information in hand, Steven has begun resizing the feet of the monument. It’s adherence to these kind of nuances that really set his work and the studio apart. I hope John David goes home to Texas and tells his wife that, as she requested, his sculpture is getting a few more muscles and that some day his great-great grandchildren will be able to share the story about how their “Poppa” fixed the size of the shoes on his sculpture.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Letting the Outside World In – Sharing, Showing Off and Cleaning Up

People are often amazed at how available Steven is to the public. There’s a commonly held assumption that the artistic process requires isolation and the kind of extreme concentration that can only come from working in a secluded studio or artist’s garret. In contrast, Steven has always thrived with public interaction, as he reminds me, the public, 'people' are his subject. However, higher profile projects have brought new attention to the studio and it’s been a little bit of shock to see our little world from the outside perspective.

The John David Crow project has brought some nice media coverage including newspaper and magazine articles and a recent feature on a local news program. Since we want to put our best face forward we actually have to clean up the studio. The pace of the project has us adding about 150 pounds of clay to the sculpture a day and none of it happens in a neat and tidy manner. Of course when I mentioned that Steven might want to change his shirt for the interview since the one he was wearing had a spot on it, he explained that he was just going to get clay on it anyway. It’s this slightly prepared, but still messy reality that is now captured on film.

Since the studio couldn’t exist without the support of our staff, much of the media coverage also includes comments by the staff. As always, they do us an incredible service and their comments on the work and the process make us both grateful and inspired. Lord Wellington seems to have made the smoothest transition to print and film. He takes no notice of the extra attention and may be the one true media star of the group.


As strange as it is to see yourself on film, it’s been wonderful to see how well the sculpture itself is photographing. Though still in progress, the piece is definitely taking shape and it’s clear that the finished work is going to convey the spirit and momentum Steven intended.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Balance of Old and New and the Risks of Tradition

We’re deep in the midst of the John David Crowe Monument project. The finished piece will measure almost 12 feet in height and the shear size of the project brings with it a host of challenges. First we’ve had to relocate large elements of the studio to an off-site annex studio with larger ceilings to permit Steven to work on the complete figure. The soaring figure is like a two story building and Steven spends much of his time either up on a ladder or on the new scaffolding we bought for the project. It’s caused a funny dynamic in the studio that reminds me of the power of having the top bunk when I was younger. Once up on the scaffolding, it’s hard to get down and the studio staff is forced to scramble around handing Steven everything from warm clay to glasses of water.

The actual construction of the piece is a mixture of old and new techniques. Steven studied in England and was trained in a very traditional and classical manner. We continue to find our greatest inspiration in the artistic achievements of the past ranging from the Albert Memorial to the Statue of Liberty. These mammoth memorials were produced in pain-stacking protracted techniques. In part it is this struggle that makes the finished monuments so truly awesome. Our monument work is an effort to successfully replicate the spirit of these historic landmarks while taking advantage of the benefits of modern technology.

Today many large-scale works are created with the use of computers in a process called foam enlargement. A sculptor creates a small version of a sculpture and then a computer scans the piece, calculates the rate of enlargement and then programs a laser to cut the larger version piece out of a block of very dense foam. This foam sculpture is then used in place of a traditional clay sculpture to produce the final bronze version of the piece. The process saves huge amounts of time and labor and eliminates many of the risks associated with a project of this size. But for us, the technique takes away from the overall impact of the piece and the distance it creates between the finished sculpture and the artist negatively impacts the artist process and the final creation.

As a result as we move forward with the project, we are constantly balancing the physical implications of the massive volume with our ultimate commitment to creating a product of high artistic quality. All of Steven’s sculptures are created with an armature or base that gives shape and support to the piece. Normally we use the armature to give the general suggestion of the figure, but in order to keep the Crow piece light enough to be even partially mobile Steven has added to the basic metal armature and sculpted the figure out of a new “sculptable” foam. He then lays thin sheets of clay over the foam body before addressing questions of texture and detailed expression.

As with so much of what we do the practicality of the process leads to elements of the surreal. Honored to be involved with such an impressive project, the whole staff remains frustrated with a week filled with rolling out dough/clay and working as a kind of temporary sculpture bakery. With apologies…I guess the project is starting to cook.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Joining the Team

One of the best parts of our work at the studio is the way each project exposes you to new places and new subjects. For many of the monuments we’ve worked on, we’ve had a general familiarity with the subject, but the demands of the project insist on an extensive and thorough knowledge base. For a Martin Luther King piece we learnt about King’s personal library and preferred texts. For a multi-figure tribute to Bob Hope and his work with USO, it meant watching countless performance videos. Now as we move forward with the monument to John David Crow for Texas A&M, we are learning about the culture of football in Texas and the traditions of a unique university.

Of course, the learning curve on the subjects is made steeper since, Steven and I are more familiar with Europe than we are with states outside of California. Worse still as an Englishman Steven’s knowledge of "American" football consists of a general understanding that it involves elements of rugby, but with more padding and equipment. We’ve been participating in a gradual education program based on viewing of every football movie ever made, but the time had finally come for a more direct course of action. It was with this goal in mind that we traveled to the great state of Texas.

In a three day crash course, we went to two major games and came away with a fortified excitement for the project. The tangible enthusiasm, fierce loyalty and pride we saw was inspiring. Former A&M President Bob Gates once remarked that A&M was a "unique American institution". As we visited the grounds around Kyle Field, we were swept up in the culture of and passion for the school.

The university is steeped in history and a sense that every student holds the honor and responsibility of carrying the mantle of past achievements and future recognition. As we became enraptured with the day’s football contest and spoke to alumni, fans and current students, we began to feel as though our current project made us temporary Aggies. As if we too should stand with the student body as the ever ready Twelfth Man, ready to take the field to fight for what the school represents.

As we returned home this same since of purpose continues to guide our work on the project. We have been chosen to create something special and unique. We remain grateful for the hospitality we were shown, cognizant of the honor of our assignment and ever so slightly hungry for barbeque...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In the flesh.....

We use live models for all of our work in the studio. Even when the subject is a posthumous one, we will still bring in a model of a similar height and build. Steven maintains that it’s as much an effort toward efficiency as an attempt to ensure accuracy. He says it’s just easier to see something right in front of you and he'd rather work from a three deminsional reference.

For the most part our larger monument work features great achievers from the past. While our research frequently puts us in touch with decedents or colleagues of the subjects, it’s very rare that we meet directly with an individual of whom we are creating a huge heroic sculpture.
That changed when John David Crow visited the studio to consult on the monument we are making for Texas A&M University. It’s a powerful moment when an individual that you’ve been studying as a legend for months and months suddenly appears and the whole studio was honored at his presence.

Faced with a soaring representation of his younger self, Crow was at first humble and quiet. He even seemed slightly resistant to this grand scale celebration of his achievement, but eventually our enthusiasm for the project became contagious.

As Steven began to explain his thoughts for the piece, the design decisions he was considering and the overall impact he envisioned, Crow offered suggestions and comments. He stepped away from the overwhelming weight of the honor and began to talk with simple passion about football and his time with A&M. He shared stories about the way he played, his stance and his technique. While he talked, Steven shifted the pose of the sculpture, changing the angle of the torso and moving the arms and legs.

In one hour the shape of the sculpture was transformed and the whole project suddenly became much more real. A shift had taken place and we were no longer making a sculpture of a man from old videos and archival photos. Now the project is properly individualized, showcasing John David in every nuance. It’s this process that defines Steven’s work - the transference and communication of these details and his ability to do so still seems magical to me.

As Crow and his wife and college sweetheart were getting ready to go, Mrs. Crow turned to Steven and said, “it looks just like him.”