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.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jumping In

We’ve just signed the final documents on a new monument project for Texas. Like so many projects of this scale, we’ve been anticipating this moment for months. Now that it’s finally time to start working for real, there’s both palpable excitement and the nervous energy that comes with the consideration of any large and challenging project.

We’re working on a twice-life size sculpture of Texas A&M football legend John David Crow for instillation at the university’s Kyle Field. One of the realities of monument work is that the size of the sculpture makes a huge impact on the environment. This combined, with the expense and the amount of labor involved can frequently lead to questions regarding the subject. When an inquiry for any large project comes in you find yourself wondering what about this individual has led to the decision to create such a permanent and high-profile celebration.

At the studio we respond to these questions by a massive amount of research. There’s a great responsibility that comes from changing the national landscape. First there’s the desire to create something of beauty and impact that benefits the environment and surroundings. When the project, like this one, is designed to honor a specific individual, then you have the added responsibility of doing justice to the spirit, achievement and legend of the subject. It’s a difficult balance. The work by definition of its scale requires an element of grandeur, but in order to be personable and approachable the sculpture also has to be as authentic as possible.

Again, we protect ourselves with research. But in order to cover both sets of objectives, the spiritual and the factual, we partake in a total immersion program. We want to understand what John David Crow represents to Texas A&M, as an athlete, as an individual and as a source of inspiration. And so we must learn about football (today and as it was played in the late 1950s) we must learn about the traditions that define A&M, and finally we must learn about John David.

The project’s just begun. The whole studio is wearing A&M paraphernalia, we’ve got game tapes playing on the computer, the sounds of the Texas Aggie Band are playing over the stereo and John David Crow is scheduled to visit. It’s overwhelming, inspiring and it’s just begun…Gig em Aggies!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Where does it come from?

Strong talent brings with it both wonder and suspicion. What is the origin of such skill? How does one create it? In what balance is it learned, practiced, or developed? Does everyone have a gift that lies dormant until it is accidentally exposed? Do we all have within us the possibility of genius? Is it only a matter of discovering the appropriate medium that will permit the unknown genius to be excavated, transferred and recognized?

These are questions we’re left pondering in the midst of a long overdue visit from Steven’s parents. Though Steven and I may struggle to balance everyday realities with the fact that we do somehow manage to build huge monuments, there is nothing more certain to bring humility and surefootedness than the presence of those who knew you when you were young. If they happen to be of Scottish and Yorkshire decent – all the better.

Both of Steven’s parents have a true and perfectly uncomplicated love for him. Speaking with them you have the impression that anything from accountancy to car repair would have been a perfectly acceptable career path for their son and only child. As it is they seem a bit non-pulsed by the path he seems to have fallen into. While they are without question proud, their clear headed assumption and stoically tempered praise actively prevent any temptation to place too much stock in our own hype.

During their last visit, they were visiting the studio when two of Steven’s more substantial collectors stopped by to check on the progress of a piece they had commissioned. When I introduced them to Steven’s parents, they were thrilled to meet the people responsible for the artist. The wife of the couple asked Steven’s mother with great reverence: “Did he always show such remarkable talent?” His mom replied quite quickly and firmly, “goodness no.”

The collector then asked, “Where you very surprised when he managed to create such wonderful work?” With the kind of faith that reminds you why its family you call for both celebration and sympathy, his mom said, “no, I wasn’t. He was always good with his hands.”

Steven’s talent is a mysterious blend of innate skill, teaching, and miracle, but there’s no question he is who he is today, sculptor or not, because of the remarkable individuals who are his parents.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why Couldn’t He Have Been a Painter ? - Lamentations of Sculpture Roadies

The most basic fact about cast bronze sculpture is often the most overlooked. Each piece is made of metal and is, as a result, very heavy. With the inclusion of the expected granite or marble base you’re hard pressed to find a piece that weighs less than fifteen pounds. And, of course, each sculpture has to have a pedestal on which to be displayed. While these aren’t made of cast bronze they are still heavy and certainly awkward. When the gallery is properly set-up with all the most recent works placed to best advantage, prices and signage in place, and lighting correspondingly designed, it’s easy to forget what a mammoth effort it is to move work around.

The reality came crashing down on us this weekend due to our participation in the new Carmel Art and Film Festival. In addition to a slew of other events the festival, which was organized with the director of the Sunset Film Festival, included an art show in a local Carmel Park. As a selected artist, Steven had a booth to display work. The idea of an outdoor art show with noted artists all displaying their work in the usually sunny Carmel autumn is a romantic concept and I’m sure it’s a pleasant attraction to visit. But, the transport and set-up for the event is a mammoth and cumbersome undertaking. Not to mention it was strangely cold all weekend.

The event found us loading trucks with sculpture at 5:45 in the morning, only to have to bring it all back in the evening for security and then return it the next day. Of course, as with any struggle, you immediately feel as though your lot is the hardest. This mature response is how we have come to hate all painters. It’s an indiscriminant, purely selfish resentment based solely on the fact that their artwork weighs less, takes up less room, displays faster and is just generally more portable. The painters at last weekend’s event made one trip and set up their booths in an hour. Five trips later, we’re exhausted, bitter and depressed that the other painting artists have eaten all the good muffins. The noble pursuit of artistic expression is nothing in the face of such hardship and unbalance.

At 8 p.m. on the last day of the festival, when two and a half hours of transporting finally brought the conclusion of our participation, we drove out of town and passed the park. One car was still parked near the edge, hazard lights on and back door ajar. We looked over to find it was being loaded up by one of the festival’s only other sculptors. If I had his address I’d send him a solidarity muffin.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bill: Chief Cadet in the Sculpture Corps

When I think about the amazing group of people who work with us at the studio I’m frequently reminded of the Peace Corps slogan, “The hardest job you’ll ever love.”

It’s a strange invitation to make to anyone: “Come and be a starving artist with me. You’ll work until you drop, make no money, have to walk the dog, and come home covered in plaster, fiberglass, clay and who-knows-what else.” That anyone would even think of applying, much less staying and working, is a kind of miracle. Perhaps it’s the invitation to share in the adventurous struggle, the good, the bad and the messy that fosters the amazingly high quality of people who become the studio family.

Bill is our head studio manager. He just returned from a much-deserved vacation and his absence from the studio was palpable. The studio is in so many ways lost without him. Bill knows where we keep the “good rubber,” the scalpels that are still sharp and a host of other items that we seem to need as soon as he walks out the door.

In the years they have worked together, Steven and Bill have taken mutual admiration to its highest level. To their own frustration, they get mistaken for brothers at least once a day. But physical resemblance aside, the relationship has a necessarily familial nature. It’s not just the time and close proximity born of working in the studio. It’s the amazing gesture of trust seen in handing over responsibility of your artwork to another. Bill and all the staff consider Steven’s work with such love and reverence that there is never any apprehension.

Bill fights alongside Steven in the frequently bizarre trenches of the art community of Carmel and beyond. Their work often seems more like a series of bizarre adventures than art production. At last year's hearing of Carmel’s strident Design Review Board Bill was there. When we were anxious to improve production quality Bill learned how to pour waxes. At our recent show at the Sunset Center Bill brought no less than eight guests and spent the whole evening sharing detailed stories about each sculpture with everyone who would listen. When we needed help moving Bill was there - with a truck. Moral support, muscle and unquestionable talent - it's all there.

I clearly remember the first New Year’s Eve after Bill came on staff. Steven and I were talking with friends over champagne about the things we were thankful for in the past year. Without pause Steven said simply, “Bill.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Becoming Part of the Story - Myth, Reality, Talent and Dirty Socks

Much of the rationalization for why people buy art is the story behind the piece, or the collector’s discovery of the piece. As beautiful or special as a collector finds a work of art, at the end of the day he or she is fundamentally looking for a story to tell. Something that communicates why the work has personal value to the collector or what makes it stand out within a larger collection. Sometimes a collector will have a powerful personal response to a work - a reaction so strong that they have little choice, but to acquire it. More often, the decision to invest is a combination of appreciation on the part of the collector, salesmanship, and the mystique of the artist.

It’s a funny thing to realize that Steven’s personality is a marketable commodity, but we’ve been in the business long enough to know that it’s a fundamental part of the game. More polished galleries play the artist card as the ultimate trump play to close a big sale or to woo a new collector. Since Steven’s studio is an active part of the gallery, we don’t have the same opportunity to communicate a sense of exclusivity or reserve. While Steven would like nothing more than to eventually mature into an eccentric recluse who barely supports visits by the public in the midst of a cider and glam-rock haze, the reality is that we currently balance the need to preserve an aura of reverence about his personality alongside his remarkable accessibility.

Our frequent compromise is that Steven works in the gallery, while other staff approaches visitors to speak about him with appropriate distinction and deference. It’s through this practice that the legend of “Steven Whyte the Sculptor” or “The Artist Steven Whyte” has developed. While compiled of facts regarding commissions, training and accomplishments, the myth we share with visitors is a marketing tool and is a world away form the flesh and blood reality of the man who seems physically addicted to leaving his socks in the hallway of the house.

I think it’s for this reason that it’s such a funny surprise when the myth takes hold in a powerful manner. We had a couple of remarkable visitors walk in the door this week that can only be linked to growing reputation and word of mouth - truly contacts that Steven has dreamed of making for the entirety of his career. And just like that, myth and reality become one and the same.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Waiting and Creating

One of the things that often surprises people about our work in the gallery is how similar it is to any other business. Since we also have the studio component, our business plan is different than most traditional galleries. Beyond simple retail sales we spend a huge amount of time pursuing contracts for large scale public and private commissions. In these efforts, we are like any other product-based business. We make phone calls, draft proposals, try to identify new venues and in the end spend a lot of time trying to pitch our work.

What makes it slightly different is that rather than just send off a proposal, Steven almost always creates a model for every perspective project. By the time we’ve discussed the possible design, researched the site and subject, and the model or maquette is finished we’ve become pretty attached to the whole concept. It’s not just the idea of winning the project for its financial benefits, although that’s certainly always there, it’s also the desire to be able to see the creation take shape and to have the vision become reality.

The fact that we make figurative work just adds to the bizarre sense of creation and stalled gestation. The studio is full of the scale models of possible monuments, 1/6 scale figures that never got to assume the heroic scale for which they were meant. Sometimes, we just break down the clay and use it to build something else. Other times we’ll hold on to it in the belief that we’ll find a home for the idea at some unknown point and place in the future. The end result is that we have a workspace full of homeless unfinished figures. If we weren’t so busy, it could be a little depressing.

Some of the figures are merely waiting, designs for contracts that are “just about to be” finalized. Here too we’re like any other business – waiting for the initial contact to take shape, judging if there’s enough interest, and enough funding. A series of exciting phone calls can have us celebrating for a week. But, even then, the reality of making massive bronze structures is that there are still site considerations, planning permission and frequently several civic or governmental organizations that have to be convinced. It’s a long, drawn-out and delay-prone process. Steven often says that the sculpting part is the easy part. It’s certainly less time consuming.

You constantly feel as though you’re on the precipice. This summer and fall we sit waiting for decisions on three projects that would fundamentally change everything. It’s an exciting time that is wonderfully ripe with possibility. But, there is always the waiting, the fear and the memories of past experiences that weigh equally between successes and ideas that just faded away.

At least now the projects we’re waiting for are much bigger than they used to be.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Auction for the Arts: The Difficult Balance of Creativity, Finances and New Traditions

We participated in the first annual Carmel Treasures Auction for the Arts events this weekend and the aftermath is such a mixed bag of tricks. The event was beautiful and well organized, but not particularly successful in terms of sales or fund-raising.

The whole night was very symbolic of a current trend in so many industries, where nothing can be launched, sold, or introduced without the presence of food and wine. Steven and I are both semi-professional appreciators of tasty drinks and dishes, but living in a community like Carmel, which is equally celebrated for fine food and fine art, it can be difficult to focus attention on the art work and distract from the concentration on food and wine.

Art seems to suffer particularly from this connection, paintings and sculpture are appreciated passively and museums and exhibitions often add to the perception that art is there to beautify and appreciate, but isn't necessarily something that you buy. The difficultly is that without collectors and patrons new art would cease to be created or produced.

It’s a conflict in many ways, even for those “in the business.” As artists or agents you can quickly appreciate the value of a piece its creativity, skill level, quality, or collectability (code for investment value) of an item, but that’s not the same thing as being able to afford a piece. The result is that when you go to an auction as a participant, not as a bidder, you spend a lot of time yearning for the $40,000 painting, that is a steal for $25,000 and sharing empathy with the painter or agent since today’s economy means that they won’t even earn the asking price. The skill is being able to communicate your knowledge and perception to an appropriate individual, but sadly such folk are a little hard to find these days.

The Treasures event also had me pondering the difficulty of establishing new traditions, particularly in the current economy. The Central Coast has a couple of occasions that mark the calendar year and bring locals and visitors out into restaurants, shops, etc. They’re institutions now, the kind of events you block out a week for every year, but I wonder if they also struggled at first and how they managed to keep on and eventually succeed. When the first Concours d’Elegance was held at Pebble Beach, did people think it was ridiculous to drive a bunch of pretty cars out to park on a bluff by the ocean?

How do we encourage creativity and new traditions for our community with the understanding the immediate success in unlikely? How do you cultivate interest, appreciation and attendance alongside likely buyers? Is there an appropriate balance between the broader goal of collective appreciation and the necessity of private ownership?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Molding: Messy, Risky, but Glorious

The creation of cast-bronze sculpture is a multi-step process. Sometimes the production side of it seems to overpower, intimidate and out-cost the sculpting process. Visitors to the studio seem to generally understand that Steven develops the pieces from clay, but the stages that follow often lead to great confusion.

Granted, there is a slight Rumpelstiltskin quality to the idea that what starts out as clay somehow becomes bronze. But fairy tales aside, each sculpture has to be molded before it can be cast. It’s a messy, complicated and stressful process and we've been in the midst of it for most of the week.

Even with the mess and worry, there is a certain celebratory factor to mold making. Foremost the creation of the mold heralds the completion of the sculpture. But the more emotional side of mold making is the whole staff involvement, the related drama and risk, and fundamentally the acknowledgment that producing the mold is powerfully representative of being a producing sculptor and studio.

Only a few years ago when Steven was first attempting to produce his own work, the cost and complications of molding were a huge obstacle. One year for Christmas my parents, as a gift, helped him buy some rubber so that he could mold some sculptures. And there was a birthday party he was late for because the excitement of having finally been able to open a mold he had made was a better present than any he anticipated receiving at the party.

The mold holds the entire story of each sculpture. It protects each stroke of texture, every element of created character and evocative detail. A good mold protects the sculpture’s legacy and allows the piece to be produced perfectly for the run of the edition. A bad mold destroys the sculpture and is an expensive waste of time and materials. I’ve seen Steven boast about a mold he’s made with equal pride to any sculpture. The mold itself is itself a work of art - a series of technical hurdles and tests to champion.

These days were lucky enough to be able to mold work as soon as Steven’s completed the sculpture. It’s an achievement and the launch of a new challenge all in one, but the process brings the whole studio staff together and is a constant reminder that we’re here, we’re making art and now we always have rubber on hand.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Calm After One Storm And Before The Next

It’s a strange nervous calm the follows the conclusion of two back to back shows. The feeling is very reminiscent of Christmas when you’re young - a lot of anticipation and preparation, followed by a few moments of pure joy and the overall amazement that after months of waiting and preparing for the event, it’s actually here and then so quickly over. It can be a little anti-climatic and a peculiarly sad.

Working in a community like Carmel these events take on an even stranger feel. Their attendance is mixed with the close friends who are so supportive of everything we do, new acquaintances that we hope to build into friendships, business connections that demand attention and of course the constant pressure and need for potential sales. It makes the whole venture very difficult to digest in the aftermath. You worry that you didn’t spend enough time with those close to you or that you were too cautious and spent all of your time talking to friends and not enough time building collectors.

More than anything I just wish there was time to appreciate. Steven’s work is displayed at the Sunset Center in Carmel. It’s an interesting venue and the work has a wonderful museum exhibition quality to it – the kind of space and show we’ve always wanted to have. It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s so hard to balance that with the built in self-criticism that comes from always thinking you could have improved on well, everything.

I sometimes wonder if the day will ever come when we finally feel like we’ve gotten to where we want to be – or if the nature of working for yourself just makes it impossible to stop striving, stop planning, stop critiquing.

We also had the second of our new Fine Art First Friday events last week. The evenings seem to be gaining in momentum and they’ve been a wonderful opportunity to bring a little life to nighttime Carmel. Steven and I have both enjoyed working more closely with the other galleries and artists. Like any other industry art is complicated in that your colleagues are also your competition. It can lead you to cultivate a kind of insulated existence and while you can really admire another artist’s work from afar you’re so busy cultivating your own collector base that you don’t have the time you might like to support other artists and you can be instinctually wary of any group projects or activities.

The First Friday program has us working with three other galleries and it’s been great to let our walls down a little bit. The next one is Friday, October 2 at 6:00 p.m. – stop in and visit if you’re in town.

Show Prep: The Artistry of Glue Covered Dogs and Good Friends

Another late night getting ready for another show where I spend the whole time thinking that there must be an easier way and that you would think that after so many events like this that we would have a better a handle on things.

As always, we are saved by the generosity of our friends and the commitment of the studio staff. But the whole process is just another reminder of how strangely unglamorous and messy the whole process is. When Steven and I are both cleaned up at an unveiling or other fancy event and a new acquaintance rhapsodizes about how blessed Steven is to have this amazing talent I often flash back to these moment when we are both too tired too speak straight and everyone including the dog is covered in paint, primer, glue and plaster not because we’ve been sculpting, but because we’re building pedestals for a show that just like every other show has snuck up on us. Sometimes I think the true talent is that we don’t fall down laughing when someone waxes on about the romance and magic of it all. If they only knew that Steven’s greatest pleasure this week has not come from progress on any piece of art, but instead over his new nail gun they might start to get a taste for the reality of it all.

The upside of the chaos is that it hides the bad and can overpower the good until it sneaks out as wonderful surprise. In the midst of trying to save some shopping from the torrent of construction dust (which yes, must all be completely gone by tomorrow’s show) I snuck into the office and found a sales form for a fairly significant sale. I asked Steven about it and he shrugged that it had come through this morning. It seems like just yesterday that we would have been calling both sets of our parents to exalt a sale like that as proof that it might work out after all. Now, it’s good news, but not nearly as important as the fact that all the primer is dry and we can do the second coat.