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Chasing Light and Molding Clay

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A belated reflection on this year’s Marchutz School sculpture workshop. Originally published on the Marchutz blog.

The light is always changing, but every year the assignment is the same: create a sculpture from one of your sketches of the garden. In the presence of Monet’s lingering vision, the annual sculpture workshop posed us the challenge of bringing tangible form to our impressions of the water and color, plants and light and air. For five days, we had the benefit of being guided by Greg Wyatt, a foremost representational sculptor, who, after a morning of group introductions woven with profound commentary, led us down the Rue Claude Monet, through the entryway overgrown with flowers and vines onto the famous Japanese bridge, where we’d begin our inquiry into the relationship of three dimensional space to the flat surface of the page.

Greg established that we’d begin our sculpture process by drawing from nature and that, at least, we were prepped for. The weeks prior we spent landscape painting during which we learned to encounter nature as artists – to select values from all the light and matter, and to bring them together according to the dictates of our imaginations. Experience aside, there was something a bit disorienting in treating our impressions of color and value as fodder for a 2 by 1 inch wax sculpture – even for those of us who had done the workshop in years past.

I had. And as I scanned the garden, now rainy, with my increasingly wet sketchbook in tow, I thought of past mistakes as guidance for whatever I was going to do next. In short, I was ready to take a less literal approach to the exercise than I had as a student. Last time, I’d attempted something like a pictorial representation of the bridge bordered by two clumpy trees and a flat surface of water, which, though accurate in a certain sense, bore little resemblance to my experience of actually being in the garden with all its particularities of space and light. This time, I looked more closely at less tangible, more encompassing relationships – such as that of the willow branches to the water, reflected in its depths. I made a quick sketch and then moved on to explore the pond’s other lurking mysteries.

In our wax-scented studio, I opened my sketchbook to that drawing. It was, in a word, abstract. A bunch of rounded triangles jutting upward over a few horizontal lines that, while bearing resemblance to what I actually saw, weren’t exactly identifiable as reflections, and definitely not as willow leaves. From my drawing, I made a wire sculpture with spires, the upward reaching leaves, jutting out above something like an upside-down bowl to convey the horizontal plane of the water. To the clay mock-up I oriented the forms around an upward spiral like a shell, which I adjusted little by little until I arrived at a form that was more real, more whole, more like a living thing than the sculpture I made two years ago. The sculpture also felt more like my own, more “my style” in the sense that the undulating curves and almost gothic spires showed the touch of my hands, by consequence of my way of experiencing and interacting with the world.

By the time we reached the Coubertin Foundation with our finished wax sculptures in tow, I had come to a deeper realization of the relatedness of the self and the imagination to nature. I had pursued my experience of the garden rather than its literal appearance and the result was a creation that had more in common with the nature I was pursuing than any photographic representation, itself a concrete realization of what I discovered in the process. What I had arrived at was anything but arbitrary. “Art imitates nature,” St. Thomas Aquinas once said, not in her appearance but “in her manner of operation.” It had been whispered to me by John and Alan during painting sessions, had been expounded upon and discussed in seminar, explained to me by friends, fellows, scholars. But there’s nothing quite like inching toward a timeless law like that with your own two hands.

For me, the realization represented a step to cultivating a an art practice out of which I can produce work that is whole and alive; that is sourced from somewhere genuine and somewhere real. And because no realization is allowed to be arbitrary at Marchutz, what I learned gained even more significance when John Gasparach handed us an essay on Impressionism in Art History class the next Monday.

The writer, an art historian named Richard Shiff, was talking about the etymology and implications of the “impression” as in the much used and abused art term “Impressionism.” The impression, he observes, “[bridges] the gap between the external and the internal, the physical and the intellectual or spiritual.” Art and poetry then, is “nature reflected in the human mind,” making that reflection, that impression, consequently “both a phenomenon of nature and of the artist’s own being.”

I thought of the sketches I made in the garden – the drawings of those willow leaves reflected in the pond at once representative of their nature but also true to my touch, my eyes, my presence in seeing them – “both a phenomenon of nature and of the artist’s own being.” I also thought of something John had said about Monet in class. As Monet drew closer to nature his work became more recognizably his own. Moving from the earth to the surface of the water in search of his motif, he gradually eliminated the far bank, such that everything that called to him most in nature – the “envelope,” as he called it, of air and light – was laid bare in the reflective surface. It was from that vantage point that he produced his works of art that were his most powerful, his most abstract, his most concrete, his most real. Monet’s late and works, the result of an artistic career pursuing his vision, are emphatically “both a phenomenon of nature and of the artist’s own being.”

So what does all this about impressions have to do with our five-day sculpture workshop in Giverny? Though experiences inevitably vary, I trust that we all learned something about the relationship of nature to the artistic process. I sure did. The light is always changing, but in its chase we can gain a glimpse of the reality of nature and ourselves in relation to it. It’s not easy to pay attention to the passing phenomena that make up what we know of life. It takes patience to progress from a fleeting vision in the mind’s eye to a thing you can see, grasp, hold in your hands. But it’s at the heart what makes the study of art so valuable.

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