By Jackie Lee | Sonoma Valley Sun
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, in partnership with the City of Sonoma, invited three world-renowned sculptors to show their works on Sonoma Plaza through October 21, 2018. Notably, they’re all female in a medium dominated by male sculptors, which seems appropriate in the Year of the Woman.
A list all their combined resumes, awards, and exhibitions could deplete the world’s ink supply, and their websites go into detail with that information. I was curious to know how choices were made along the way to embrace sculpture as their chosen art form, and what challenges they faced.
The west side of the Plaza features Gwynn’s lifelike bronze deer family. At the time of our appointment, I found Gwynn sitting on a park bench, quietly observing the surroundings. “It’s so peaceful and tranquil here,” she said. Those are the same words I’d use to describe her demeanor; she exudes warmth and friendliness.
Asked about her early years, she says she took art lessons, and the best thing the teacher could say was that she was good at mountains.
Then Gwynn tried to emulate the Impressionists and use lots of color, but the very act of studying it ruined her thought process and she didn’t have any ideas of her own to paint, so she drew a blank. She recalled making clay deer in school and was surprised by its resemblance to real deer; she took a sculpture class as part of the requirements to graduate and made her first animal sculptures from laminated wood.
As a young woman, Gwynn moved to Los Angeles and considered herself fortunate to meet Tony Berlant, the collage artist. She spent many years working with him in his studio. He was supportive to her as a mentor, and they remain the best of friends. “I don’t know what I would have done without him,” she says.
In 1989, Gwynn opened her own studio and was blessed with an immediate commission to get her going. As a woman in a male-dominated art form, she says modestly that she considers herself lucky she got to do it at all.
Her deer sculptures in the Plaza are evidence of the heart and spirit Gwynn feels when in the process. “Humans are the new frontier,” she says. “We have to make an effort to take care of all animals. It’s the right thing to do.”
Two of Lisa’s sculptures in the Plaza exhibition are: Wolf Rider (Ophelia’s Return) and Neptune’s Daughter.
I snapped up the opportunity to visit Lisa in her sculpture studio. Inviting me through massive double wooden doors with carvings of bas-relief monkeys, she gave me a tour of her workspace. Huge blocks of clay lay near a window, and sculptures held their positions majestically at various points throughout.
Bright and airy, the studio’s most important feature is a large winch and chain pulley hanging from a strong beam overhead. Lisa explained, “Using this, I can move heavy pieces around by myself, and wheel them to the kiln. I don’t always need to depend on additional helpers, although my husband is willing to do so when he’s here.” Looking around at the size of the sculptures, I can only imagine how much strength this requires.
Lisa is a spirited person with many interesting stories to tell. As a child, she says, she always drew things. Later trips to Italy and Mexico cemented her desire to become a sculptor. In Italy, she was entranced by the humanity in the sculptures of Michelangelo, and in Mexico, she fell in love with the work of muralist Diego Rivera and others.
In 1984, she received her MFA from UC Davis, where she studied with icon Robert Arneson. There’s a large picture of him where she works, as though he’s still present to critique her work.
Certainly, one of her most masterful sculptures is of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are three versions in various parts of the country; one is in the lobby of the Martin Luther King, Jr. School of Law at UC Davis, accompanied by an interactive wall. She is proud that her father joined the march from Selma to Montgomery, so she has an affinity for the subject matter. She likes to think her historically based public commissions (over 20 of them across the country) are memorials to peace; they represent everything she believes in.
There’s an underlying humanism evident in everything Lisa creates. Powerful sculptures embody a moving narrative of peace, social justice, and realism rooted in figurative art traditions.
Alison’s sculptures in the Plaza are Summer and Winter, evidencing the complexity of the artist in a biracial world. Disappointed at being taken for white and wishing above all to identify with her African-American side, she created the Topsy Turvy series, hauntingly explicit in typifying the standard of the day when movies depicted wide-eyed black-faced actors in parody. The ultimate insult.
Alison is friendly and outgoing. She grew up in a conglomeration of cultures and says she identifies most with her African-American ancestry. As a result, her sculptures are biographically rich with profound emotional candor, representing steadfast love and clear-eyed criticism of racism. The approach is intuitive, she says; it evolves. “It may not be clever,” she smiles, “but it’s genuine.”
As a 12-year-old, she made ornate dolls, each with an individual story. Remarkably, she didn’t take sculpture in art school. She received an MFA degree from Otis College of Art and Design and began to carve her first pieces during the last six months there. She had her first exhibition one year after graduation. She says her political pieces are representative of the current climate, but above all other concerns, she stays true to her internal voice and intuition
“Art is flexible,” she said. “A finish that’s too sophisticated detracts from the immediacy of the work. When it’s said, it’s said.”
Alison is pleased to be one of the sculptors exhibiting in the Plaza.
“It is especially wonderful to have my works shown in Sonoma,” she said. “When I was young, my sisters and I would come to the area for the summer while my mother worked designing costumes for local theaters, and I’ve always had a great fondness for the beautiful countryside. The Sonoma Plaza has a lush and tranquil feel, the perfect setting for my two sculptures.”
Jackie Lee is an artist living in Sonoma. A supporter of the arts in all its forms, her focus is on showcasing individual artists and events as well as those represented by established galleries.