Dan Woodard is a talented sculptor who didn’t start creating art until he reached his 60s. Can you believe it? Doesn’t that give you great hope for your own possibilities? Anyway, I must say that I think you’ll find our chat here about Dan and his work http://danwoodard.com/ not only enlightening, but fun and very relatable. Our chat here reminds me why I interview artists in the first place.
“… Talent and creativity do not necessarily translate into name recognition or high prices. In every market there are people creating beautiful and imaginative works that are both affordable and sized for any home …”
“… Before beginning my first sculpture at the age of 63, I never had an art course of any kind, not even in high school, yet alone college. However, sculpture has always been my favorite visual art form, and I’ve always wanted to try it …”
MICHAEL: Hey Dan, Very cool work. First off, we're living in very mobile times when people are always looking at their handheld devices, even in art galleries. Do you ever feel that your work is now fighting for very short attention spans?
DAN: Hi Michael, Good to hear from you, and I’m pleased to be included in your series of interviews. This is an interesting question - one that I’ve never really thought about. So, thanks, Michael, you’ve got me thinking.
It seems to me that a viewer’s attention to a work of art is not so much dependent on the latest kitten video on YouTube or the distorted photo of your best friend wearing a pig’s nose on Snap Chat, but rather how the particular work speaks to the observer. And I believe that this has always been the case for art. If it strikes an internal chord within the observer it will be attended to, and if it doesn’t strike this chord, it will almost be as if invisible.
I recently had a show of my figurative work in the gallery of a government building here in the Bay Area. I’ll have to admit it was quite disappointing to see people walk by the sculpture as if it weren’t even there. Of course, they were there for business and not to see the work exhibited. However, every so often as a person took a quick glance at one of the sculptures, they would stop in their tracks, put down their paper work, cell phone or whatever and walk over to a particular sculpture. Once attracted by a primal instinct, they would spend time examining the piece and then move on to view, in detail, the other works displayed.
When I asked several people why they suddenly stopped to examine the work more closely, the answer was always along similar lines; it struck an emotional chord within them. Depending on the piece and the idiosyncrasies of the viewer, these emotions ranged from sadness to humor, from calmness to disgust and many stages in between. As an artist, that’s my personal objective - to create an emotional connection to the viewer. And I believe this is still possible in spite of the fast-paced, mobile and eye-candy world we currently inhabit.
Michael, I enjoyed thinking about this question and formulating an answer … I look forward to your next question.
MICHAEL: Great answer Dan. And here it is … What's going on within you while you're sculpting? Is the process emotional for you? Do you put emotion into your work or is it mainly intellectual and/or physical? I'm just wondering whether there's any osmosis involved. Can emotion put into sculpture create an emotional reaction from the viewer?
DAN: I like your questions. They are getting me to think even more about my processes and my general creative approach to sculpture.
I’ll begin with the easiest question to answer. My work is definitely not intellectual. In fact, I feel that the true realm of art is in the emotional context that it can both convey and instill in the viewer. Of course, that is why so much contemporary art leaves me cold. Naturally, being a sculptor, much of the work is physical and as I begin to work on larger and larger pieces, the work becomes even more physical. But that isn’t the focus of the work. The focus is always emotional.
DAN: Even though I’m not necessarily experiencing a deep emotion at the time of creation, the process is, nevertheless, emotional. Let me explain. When approaching a new work or continuing on a piece already begun, I try to make my mind as clear and open as possible - a sort of meditative state, if you will. However, on a subconscious level, there is always much going on (as there is for everyone). I find that this subconscious state of mind somehow finds its way into the completed work. Sometimes this is not readily apparent. In fact, at times while working on a series of pieces, it is only after I’ve completed several that I am able to tease out their meaning and significance for me. When I do understand why I’ve created what I’ve created, it’s as if my inner-self were speaking to me. The process is very therapeutic and informative.
MICHAEL: I bet. I was going into a trance just listening to you. Ha! Ha!
DAN: I’m a strong believer in archetypes and a subconscious link between us all. I feel that, because of this inner commonality, the sculptures also speak to others in a similar manner. What most intrigues me, however, is when someone attributes a meaning and/or an emotion to a piece of which I was not aware. In most cases, I tend to agree with this added meaning and have been able to learn even more about my own self, as well as about this mysterious gathering we call humanity.
Michael, I’m enjoying this process and am impressed by your questions. I’ve thought of writing a blog with the focus on sculptors and the process of creation, but, alas, I’ve never gotten around to it. One suggestion, if I may, it would be nice to see a few examples of each artist’s work at the top of their interview section. This would help to add context and could also provide good examples of what the artist is conveying.
MICHAEL: I understand that Dan, but I’m trying to get people to visit your website by including your site links in our chat. If they look at your work on my website, it’s less likely they’ll visit your site. You know, every single time I look at sculpture, I love it, but I also get frustrated because I always want to bring it home! But the reality is that few people can truly afford large sculptural works and they don't have the space for them. Given that, do you think sculpture is more about public spaces and public dialogue?
DAN: Well, I would have to agree with you that most people can’t afford large sculptures nor do they have the space for them. But, you’re talking about large, primarily public sculptures. In fact, unless a sculptor has a commission for a substantial sized work or has a well-known and salable name, sculptors cannot afford to make such pieces either. The reality is many sculptural materials and processes can be quite expensive. Large pieces also generally require the expertise and involvement of several people from varying disciplines.
However, most sculptors, like myself, also work on smaller and more affordable scales. One thing I’ve learned from forming social media friendships with literally hundreds of sculptors from around the world is that talent and creativity do not necessarily translate into name recognition or high prices. In every market there are people creating beautiful and imaginative works that are both affordable and sized for any home.
MICHAEL: That’s certainly good news for budding art collectors.
DAN: When I first began sculpting (after retiring from a career as a film writer and director), I wanted to find a material that would be capable of withstanding an outdoor environment yet also be inexpensive. I turned to the seemingly most mundane material imaginable, cement. After much experimenting, I discovered unique ways of handling this material that allowed me to sculpt and polish it to achieve a look similar to stone and even bronze. Other sculptors are just as ingenious in using affordable materials to create museum worthy work.
So, the more concise answer to your question is that on a daily basis, it’s true that most sculptures people see are large, impressive public works. However, there is certainly enough quality work out there that is affordable and of a more modest scale.
MICHAEL: Wait, are you saying you just “picked up” sculpture in retirement? Had you not gone to art school earlier in life? Did you just wake up one morning with an interest in sculpture? How did that work? This is making me think about the day I heard that George W. Bush had become an artist ... not that I'm comparing you to him mind you.
DAN: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. In fact, before beginning my first sculpture at the age of 63, I never had an art course of any kind, not even in high school, yet alone college. However, sculpture has always been my favorite visual art form, and I’ve always wanted to try it. Ever since I was a small child, I loved working with my hands. As a younger man, I worked as a stained-glass artisan, potter, cabinet maker and builder. During those years, I lived a sustainable, off-the-grid lifestyle without electricity or running water in a home I built entirely by hand in rural Massachusetts.
Then, at the age of 37, back to Stanford grad school to study film. After graduation, I started my own small production company and worked in the field for the next 25 years. As I began easing into retirement, I had a great desire to experiment with sculpture.
I well remember the first sculpture I made. As I worked, I felt like a small boy again simply playing for the pure joy of it. The complete submersion into the work and the mindlessness I felt at the time remain with me to this day. I am very fortunate in having the time and the retirement income to sustain me in this practice. I create for myself alone. If other people like my work, that’s great. And, if they don’t, that’s fine also. It’s the process of creation that so attracts me.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market and how they function? Do you understand them and feel part of them?
DAN: Let’s get the easy part of the question over with first. No, I do not feel a part of the contemporary art world and art market. Mostly by choice. A favorite quote of mine is one by the playwright Tom Stoppard, “Contemporary art is imagination without skill.” This is not necessarily a condemnation of contemporary art. It merely states that most contemporary artists do not have the skill sets possessed by past artists.
MICHAEL: Hmm. What makes you say that?
DAN: I think a lot of this has to do with the way art is now taught. I have three friends who teach beginning sculpture classes. Two of these friends were taught in a contemporary manner. In their classes, the emphasis is on creating work that doesn’t involve a lot of skill, but relies on some tropes of contemporary art such as: size by itself is impressive or a multitude of identical forms is impressive. This results in the creation of art that almost immediately looks like “art” but doesn’t necessarily involve a great amount of skill.
MICHAEL: An illusion.
DAN: The third friend is closer to my age and came from a traditional sculpture background. In her classes, she teaches the techniques used to manipulate a variety of sculptural materials and doesn’t give direction as to what should be created. The art her students create doesn’t often look like “art” until they are quite a ways into the process.
Of course, all three teachers talk about form, the principles of 3D design and the theory of art in general. But the work produced in the classroom varies widely. The “contemporary” approach seems to lead to art that is formulaic and relies on the story or explanation behind the work.
It seems that the “idea” of the art is paramount to the art itself. The more traditional approach seems to produce art that is more individual and evokes an emotion or feeling within the viewer that requires no explanation. Personally, I prefer the latter, and this is what I want to achieve in my own work. Of course, I realize I’m in the minority here and most people would think I’m behind the times or out of the loop. So be it.
MICHAEL: What do you think it'll take to help more people understand that art isn't only for the rich? Or is it?
DAN: I’ll answer the second part of the question first. No, I don’t think art is only for the rich. Now, of course, art by well-known artists can command a ridiculously high price so, naturally, these art works would only be for the well-heeled (and to a large extent those wanting to make an investment rather than having art they love). However, there is an amazing amount of affordable art out there.
As any artist knows, the price of a work of art is not indicative of its artistic merit. I’m friends with many little-known or unknown sculptors on Facebook who create some amazing work that sells for a mere pittance of what one might find in a gallery. In fact, if people enjoy art and like having it in their home, affordable art is everywhere: small galleries, artist cooperatives, art fairs, open studios, etc. Even people whose every penny goes for the necessities can have an art collection. I’ve seen some incredible work by children hanging on people’s refrigerators. Why not put them on the walls instead? Art and the desire to create is a large part of who we are as humans. Art is ubiquitous.
The real question, as you put it, is what will it take to help people understand this? Hmm, that’s a question for which I don’t have a solid answer. We all read about works by Picasso, Rodin, Koons and others that go for millions of dollars at auction. And, for this alone, I’m sure many lay people would think that art is simply not affordable.
I’ve read that only about 10% of people actually “get” art. For these people, I would imagine they already realize that not all art is in this stratospheric price range and have already begun a collection. So, I’d guess that for these people the question is moot, and for the others, the question probably doesn’t apply. I’m not basing this on any knowledge or information I’ve picked up. Just on my gut instinct. So, please take it with a large grain of salt.
MICHAEL: Finally Dan, How do you know when you've completed a new work of art? Does a voice inside of you say, "Stop!"? What feeling or thought do you get that tells you that it's "done"?
DAN: I had to smile to myself at your question. I’m quickly discovering that I love beginning new works and working on them until I get to a point when I can visualize the piece. Then I want to move on and start on another idea that has been percolating within me. As a result, at any one time, I have between 15 to 20 “works in progress.” And that’s not to mention the dozens of ideas that I’ve sketched out or are still simmering in my mind. I find it hard to comprehend when people say they are stuck for ideas. I only wish I didn’t have so many that I know I’ll never be able to complete them all.
Generally, I move away from one of these “works in progress” when I feel that all of the creative exploration has been completed - when I’ve worked out all of the problems and the work is satisfying to me. All that’s left is to put on the finishing touches.
Of course, for some works, having them sit untouched for a length of time gives me a new perspective once I go back to them. Sometimes I’ll have an answer for a creative problem that was never solved, other times I’ll have a better and more satisfying solution to an issue that I thought was resolved. In either case, letting a piece sit for a length of time only helps the process.
MICHAEL: I totally understand. As a writer, I often do the same thing.
DAN: Right now, I’ve got about 16 works that are not completed, and I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll complete two “works in progress” before beginning a new piece. As I’m writing this, I’ve come to the realization that for me, a work is often “done” before it’s completed. When I say “done,” I mean that I can look at the incomplete piece and feel good about it, I’ve reached a point of personal creative satisfaction. From this point on, working on the piece is still enjoyable, but not as much as when the intense creative juices were flowing.
To “complete” the piece may still involve some problem solving and creativity, but for the most part, the issues involved—what type of finish will the piece receive, how shall I mount it, etc.—are already decided. What remains is only to execute the decisions.
Well, I’ve just realized that I’ve described my process more than answering your question. When is a new work of art done? Certainly it is not an intellectual approach for me.
I’ve not been to art school, so I don’t analyze a piece in terms of balance, form, negative space, mass, volume and all of the other words used to describe sculpture. Rather the piece just has to feel “right” to me. I’m sure that all of the critical aspects come into play in my subconscious mind, but I’m not thinking about them.
I have to be able to look at the piece from all angles and sides and find that it is pleasing to me. There’s nothing that feels out of place or inappropriate. It just feels “right.” It “works.” Not a very edifying answer I realize, but that’s the reality for me.
MICHAEL: Thanks Dan. I understand completely. This has been a fantastic chat … quite enlightening.
DAN: Michael, it’s been great having this conversation with you. I’ve certainly been forced to think about my art and my approach to it in ways that I haven’t considered before. As a result, I’ve gained some insights into my approach to sculpture and creativity.
Check out Dan Woodard at http://danwoodard.com/.