Living with sculpture in your own home can be a whole new experience! Like bringing home a dog or a cat, you and the sculpture begin to interrelate. Sculpture ‘speaks’ to us in the quiet language of shape. Like music, it affects us most deeply when we are alone in relaxed or reflective mood. One need not sit down to deliberately study a sculpture. You have already done that while making a choice. Now in your own home, it is the passing glance, the looking up from reading, or when absorbed in music – that you quite suddenly see the sculpture in a way you hadn’t before. It really is exciting, this discovery, especially when you’ve had the piece around for some time.

While no one can make such insights happen, there are things one can do to encourage the revelation. For one thing you can move the sculpture to a new spot, where it receives different light, perhaps near a window where daylight changes hourly. Try altering the height of the piece; place it higher or lower, not forgetting floor level. Experiment. Sharpen your awareness and pleasure. See how your sculpture relates to different surroundings; for example, how does it look against a brick or stone fireplace, near some leafy plant, or mirrored in bronze tinted glass, either underneath or behind ? Some pieces almost change their identity when placed outdoors on lawn or patio. A turntable is a must for maximum enjoyment, fingertip rotating that reveals multiple shapes. And, of course, move it around the house from room to room.

These are some suggestions for first purchasers. They themselves will make more discoveries and in the process will acquire a life-long taste for the art of shape.

Copyright. Can only be reproduced with permission of the Elizabeth Fraser Williamson Estate for non-commercial teaching purposes and with acknowledgement to the author’s estate.

Some Thoughts on Sculpture

from lecture by Elizabeth Fraser Williamson

        Study GOOD sculpture every chance you get. Take books from libraries with photographs of great sculptures, past and present. Don’t neglect indigenous and ancient work – Egyptian, South Asian, Chinese, African, Mayan, Inuit, North American First Nations.

KEEP LOOKING. ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS. Why do I like this? This question is more important, at first than the negative – Why DON’T I like it? The latter comes later when you begin to learn the language of shapes and so develop discrimination.

Keep searching for shapes that evoke a response in you. As time goes on and your work improves, your sense of seeing, feeling and thinking in the round will expand.

Consciously develop your memory. Try holding a simple shape in mind. Take it home with you. Take it to bed with you. Keep it in your mind as you walk to wok. Drop it, then recall it later.

Attend exhibitions. Take your time. Go alone, if possible. Keep relaxed. Let your visual and tactile senses roam free. When you come across a work that holds your attention, stirs your emotions – STOP. Study it, slowly from all sides, watching the change of form – outline as you move. After circulating it, saunter away. If there is a seat across the room, sit and look at it from a distance. Don’t strive and strain to see details or small shapes. At a distance it will have a new look – the overall bulk or form. Is it a powerful one? A simple one? One that seems natural to the material? Squint. This will further simplify the shape so that only the entire shape and the strongest planes stand out. Study the balance of these forms. Keep going back to the overall shape – the whole bulk. This is what counts.

If the gallery is uncrowded (and you yourself are uninhibited!) bend over and look at the sculpture from a lower level. Kneel, sit or even lie on the floor. Let your eyes wander over it, lazily, much as you used to lie on the grass, as a kid, and watch clouds. Of course, this is where outdoor sculpture is great. One can stretch out on the grass and soak up the large mass – without people thinking you are peculiar. Avoid looking at poor sculpture. Commercial mass produced stuff, as well as mediocre amateur or professional work that could be technically good but in content is trite, obvious or superficial. One should have something to say and be able to express it honestly and with originality. It usually takes a long acquaintance with first-rate work before you can safely look at lesser work – and know why one is good and the other second rate.

If you are not allowed to touch a sculpture and it is a real “feely” – then imagine how it would feel if your hands went SLOWLY and LIGHTLY over it. You’ll be surprised how good you get at mental feeling. Working in clay will help you develop this neglected sense of touch. I find some of my “feeling” is done with the tongue. I wonder if I can explain that. By accident, I discovered certain vowel sounds create a pleasurable sensation of roundness and air in the mouth. The tongue enjoys this. In much the same way the tongue will of itself, feel the smooth shapes that the eyes behold. Incidentally, I’ve noticed children 3 and 4 years of age, not only pat sculpture but, if on the same level, they’ll test it with their cheeks, as well as embracing it with their arms. They’ll even, unconsciously bump it! How “up-tight” we adults are and how far we’ve been educated away from this natural instinct to feel something we like with our whole body.

Day to day living can be a means of storing things for future self expression. Train your eyes to see shapes all around you. See them purely as shapes – totally unrelated to their function. Man-made objects if truly functional are basically good sculpture-forms. For example – a porcelain wash basin. Rising from the straight or curved line of the pipe, it blossoms out like a flower on top of its stem. Round, oval, square whatever the design, the porcelain has smooth pure planes, pleasurable to hands and eyes alike. Sculpture!

Notice trees. The way trunks rise up with a surge of force and vitality. Note the way in which branches grow out of the trunk. Store these shapes in the file of your mind. See how similar they are to human arms growing out from the body. A rich swelling of a tree branch can be very much like the round shape of a shoulder and the underpart of a branch like an armpit. Look at the bark on trees. A wealth if texture and design, each shape different.

Watch people singly and in groups. When someone is approaching, take in the total shape, before he/she comes close enough to be distracted by details. (A receding figure can be better since details get “Lost” sooner.)

Look at groups of people. Observe how one figure relates to another. Note carefully the shape of SPACE between the figures.

In sculpture, different shapes, relating to each other, as well as the spaces between-form a dialogue. Form speaks to form.

Everywhere are forms – the raw material from which sculpture could grow. But the heart, the vital part of sculpture comes from the interior, rather than exterior sources. It might start with organic, human or man-made objects, but it must be re-interpreted in the mind and emotions of the sculptor. Its source is the sculptor’s life-philosophy, her/his emotions combined with intellect. Emotion is restrained, disciplined, transformed into the medium of shape. When this happens (and we take it for granted a certain amount of technical skill) the sculptor appears to have an inner f force, a life that seems to be pushing outwards. It is a quality hard to define but when it is present, the work has the stamp of integrity and possibly greatness. This quality makes the difference between great art and good art. To go further down the sliding scale – there can be good but dull art. By this I mean, work technically excellent but the idea or content is superficial or obvious – the sort of work that makes its full statement to the beholder – and leaves nothing for the viewer to complete him/herself. It lacks mystery, the understatement, the economy of shape, the unexpected. It doesn’t need interpretation; it is obvious, therefore trite. However, such work IF GOOD IN EXECUTION can be admired and much technical knowledge can be gained by the student. It is not to be despised or dismissed. And no sculptor can always produce Art with a capital A.

Be a little wary of a work that causes tremendous impact on first sight. If you are thinking of buying it, or just wishing to add it to your mental riches – see it as often as possible. It may well be that eventually its initial impact will pall. See if you can figure out why. Sharpen your powers of discrimination. It will improve your own work tremendously. Like any art, there is no end to the learning or development process.

Copyright. Can only be reproduced with permission of the Elizabeth Fraser Williamson Estate for non-commercial teaching purposes and with acknowledgement to the author’s estate.