24 January 2011
Interview with Andrew DeVries, sculptor
This is the fortieth interview in the “Where are we now?” series and consists of selections from my conversation with sculptor Andrew DeVries. DeVries works in my hometown: Lenox, Massachusetts. As you can see, we spoke back in the fall, so the exhibit in Lenox has closed by now. However, I encourage you to visit his gallery and/or studio if you are ever in the Berkshires, and to take a look at the images, information, etc. available on his website. Here are several photos of Andrew’s work by photographer Jane Feldman, whose image I am using below. Other images are from Andrew’s own website. Here is an article about Andrew’s work
I’m fascinated, in this interview, by the triple identity of the artist as visionary, craftsman, and businessman—a theme that has been emerging through this series.
Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Andrew DeVries, sculptor
on the phone
7 September 2010
IA: First of all, I wanted to talk about some recent work that you have done. Most interesting to me is the major change that Lenox has undergone (I grew up there; that’s my hometown). When I go home to visit now, I hardly recognize it. There have been a lot of amazing renovations done to the streets, the storefronts, the gardens…. But most amazing of all, probably, is the installation of twenty-five of your large bronze sculptures in public places. And then there is a specially-designed walk that tourists can take, following a brochure, is that right?
ADV: Yes. They are at the Chamber of Commerce, at a few businesses, and of course at my gallery. This is a temporary exhibit; this show will be over November 1st.
IA: I saw from the list that a lot of these are pieces that are owned by private collectors or public places?
ADV: Some of the works have been sold, from this exhibition, but many of the works were originally commissioned by private collectors. “This Man Who Flies” was commissioned by a collector from Canada, “Innocence” was commissioned by a man in Florida, and “ Pleiades” (the skirted Pleiades) was commissioned by another gentleman in Florida. So, anyway, most of my work, when it’s a commission, it becomes larger. Not all: but most of it is kind of smaller work, like there was a smaller “This Man Who Flies,” and a person sees that and wants to have it larger. Now, “The Madonna” was a specific commission for a church in Portland, Connecticut. The first one went there. When someone commissions something, they get number one, but then I am allowed to cast the rest of the edition and sell them. That’s what my contract states. I really don’t make enough off of the first one. It’s really the next in the edition that I start to make money from, because it really just takes so much time and so many materials to make a bronze sculpture.
Some of the pieces in the show are early works: “The Vow” and “The Messenger” are the earliest pieces in the exhibition. They date back to my time in Paris; that would have been 1984-1985. The show has a number of different examples of my work. I have a large series of dancers. The reason for that is because I started my career in a ballet studio drawing dancers thirty-two years ago. There are other works like “The Chariot,” “Femme Espagne”; they are what I call the Abstract Symbolic works; taking symbols that are important to us as a society and merging them with a figure or parts of a figure. Really the idea of the exhibit was to show the broad range and scope of my work and to let people know a little about it.
The other idea of the sculpture walk, the renovation of sidewalks, the addition of lighting, and all that was to help people walk around town and enjoy Lenox. They will see: here’s a sculpture, and here’s a business, and it sort of marks it. Here’s Church Street Café; here’s B. Mango and Bird…. I think that’s very important as well, that it’s not just about “Andrew DeVries and his works.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Berkshire Creative, because you don’t live here anymore, but it’s an organization that was started up to bring all different types of businesses together, starting with artists, designers, and creative types and then merging them with technology and different businesses. It’s been very inspirational to me thinking as an artist and also as an arts businessman: how can my work help bring people and have them enjoy Lenox. It’s got to be more than just one person. That’s also the big thing that people don’t understand when they buy a work of art: Yes, they’re buying it for themselves to enjoy, and to give inspiration to their lives, and they pay me, and that money they pay me allows me to do more works, but it also allows me to make a donation to Jacob’s Pillow for a dancer who is getting started, or allows me to donate a piece to Ventfort Hall. People really need to start understanding that we’re all connected. It’s not just about me vs. you: it’s not about saying “I’m the rich collector, I’ve got money; you’re the artist, now give me this for that.” It really is much more than that. I think that’s one of the things that Berkshire Creative is about; obviously it’s about business and getting fresh ideas, but it’s also the idea that we’re all connected.
IA: Whose idea was the walk in Lenox? Was it yours, or the town’s, or Berkshire Creative’s?
ADV: It was mine. It was mine, because it marks my thirty-year career mark. It’s the anniversary of my thirty years, and it’s been twenty years since I’ve been showing in Lenox. I talked to Ralph Petillo, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. He was very enthusiastic, and he’s been extremely helpful. Then I wrote a letter to the selectpeople and met with them, and they were all very excited about it, but of course they wanted to see a letter of liability insurance so that the town wouldn’t be responsible in case anything did happen (that’s part of what the business carries anyway). They also wanted to get some rough idea of where the pieces would be placed, so Ralph and I both walked the town and said here, there, here, there. It pretty much goes around the whole historical block.
It did also encourage others: Stanley Marcus is a sculptor, and he shows at the Wit Gallery. They asked him to put some of his pieces at Lilac Park, and that was great. I’m hoping that other people will be encouraged to do this and it can become something long-term. I have to be honest with you, Sorina, not everyone loves my works. Some of my figurative works are nudes. But for the most part we have gotten rave reviews about the work outside and how it livens up the town. People compare it to Paris.
IA: That’s wonderful! Are you pleased with how it all came out, with how the pieces are positioned in relation to trees and buildings and light, watching the light change on them?
ADV: There is a limited number of places to put things. The sidewalks have been enlarged, so we were able to use the sidewalks on Church Street. They’re going to start—I think today—the rest of the sidewalks. They have created spaces, as you’re aware, on the corner of Housatonic and Church Street, where there’s a bench now, and they have a committee that does flowers. Also up on the corner of Church and Walker they’ve created the same thing: benches, flowers. It’s been very exciting and it is more people-friendly. Lenox is a small town. It’s a beautiful, quaint, New England village. Part of the reason for these renovations is not just to make it more pleasant for people: there is major work they’ve had to do with the water mains. I’m on the receiving end where I can say, Geez, look how beautiful if is: Ralph, what do you think about this idea?
IA: In describing the pieces in the walk, you listed a lot of the pieces that cover your range and a lot of the different topics you’ve covered. You have done a lot of work that responds to other arts: you mentioned dancers; you depict a lot of dancers. You’ve done a lot that have to do with musical styles: I noticed Etudes and nocturnes. You have a least one that’s a response to a particular violinist, Kathryn Andersen. Are you very involved in other arts communities as well, observing them and finding out how to bring them into your work?
ADV: Mostly dance. Dance obviously covers music. The association with Kathryn Andersen came about because I did a benefit for The Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield. Joey Silverstein, a former first violist of The Boston Symphony Orchestra, was helping out the Berkshire Music School. So I did some drawings. I had hired Kathryn Andersen when she was younger to do performances at Ventfort Hall. So I did some pastel drawings, which a friend of mine framed for nothing, and they were sold to raise money for the music school.
The sculpture came about because of the drawings I did of Kathryn. Drawings are easy. I love to draw, and pastels sell very well in the gallery. These were mostly of young musicians. It was just a way to help other organizations. I donated a sculpture last year to Jacob’s Pillow; I donated a couple of pieces to Berkshire Theater Festival. You have to be part of your community. Sometimes it gets to be a little much, because I don’t think they realize that when I donate a five-thousand-dollar sculpture, that that’s really money that I don’t earn. Because these things sell. This is not a hobby. I’ve been a professional sculptor for thirty years. They sell. The unfortunate part is that our Congress has never passed a law to allow me to take their market value off on my taxes. I can only take the material cost. I do all the work myself, so the actual material cost includes the bronze material and the marble base. Well, that’s nothing compared to what the fair market value is.
One of the jobs of an artist is to educate. It’s not just about “you make this thing and you sell this thing.” At least I don’t see it that way. It’s a matter of education. I’m constantly educating organizations that I’m willing to donate a piece to you; it’s a benefit for me in a way because it gets me some advertising and gets my name out in the community, but really it’s real money out of my pocket. You do it because you care enough to do it. Whether it’s Tanglewood, or Berkshire Theater Festival, or Jacob’s Pillow (and there are many, many arts organizations here in the Berkshires); they are what make the Berkshires so special.
IA: They are what make me miss it.
ADV: You can’t think of a better place to be, especially in the summer, if you’re looking for cultural things. That’s why everyone comes here. That’s how I have my works all over the world. Patricia, my wife, who helps in the gallery, has sold pieces that went to Santiago, Chile; Germany; Italy; France…. My works is in sixteen or seventeen countries, because of that kind of connection.
IA: And these are mostly people who are in town for the other arts and come into your gallery?
ADV: Yes, mostly. Not all. The Gaiety School of Acting commission had nothing to do with coming into the Gallery. That was through the connection of a friend who is a director of The Abbey Theatre, Vincent Dowling; he knew Patrick Sutton, who was looking for someone to sculpt an award. Now, the town of Lanesboro, Massachusetts, has been twinned with the town of Lanesboro, Ireland, which is in county Roscommon. So the pieces there have that Berkshire connection. The one in Germany at The Hamburg Ballet center was a commission of Heather Jurgensen who was a principal there. That came about because someone was here and walked in—that was when I was at the Chesterwood museum.
For many years, from between 1996 and 2003 I was artist-in-residence at Chesterwood. I would give casting demonstrations; I would bring in other sculptors or other people. My friend Thayer Tolles, curator of sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, came up and gave a lecture. David Finn, a photographer who has seventy-five books on sculpture, came and talked about his view of sculpture.
That’s one of the things about being based in a place like the Berkshires: it attracts that worldwide view. The National Geographic voted the Berkshires number seven on the list of top ten places to visit--in the world! It was pretty amazing.
IA: Let’s shift a little bit now and talk more technically. I see that just a few weeks ago you gave a bronze-casting demonstration. You do these fairly regularly?
ADV: Not as regularly as I used to, but I always do an open studio in August, and the Clark Art Institute has asked me to do one in October, at their Stone Hill Center.
IA: Is it possible to give us kind of a verbal demonstration now, to walk us through the ancient process of bronze casting that you use?
Note: you can follow the process with images and explanations on Andrew’s website, here.
ADV: Yes, I can. It’s not the same as seeing it, but I can. I’ll try to be brief, but….
I see the work done, finished, in my head. It’s just like as if I was looking at you. That happened many years ago. The trigger-point was at a ballet studio and I had started to sculpt. My friend Brian was doing grand-jété exercises and he hit the wall. I saw him go through the wall—in my head. That created the piece called “The Other Side of Eden,” of which the large version is in the exhibition in Lenox. So I see the work done.
I will then do a quick sketch. I have thousands of them: thousands of could-be sculptures. When I decide which one I’m going to do next, the first thing I have to do is build an armature. An armature is a steel structure—or it could be a wood structure—that is going to hold the modeling medium. The real difference between sculpture and, say, a painting, is that we are fighting gravity. This is really in the three-dimensional world. So just as you have bones and muscles that hold you upright, you have to have something that’s going to hold upright that modeling medium. As you know, there’s a lot of my work with en pointe or flying off to one angle, so the integrity or the strength of that armature is critical in the beginning point.
If I’m going to use a model, I usually will have measurements of things like where the hip structure is, the knee structure, shoulders, arms…. And then we’ll bring in a model for anatomical drawings. I don’t work from photographs; I work from drawings when the model’s not there.
So I do drawings, and then after that I will actually begin to sculpt the piece. My process is modeling. When you think about sculpture, there’s bronze, which is usually a modeling piece, and then there’s stone, which is a subtractive piece. One’s additional, one’s subtractive. I will put in a hip structure, rib-cage structure, skull structure, usually, and then begin putting in the “muscles.” If I’m doing a figurative piece and it’s going to have a skirt, I will normally put in all the figure and then apply the skirt afterwards. So that’s the actual sculpting part of it, and then you begin the process.
Most sculptors don’t cast their own work: they send it out to a foundry. Well, I’ve been casting my work for thirty years, I built my own foundry with my dad, and I built my own equipment. So I take it to the next step. The first step is usually (with a figurative piece) looking at it and saying, OK, how are you going to pour the wax, how are you going to pour the bronze? Normally what will happen is you will cut that piece up. You will take off arms, sometimes upper and lower torso (it depends on the design of the piece). You will make separate rubber molds on all those sections. The rubber is put on; there are different kinds of molds, but basically you have to think that there’s going to be a dividing line so that you can open it up. The rubber will be painted on, and then it will have a back-up: something that will hold the rubber in shape, because the rubber is flexible. We use rubber because it is flexible and it will get out from undercuts, and it also picks up incredible detail. If you have a thumbprint in the clay, it picks that up. So you open your mold up, you remove your original: your original is pretty much shot. It’s pretty much wasted. That rubber mold becomes the most important thing.
Now, anything of any significant size is going to be cast hollow. There are three reasons for that. One is the cost of the bronze, because bronze is very expensive; one is the weight of the bronze, because bronze is very heavy. The third reason, which is the most important, is that bronze has a two percent expansion factor as it is heated up and brought to the temperature of a pouring metal, and then it has a two percent contraction. If you have something over an inch thick, it will shrink in on itself and you will lose the surface detail—and then there’s no reason to cast it. So just about anything over three-quarters- to an inch thick is going to be cast hollow.
Next, you reassemble that rubber mold, and you pour hot wax into it. And then you pour the wax out. And then you let the wax cool down a bit, you pour it in, you pour it out: three or four coatings. That’s what you’re doing: you’re coating the inside of the mold. So if you think of the original sculpture as a positive, think of the mold as a negative image. And then you’ve created a positive hollow image, which is the wax cast.
IA: Right, I’ve got it!
ADV: OK, then—I know, this is long!—then you open up the wax casting. You may have a mold line, you may have any imperfections like air entrapment in the wax, and those have to be fixed, then. At least, it’s best to fix then them; it’s about twenty times harder to fix a bronze than it is a wax. So the wax chasing is extremely important, as is the next step, which is gating.
Gates are bars of wax that will attach to your casting, which is the way that the bronze is going to flow into the casting. Basically, you’re creating the plumbing for the piece. And then you also have vents. Vents take air away, normally to the top of the piece.
Then you go on to make the second mold, which is of ceramic shell material. Now, the difference is that the ceramic shell material will take the pressure and the temperature of the bronze, and then also you’re making not only a mold on the outside like the rubber mold, but you’re also making an inner mold at the same time. So you’re making a mold on the thickness of the wax, which is somewhere around 3/16 of an inch. So that takes several days, dipping into a liquid called slurry, five minutes on, five minutes off.
And then stuccoing with different stuccos: three coats of fine, two to three coats of fine, a couple coarse coats and a final safety coat, you are then ready to melt the wax out in a de-wax oven. My de-wax oven consists of a cage on which several of these molds will fit, and it’s on a track that will roll into a very high-temperature oven, somewhere around two thousand degrees. The idea is that you get the wax from a solid to a liquid as fast as possible. The reason for that is because if the expansion of the wax goes too slow, it will actually crack your molds. So that takes about thirty to forty minutes. You can go back in and you can check them. That’s one of the great things about ceramic shell. You can water-test them to find cracks and you can repair those with wire and cement, so I always do. I’m a small foundry; I never take chances. You’ve just put so much work into this by this time.
You’re then ready to melt your metal. Bronze melts at one thousand eight hundred seventy-five degrees; they’ll pour it to about twenty-one hundred degrees. If you have little fine details, small things like fingers, you’ll pour those first. So you have everything lined up in the order that you’re going to pour. You pull the pot, and you got down the line, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. It chills very quickly, obviously, at those temperatures, so you’re only talking about maybe five minutes, the actual pouring of the metal.
And then in about three hours, the metal has cooled enough that you can handle it. The shells, as they are cooling, are cracking, because of the traction of the metal. And you have to knock all that shell off. You knock as much off the inside, and then you begin cutting off the gates, which are now metal; everything that was wax is metal now. And then you will sandblast them clean, then you will rough-chase the gates, so you can begin reassembling, welding the pieces together, and those welds themselves will have to be chased as well, because a good weld goes below the surface, but it also rises above the surface as a ridge. Now that ridge, you can take off with grinders, the beginning of it, but everything else I do by hand, with files, or if it’s a hair-texture, hammer and chisel.
The last step is the patina. And those are the acids that attack the copper and bronze and oxidize them. Depending on what chemical you’re using and how you’ve treated your surface and how much heat you use will determine the actual oxidation, which is the colors of your patinas. And then a final waxing, which makes an atmospheric barrier. The final sculptures are drilled and tapped, and then attached to stone clamps if they’re outside, marble bases if they’re inside.
IA: No, I’m really happy to hear that. What’s the most exciting moment? What’s the climax? Is it those five minutes of quick-pouring the hot bronze?
ADV: The climax? Bronze is always, for me, like entering the center. In our world, you can cheat (not cheat, but sort of fudge) on a lot of things. But if you haven’t done everything right, the bronze doesn’t fudge! If you’ve done your job right to the best of your abilities, it is exciting, because it is hot—but it’s I don’t really feel that it’s as exciting as when people are watching it. It’s just a centering. You could say that is the fireworks of the process. But every step is important. When I take a file to a finger, say, when it’s cast and do that finishing off, I know that you may not see it or somebody else may not see it, but it makes a difference. You know how you can look at things and say, “OMG, that’s really, really beautiful; that’s really, really good”; and you don’t know why. It’s not your profession. But you can feel it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a musician on stage playing a cello or a dancer on stage dancing or a painter or a poet; you know the difference in your soul.
IA: Now, this technique that you’re using, that you’ve just described, is a very ancient method?
ADV: Yeah, it’s about five thousand years old! Now, I say that, but I have to tell you, rubber mold material wasn’t used one hundred years ago. Ceramic shell was developed in the late fifties. Welders didn’t exist a hundred years ago. So some of these are new materials, but the actual process really hasn’t changed. The earliest bronzes were cast solid, which made them very small. If you look at early Greek works, you’ll notice that they’re very thin. The reason is because they realized the shrinkage. And then you start seeing the larger works. If you’ve been to Rome and you’ve been looking at bronzes in one of the museums, you’ll understand that they’re hollow. Usually there’s some sort of flaw that you can see, Geez, that’s not solid. Because they understood that you had to cast things hollow. The real process hasn’t changed and never will change. This is what I tell people in my demonstrations: It’s our first step into our modern civilization. We wouldn’t have all the things that you can look around in your house and see without the Bronze Age. And that’s just the way it is.
IA: Are there many other sculptors working in this bronze casting as well?
ADV: There are a few. Yes, of course there are. There’s gotta be. I don’t know many who don’t send it out to a foundry. What some sculptors will do, because of the cost, is make the rubber molds themselves, work on the wax, have the foundry cast it, and then finish off the bronze. You have to realize that the amount of space and the actual tools and techniques that you need in order to make a bronze are quite tremendous. And I’m a small foundry; I’m not a big foundry. If I’ve worked on a metal a year that’s a lot for me. I’m one person. I can cast a life-size piece by myself (you cast them in sections) but I probably wouldn’t attempt, without gearing up and hiring people, to do much over that. It’s just too much work.
IA: I’m trying to balance in my mind here the extraordinary work level, just the amount of hard technical and physical work that’s going into this, but then you also have your vision. And I mean that in two ways. First, what you described as the flash that you get when you see a piece finished in your mind’s eye, but then also what we could perhaps talk about as theories or approaches: mental or emotional approaches to art. There are two things I love the most about your work. One is the sense of movement in your pieces. And the other is this: I was walking through Lenox with a friend (who shall remain anonymous, because…) we were passing your works, and I started raving about how much I liked them, and she said she did not. And I asked why, and she said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you why I don’t like them, because I don’t want to downplay them, but instead, you tell me why you like them, and try to persuade me.” So that was great. So what I said to her was that your pieces seem to me to be captured moments of ecstasy. That the people in are a frozen image of joy in motion. Is that—well, maybe we can even just talk about one piece in this discussion, and that’s “A Glimpse of the Eternal Soul.” I think that’s the newest piece in the Lenox exhibition? And you said that it “shows a young woman leaning far forward and peering through a thin disc into another world.” Is that you? Are you peering through material into another world?
ADV: No, no. It’s a vision. My dog died last August.
IA: I’m sorry.
ADV: You talk about trigger-points, well, she left me three pieces. That’s one of them. That’s the only one that I’ve completed. It’s just an understanding that the space between our worlds is very thin. What it would be like to be able to actually peer into that other side. Could you withstand it? That’s where that vision came from. And I have to tell you, I see the things, I do the things; I don’t really say this is what this meant, and this is what this meant. Because you will bring into the sculpture, the artwork, the music or anything else, what emotions and feelings you have. I can tell you little bits, and that’s what the titles do, hopefully, that they lead you to think about things. But it’s not up to me to say: this is what this means. I only know what it means to me, and it could be completely different for somebody else.
IA: Maybe we could finish up by looking around at other things that are going on in the arts right now. Are there other artists, either in sculpture or in other fields, whose work you really admire? Or do you see any trends that are happening? We talked about some of the negative ones as far as funding and taxes; are there any artistic trends you see going on that you want to mention?
ADV: Ah, trends. Well, for a long time everything was whimsical. I have a tendency not to pay attention to trends, because they’re not what I’m interested in. You have to understand: I cast my own work, I run my own gallery, I find people who are like-minded who love the work. Believe me, it’s a big thing for someone to buy a work of art. They’re not all wealthy, wealthy people. Some of them do not have a lot of wealth, but they believe in it so much, and they love it so much, it struck a chord in them, that they feel that this is worth something. I myself, I have new work that I want to do, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to the art world out there. There are other sculptors whose work I have admired for a long time, both living and dead, and they do provide inspiration to my soul and spirit, and of course they affect my own artwork to a degree, but really, the visions come and that’s what I do.
I could talk about dance. I love dance. I’m very fortunate that my first two years were at a dance studio, because it’s one of the best educations I could have about what art really means. But there’s just too much out there that is a trend and the art world is a very strange world: Why does this person get this commission? and Why does this person have this exhibition at this museum? —and we all have to eat, we all have to survive. I myself feel blessed that people love my work and buy my work. They become my best friends. Not all of them. But I have two dear, dear friends who own twenty-six pieces. And they’re not super wealthy. They don’t have a big house. They just have one house. But it means that much to them. So that’s where I’m coming from.
IA: Is there one project that you are really looking forward to doing in the future? Do you have one particular idea you’re going to pursue soon?
ADV: I have several. I have two commissions that I’m working on currently. The Pittsburgh Ballet is flying me down, putting me up, in early October, and I’m giving a talk for them and talking about a piece for their studios. That’s very exciting. I don’t do just dancers, though I’m associated with that just as Degas is. Degas didn’t do just dancers. He did many, many things. But I love the dance world. For some people it’s music, for some people it’s poetry. One of the things that Rilke had always said is that you have to absorb from all the art forms. That will make you a great artist.
IA: I like that.