Deer Vessel , bronze, 19 x 15 x 9.
By Rose Glaser
Traveling the back roads through Wyoming’s Shirley Basin toward Cody, legendary home of Buffalo Bill, each mile takes you deeper into what’s left of the wild West. This desolate, untamed country that echoes of the past is where sculptor Linda Raynolds lives and works. “Wyoming has always been my spiritual home,” she says. “I came here with my folks when I was a year and half old, and it made a very strong impression on me.”
Maybe that’s because her family ties to the West go back several generations to a distant uncle, Captain Raynolds, who was part of a mapping expedition in Wyoming and Idaho in the late 1850s. Raynolds Peak in Wyoming is named after him.
But Raynolds’ career hasn’t always been tied to the West. Born in Japan, Raynolds spent her early years living in foreign lands such as France and El Salvador, where her father was an economist in the U.S. foreign service. “Traveling was in my blood,” she explains. “If I spent more than a year in one place, it was unusual. It became a way of life, a habit. I moved around. I went to several different colleges, and after I graduated I moved around some more. That’s the way I grew up.”
Puma , bronze, 121⁄2 x 29 x 12.
Living among so many different cultures led Raynolds to develop an early interest in anthropology, in which she holds an undergraduate degree from the University of New Hampshire. “The other kids in my schools were always considered ‘normal’ while I was the strange one,” she says. “I guess I was born with an anthropological perspective.”
Raynolds recalls that her earliest artistic influences were her parents’ diverse tastes. “My dad has always been drawn to primitive tribal and folk art. But while he prefers somewhat strange objects, my mother tends to like more refined things. We had some elegant pieces in the house and some really barbaric ones. I grew up around both.”
It was Raynolds’ grandmother who encouraged her to pursue art after college. Raynolds attended the Art Students League in New York City and studied with several teachers before she found sculptor Sidney Simon, a man she says was “intimidating by the sheer power of his presence. He had sort of a bear-like gruffness.” She later realized that his forthright way of teaching forced her to dig deeper to find her own personal language of expression. As she wrote in a recent letter to Simon’s wife upon his passing, “Copying the model was not enough, and imitating his own work was out of the question. He sought to encourage individuality from each of his students. In the end, he demanded it.”
Simon surely recognized individuality in Linda Raynolds. Never clinging to traditional styles, her work is the culmination of a life spent observing many cultures—their works of art as well as their history and ideas. Her sculptures conjure thoughts of ancient icons and totemic imagery. She searches for the beauty and elegance in animal forms and seeks to convey how the animal spirit relates to a controlled, human environment.
Strangers , hydrocal, 31 x 20 x 7.
The strength of her work lies in its simplicity of form: a swan whose back is carved into a vessel; a horse balancing on the tips of its hooves; two deer entwined as one, graceful and serene. Raynolds’ images seem to flow from an ancient wellspring.
Horses are a primary focus for Raynolds. She dislikes depictions of them as subservient creatures and instead chooses to sculpt their mystic and powerful nature, often exaggerating the forms. She strives to give the viewer a conceptual impression rather than an accurate representation, and in doing so she conveys her emotional ties to her subjects.
Raynolds owns four horses, which she keeps in a pasture near her home in Cody during the winter and on her property in the mountains during the summer. Raynolds and her companion, photographer Elijah Cobb, purchased the remote 160 acres in 1984, almost 10 years before they moved permanently to Wyoming. No matter where they were living, they always traveled back to the solitude of the rugged mountains, where their nearest neighbors are 10 miles away. Raynolds’ horses are a means of transportation across uncertain terrain that even four-wheel-drive vehicles have difficulty negotiating. And in late fall, the horses are essential for helping herd her neighbor’s cattle down to lower pastures.
Always uncomfortable in cities, Raynolds divides her time between her studio in the mountains and Cody. She keeps several pieces of sculpture in various stages of completion in each studio, so she always has something to work on.
Small Horse Vessel , bronze, 14 x 14 x 6.
Raynolds works in stone, clay, and plaster and believes that the material she chooses helps determine an artwork’s final form. “Working in stone, for example, is totally different than working in clay,” she says. “Certain forms are appropriate for one and not the other.”
Raynolds’ favorite material is hydrocal, a plaster substance she discovered while making casts of clay sculptures. “I am the world’s worst mold-maker. Mold-making takes a particular type of mind, and mine just doesn’t seem to work that way,” she explains. She used to spend hours repairing pieces that broke as she freed them from their molds. While repairing them, she realized that plaster could be a versatile medium for sculpting.
Raynolds starts with an armature and builds plaster up around it, much like other artists work in clay. As the plaster hardens, she works backward to refine, contour, and add texture to the piece, similar to the way one carves stone.
As much as Raynolds enjoys working in plaster, she has found it too fragile to transport to art shows. For this reason she bronzes much of her work, although she has some concerns about the process. “I don’t like letting my pieces go into strange hands,” she says. “So many other people are involved in the bronze-casting process that sometimes you lose control of the quality of your image. You give your piece to someone who may not understand what about the piece is important to you. I regain some control by checking the wax myself, and I usually do some of the metal chasing. On many pieces I also apply my own acrylic patinas.”
Raynolds has exhibited her work all over the United States, from the Bennington Center for the Arts in Vermont to the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, WY. Last fall the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody acquired one of her bronzes, and she is pleased to have a piece of her sculpture on view in her home town. And while Raynolds craves the solitude she has found in Wyoming, she also appreciates the importance of sharing her images with viewers. “When someone responds to my work,” she says, “it’s magical—I have communicated with another human being. Sharing my sculpture with others is essential.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Raven Fine Art, Cody, WY
Featured in January 1998