Glenna Goodacre | Rising to the Challenge

By Norman Kolpas

You might be shocked to learn that Glenna Goodacre received a mere $5,000 for designing what is arguably the most widely “collected” piece of sculpture in American history. Yet the Santa Fe-based artist expresses only good feelings about the bas-relief of a young Shoshone Indian woman carrying her peacefully slumbering baby on her back.


Tug O’ War, bronze, 49 x 68 x27.

After all, how many artists can claim that millions of copies of their work travel the world every day in people’s pockets or are safely tucked away bank vaults or collectors’ albums? And what does it matter if anyone who wants to can pick up a copy of her creation for just a buck? “We’d all like to do something that truly means something emotionally to people,” Goodacre explained to a reporter from People magazine in 1999 as her highly acclaimed depiction of Sacagawea, interpreter for explorers Lewis and Clark, was about to debut on the obverse side of the U.S. dollar coin.

Now on the eve of a major retrospective exhibition of her work, Goodacre takes immense satisfaction in the ability her works have shown time and again to touch people on aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional levels. From mass-circulation coins to immense public monuments, the artist possesses a rare talent for bringing the human figure to vibrant life.

“I’ve always liked portraying people, ever since I started tracing comic books in grade school,” laughs the native of Lubbock, TX, speaking in her spacious studio in the foothills of Santa Fe, which she has called home for more than a quarter century. “I never did do horses or other animals. That just wasn’t my thing.”

Art, however, was her thing, and her West Texas upbringing instilled in her a down-to-earth, always ambitious, optimistic, downright all-American outlook towards life. Local boy Buddy Holly played music at the assemblies she attended at Monterey High School, where a painting she created adorns the halls, and young Glenna’s photo still hangs in the Hi-De-Ho Drive-In.

River Woman, bronze, 46 x 30.

From that idyllic background, she went on to study fine art at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Always drawn to realism, she concentrated on oil painting at the time. Her initial attraction to that medium was reinforced by the fact that she received a D in sculpture after a culture-clash with her Brooklyn-born professor. “His discouragement was so profound,” Goodacre recalled in a commencement address she delivered at her hometown’s Texas Tech University back in 1996, that “I never considered sculpting for 10 years.”

Instead, back in Lubbock, she produced portraits while raising her two children, both now grown with children of their own—Tim, a real estate executive, and Jill, an actress and former Victoria’s Secret model who is married to actor and singer Harry Connick Jr.

Her dedication to working in two dimensions finally changed one day in 1969 when Goodacre’s friend Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe-based gallery and foundry owner, handed her a lump of wax and urged her to try sculpting it. The result, a 6-inch-tall figure of her daughter, instantly pleased her. “I just felt more comfortable with the medium,” she recalls, “and I didn’t have to worry about flesh tones anymore. I started using gray or brown clay to come up with what I wanted to say, and from the beginning it worked well for me.”

It worked exceedingly well for art lovers, too. Galleries and collectors were drawn to a quality in Goodacre’s bronzes that makes them seem vibrantly alive, as if in the next instant they’re likely to draw a breath or turn and speak to the viewer.

Some observers may mistakenly attribute the lifelike nature of Goodacre’s works to the notion that her sculptural style is faithfully realistic. But she puts such misperceptions to rest by describing herself as a “clay masher,” a term that is not so much humble (though there’s an element of that in her choice of words) as it is accurately descriptive of her approach to rendering details.

“Human flesh is so soft,” she explains, “that if it’s too tight and smooth on a sculpture, it looks fake. When I used to teach sculpting, I would tell my students to squint their eyes to blur the edges”—an approach that helps one see energy and motion. By way of example, she singles out her very popular public art piece PUDDLE JUMPERS, depicting six happy children in mid-leap. It debuted in 1989 at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama and is now also enjoyed by the citizens of such locations as San Francisco and Kirkland, WA. “The children all have a vivacity that wouldn’t be there if they were hard-edged,” she says.

That particular sculpture points up another element in Goodacre’s approach to art: She actively seeks out challenges in her work. And she has never failed to rise to them. With PUDDLE JUMPERS, for example, she faced the difficult task of making very heavy, static bronze figures seem believably airborne, a feat achieved through a combination of careful structural composition and sheer artistry.

Another kind of challenge she has welcomed is that of capturing the three-dimensional likenesses of well-known public figures, which always runs the risk of falling short of public or private expectations. Through a painstaking process that combines extensive research with roping in friends and models who resemble the subjects, Goodacre has succeeded in capturing more than 40 such life-size or larger-than-life likenesses, including Texans Dwight D. Eisenhower, Stephen F. Austin, Scott Joplin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Barbara Jordan for Sea World in San Antonio. Her piece AFTER THE RIDE, the iconic image of Ronald Reagan in cowboy boots and holding a Stetson, stands at the entrance to his presidential library in Simi Valley, CA.

Not that the process always runs smoothly for public commissions, which Goodacre often thinks of as “sculpting by committee.” She remembers, for example, the 8-foot-tall statue of a revered general she did for the Air Force Academy. “All these generals came to visit my studio,” she says. But rather than commenting on how lifelike the subject appeared, “they were most concerned with the shine on his shoes, the crease on his pant legs, and whether the oak leaf insignia were exactly right.”

Vietnam Women’s Memorial

While Goodacre has managed to satisfy such demanding critics, she’s more interested in getting the spirit of her works exactly right. For signs of her success in that realm, one need look no further than her two best-known public monuments. Her VIETNAM WOMEN’S MEMORIAL was dedicated on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1993. It pays tribute to the women who served in the Vietnam War as it emotionally depicts three females valiantly struggling to save the life of a fallen soldier. Her IRISH MEMORIAL, installed in 2003 at Penn’s Landing on the Philadelphia waterfront, features 35 life-size figures representing those who perished in and those who survived the Great Hunger in Ireland a century and a half ago. “The sculpture needed to be that big to capture the sheer magnitude of the event,” Goodacre says.

Though such sculptures have received overwhelming acclaim, Goodacre measures her success not through reviews but through the human interactions her public works engender. “If people look at it, walk away, and then turn back to look at it again,” she says, “that’s something an abstract stack of red noodles in front of an office building doesn’t accomplish. Success is when somebody wants to see your work again and again, and when Aunt Nellie comes to town, they want to take her to see this sculpture, too.”

Aunt Nellie and the whole family will want to head to Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe this month, where Goodacre’s retrospective opens on September 26. Featuring more than 100 pieces covering the entire 40 years of her illustrious sculpting career, and coinciding with the publication of a magnum-opus book entitled simply Glenna Goodacre Sculpture, the show provides an incomparable opportunity to survey her works. “Glenna Goodacre has touched a lot of people’s lives with her art,” Matteucci observes, “and this exhibition will introduce our next generation of collectors to the importance and wide variety of her work.”

The show also offers rare glimpses of little-seen pieces. “People might be familiar with some of my larger works,” Goodacre adds, “but the show includes smaller pieces they might not know as well, along with my maquettes and artist’s proofs.”

On the eve of this grand celebration of her career, Goodacre continues on as a dedicated working artist seven decades after her birth. “I’m always looking at people and thinking of new ideas to sculpt,” she says. “It’s just a great, great feeling to be able to sculpt and grab people’s attention with my work.”

Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Knox Galleries, Denver and Beaver Creek, CO; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; Galleria Silecchia, Sarasota, FL; Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, CT, and Nantucket, MA;
Solo retrospective, Nedra Matteucci Galleries, September 26-October 17.
Glenna Goodacre Sculpture, Encantado Press, Santa Fe, NM,,
40 pages, $85 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-615-29632-6), September 2009

Featured in September 2009

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