Seated Cheetah [1988], bronze, 21 x 12 x 12, edition 100. sculpture, southwest art.
Seated Cheetah [1988], bronze, 21 x 12 x 12, edition 100.

By Shari R. Carman

Rosetta wasn’t looking for a new career the first time she kneaded a piece of clay into the likeness of a cat. Back then, in the 1970s and ’80s, she was happily ensconced in the graphic arts, creating logos, packaging designs and trademarks for international corporations and working with leading advertising agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area. You might call her current work an accidental career.

The pursuit of sculpting started out as a friendly trade with an artist-neighbor: Rosetta would do a sculpture for him in exchange for a portrait of her. She chose a cheetah because her knowledge of common house cats provided a rudimentary understanding of cat anatomy. Though the portrait was never completed, Rosetta’s Seated Cheetah redirected her life when she entered it in a regional art show and it took top honors, including a hefty cash prize. Instructors and fellow students at the College of Marin, where she had cast the piece, encouraged her to enter the cheetah into the 1985 National Sculpture Society show, New York, NY, where it was accepted and took the Chilmark Award.

In retrospect, Rosetta acknowledges that the timing of her career change couldn’t have been more fortuitous. “The graphic design business and specifically lettering, which I did, was being phased out by computers.” The expertise she developed in distilling a word, logo or concept to its essence contributed tremendously to the stylization of her work today. “Logos,” she explains, “convey a broad idea through the style of as little as a single word.”

Panther [1987], bronze, 96 x 54 x 24, edition 5 sculpture, southwest art.
Panther [1987], bronze, 96 x 54 x 24, edition 5

Today Rosetta uses that skill to express the essence of each breed of cat she sculpts. “The first time I saw a lynx up close, it seemed to be all feet and legs,” she says. “That impression stayed with me throughout my research as I discovered that the way you distinguish a lynx from a bobcat is by the lynx’s longer legs and oversize padded feet. I emphasized those qualities in Lynx by placing the rear legs on a higher plane.”

Rosetta’s sleek lines allow her to turn details into design elements such as the long pencils of black hair in the lynx’s ears. Stroking her streamlined Panther, she says, “I see a cat’s body as continuous flowing lines that suggest power and pride.” Emphasizing that aspect of cats is her way ofasking the viewer, “‘Hey, did you ever notice the sweep of a cat’s back or the way its tail twists and turns?’ My cats are realistic enough for people to relate to while still allowing their imaginations to fill in the details,” she says. “By over-emphasizing certain features I draw attention to the elements that make each cat unique.”

An armature for a two-thirds-life-size male lion has just been delivered to Rosetta’s studio. The multi-angled structure of welded rebar resembles a model for a skyscraper with points balancing on three levels of a wooden foun-dation. Line drawings of what will become the exclusive lion for MGM Grand are tacked on the wall behind the armature. As Rosetta winds aluminum foil around the skeleton of rebar, building forms that resemble muscles, she talks about her fas-cination with the contradiction inherent in wild cats.

Rosetta seated on Cougar Bench [1990], 68 x 62 x 40, edition 5. southwest art.
Rosetta seated on Cougar Bench [1990], 68 x 62 x 40, edition 5.

“Cats are gorgeous, yet they are the consummate predators,” she says. “In a pride of lions, the mothers and aunts show their loving nature as they care for the cubs, but they will bite your hand off if you get too close.” While she speaks, one of two studio cats, this one named KUVO after a local jazz radio station, inspects the newest addition to his space. Rosetta laughs at his curiosity. “Having cats challenges me to learn about their way of life, just as they are learning about and adapting to my way of life.”

Several of her cats have modeled for sculptures, including Tara and Misty, whose bronze portraits are favored by collectors. “I adore all four of my cats. When they are in the mood we cuddle, but when I sculpt them, I’m not interested in giving them human qualities or turning them into Disney-like caricatures. I try to point out admirable qualities such as nobility. Big cats don’t think or act like humans in any way; they are motivated by survival, not by malice or greed. They aren’t sweet or nice, yet they are efficient at fulfilling their purpose in nature’s scheme. If I can express their beauty without being cute and convey their strength, power and single-mindedness without any appearance of malice, then I’ve succeeded.”

Siblings [1992], bronze. 71⁄4 x 18 x 16, edition 24. sculpture, southwest art.
Siblings [1992], bronze. 71⁄4 x 18 x 16, edition 24.

Thirty-six hours after creating the underlying form of the lion, which was commissioned by the MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas, NV, Rosetta warms large bowls of Classic Clay in her microwave, making it soft and pliable. As she smoothes it over the tin foil, she explains that the 5-foot-tall lion began in a smaller version known as a maquette. “The maquette is a working model in which I make sure my idea translates into forms that flow into one another a sculpture should not have a front or a back, but look good from every angle.”

Rosetta rarely starts with pencil sketches, preferring instead to work out her ideas in three dimensions. Only when she needs to point up or enlarge a piece does she resort to projecting a slide of the maquette and tracing its contours onto paper. The drawing allows her to correct dimensions and get input from her professional armature makers who engineer the rebar understructure that supports the clay. Every angle of the armature is critical—just as a good drawing is important to a great painting, the armature must be accurate to insure the outcome of a great sculpture.

Misty [1986], bronze,  8 x 6 x 5, edition 50. sculpture, southwest art.
Misty [1986], bronze,  8 x 6 x 5, edition 50.

As she presses additional clay onto the larger form, Rosetta’s eyes move back and forth to her maquette, which rests on a sculpture stand that is adjusted to eye level and placed just out of reach of the looming new lion. From time to time she measures the maquette and uses a proportional wheel to project the size of the enlarged version, which is four times the size of the maquette. As she measures a leg with her calipers, she tells me about her tools.

“In the beginning stages I work with a variety of knives, including a common putty knife. As I refine the piece I move to dental tools, wooden spatulas that smooth the surface and wire tools that create details,” she says, adding, “Any tool that helps accomplish a goal is acceptable in a sculptor’s studio.”

Once the clay is finished to her liking, Rosetta takes it to the mold maker, who cuts the sculpture apart in preparation for the process of rebirth in the lost-wax method of bronze casting. Bronze Services of Loveland and its army of professionals take over the process of making molds from the wax models, pouring molten metal and finally welding all the pieces together to form once again the stately lion, ready to receive its finishing touches. This process, which takes place over three months time, has not been an easy one, just as the labor of birth is rarely easy.

Stone Lion [1994], bronze, 32 x 45 x 25, edition 10. sculpture, southwest art.
Stone Lion [1994], bronze, 32 x 45 x 25, edition 10.

“My sculptures are not foundry-friendly,” explains Ros-etta. “While my smooth surfaces may seem easy to accomplish, they are actually quite time-consuming because they must be flawless. Unlike textured surfaces that can conceal imperfections, every square inch must be polished and perfect.”

Rosetta’s bronzes get their finishing touches when Pat Kipper, who has published two books on bronze finishes, helps her determine the best patina. In the case of the exclusive lion created for MGM Grand, a golden patina known as amber marble is being used. Another work titled Stone Lion, created for installation in a bookstore of the same name in Fort Collins, CO, has a patina resembling weathered stone. In other instances she has worked with mottled patinas that resemble granite, but in all cases care is taken to select a finish that does not obscure the flow of the sculpture.

Lynx [1993], bronze, 16 x 21 x 15, edition 18. sculpture, southwest art.
Lynx [1993], bronze, 16 x 21 x 15, edition 18.

Will Rosetta ever sculpt subjects other than cats? “Cats are my passion,” she responds. “I believe in following my passion because that’s what viewers respond to in my work. I’m moved by other animals and might sculpt them one day. But for now there are so many cats in me that still want to come out I don’t know when I’ll finish them all.”

Born in Virginia in 1945, Janet Katherine Rosetta grew up in suburban Maryland. As a child she was drawn to modeling clay, but her formal art training was in commercial art at the University of Delaware, Newark, where she received a bachelor of fine art, and at the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles, CA, from 1967-69. For nearly two decades she was a freelance graphic designer specializing in corporate identities, trademarks and logos in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she and her husband, photographer Mel Schockner, designed and built their home in a redwood forest.

In 1992 Rosetta and Schockner moved to Loveland where they have adjacent studios. This summer they will relocate their studios to an industrial condominium complex not far from Art Castings Foundry. One of Rosetta’s last pieces before moving into the new location is a larger-than-life-size version of Siblings commissioned by Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL. The stepped base will become a seating area near one of the zoo entrances. Rosetta is a member of the National Sculpture Society, the National Sculptors’ Guild and the Society of Animal Artists.

Photos by Mel Schockner and courtesy the artist, Columbine Gallery, Loveland, CO; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY; White River Gallery, Vail, CO; Caswell Gallery, Troutdale, OR; and Vanier & Roberts, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in April 1997