Roy Madsen | First Person Stories: Touching Soul


Quail Covey, bronze, 12 x 19. Photos by Michael Campos. sculpture, southwest art.Quail Covey, bronze, 12 x 19. Photos by Michael Campos.

By Roy Madsen

An artist sometimes wanders far and wide professionally before coming home full time to art. My own wanderings include writing three books; serving as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Navy, U.S. Information Agency, and a half-dozen corporations; and teaching in three major universities. And yet, through all these lives, an inner gyroscope always returned me to art, first as a painter and then as a sculptor. Somehow, some way, I gleaned time for art.

Sculpting can be a solitary life, grubbing away with clay, stone, or wood in work that is often hard and always dirty. And yet I sculpt because of the special creative dimensions sculpture offers me.

Vision Quest, bronze, 35 x 15 x 18. sculpture, southwest art.
Vision Quest, bronze, 35 x 15 x 18.

The sculptor creates art in the round intended to be seen in the round. A freestanding sculpture has the three-dimensional substance of a tree, a person, or a mountain that can be appreciated only by exploring it from every angle. The sculptor designs a piece so there is as much of interest to be found at the rear as at the front. There is no such thing as an unimportant side, angle, or point of view. It is only in three dimensions that the most phlegmatic of the arts becomes the most exciting.

As have many sculptors, I began my art career as a painter and followed a tortuous path before discovering that modeling clay for bronze is the right creative medium for me. Before discussing the whys and wherefores of sculpting, however, it may be of interest to describe how I backed into it.

For many years I rendered wildlife in a two-dimensional medium I developed called color wax engraving, which combined painting and engraving. It was during a show of this work in San Diego that a distinguished artist and writer named Frederic Whitaker approached me to announce that he wished to write an article about my work for American Artist magazine. We became fast friends and remained so for as long as he lived. It was during the time of his progressive loss of eyesight due to macular degeneration that I turned toward sculpture. Fred was becoming emotionally distraught by the onset of blindness (as would any artist) and needed purposeful distraction. As my tribute to him, I put him to work posing for a clay portrait bust during weekly afternoons, while in the evenings I helped Fred edit his random writings about art into a book eventually published under the title The Artist and the Real World.

Kiowa Bride, bronze, 13 x 6 x 6. sculpture, southwest art.
Kiowa Bride, bronze, 13 x 6 x 6.

During each sitting, I squeezed, pushed, and modeled inert clay into a living likeness. The feel of the clay brought a thrill of recognition and a sense that this was a new beginning. It was as if I had been born with clay in my hands. As the bust of Fred developed, his wife stood beside me and offered much appreciated suggestions. The harshest critic of any portrait is the subject’s spouse, and when Eileen liked the bust I sensed that sculpting was the right track for me.

The bust of Fred was displayed in a show of his wife’s watercolors, where it was then seen by Mrs. Cecile Salomon, a patron of the arts and humanities. She telephoned me to ask what I would charge to sculpt a life-size bust of her husband, Col. Irving Salomon, a former roving ambassador to the United Nations. I gave her a modest price and she snapped, “That’s outrageous!” and hung up. A few days later, after presumably shopping around for a better deal, she called back and commissioned me to sculpt his portrait bust.
I found Col. Salomon an emaciated old man who had not long to live. He could pose only for brief periods, and I slabbed up the clay quickly into what most thought was a pretty good likeness. He had a large nose which I dutifully modeled in full, to his wife’s displeasure. A wonderful woman with a whim of iron, she would not let me leave until I had trimmed down the nose. When I returned home I remodeled the nose as I knew it really looked. When she saw it again, she firmly insisted that I shave it down, which I did. When I returned to my studio I put the full nose back. We went through this routine three times, and then she said, “Roy (the first time she called me by my given name), my husband did not look like this in his prime. I want to remember him in his prime.”

Sacajawea: Bird Woman, bronze, h40. sculpture, southwest art.
Sacajawea: Bird Woman, bronze, h40.

A reasonable request. We rummaged through stacks of photographs and an amazing number of awards given to him for his philanthropy that he was too modest to display. Working from photographs and the colonel at the same time, I gave the portrait his appearance at age 50, and his wife was absolutely right: with the flesh returned to his cheeks in clay, his nose retreated in proportion to his face and in bronze he became the handsome powerhouse of a man he had once been. She and the Salomon family considered the bronze a good likeness.
After a large reception for the unveiling of the colonel’s portrait bust, attended by the governor of California and some of her other major-league friends, Cecile Salomon drew me to one side to broach a new project. She said, “The queen of England plans to begin her West Coast tour of the United States in San Diego, and I want you to sculpt a heroic bronze of Shakespeare for her to unveil in the Old Globe Theater here.” She asked me what I would charge. I gave her my modest figure and she barked, “That’s outrageous!”
And so began the happiest art project of my life as a sculptor. When the clay sculpture of Shakespeare was completed and Mrs. Salomon had nodded approval, Queen Elizabeth sent over her personal secretary to inspect the work and be sure it would not be an embarrassment. He said, “Her Majesty will be pleased to unveil this sculpture.” When the queen arrived for the unveiling she revealed herself remarkably well informed about bronzes, and we had a brief but lively conversation about sculpture. The unveiling was broadcast on CBS, NBC, ABC, and the BBC.
To me, the ability to create a living human being in sculpture is the litmus test for a sculptor. If I sculpt a life-size eagle that is 6 inches off in any dimension, few people will know the difference. If I sculpt a life-size woman who is one-fourth of an inch off in any aspect, nearly everyone will see the mistake. The devil is in the details, and a figurative sculptor will spend a lifetime learning to interpret the human form. Having said that, I feel that each sculptor should work as much as possible with subjects that touch the soul so that each piece will have that intangible something, coming from his or her inner being, that makes it special.
Western subject matter became a major interest for me after my family moved, long ago, across the country to California. Everywhere there were paintings and sculpture (much of it tourist kitsch) of Indians, wildlife, and landscapes that evoked the mystery of this vast arid region of the country. Santa Fe was a cultural revelation. And I discovered that many of the western Native American tribes were not fully assimilated but were continuing their traditional rituals and ceremonies even as they attended churches—practicing two faiths at the same time.

I began to haunt the Native American ceremonies still being held on the reservations: the Hopi kachina dances at Walpi and Bakavai; the Apache coming-of-age dances at White Mountain; the Navajo corn pollen rituals at Canyon de Chelly. Wherever they would let me in, I would go and watch and remember. Photography was forbidden. I learned of legends and folk tales and began to give them forms in bronze. When people ask why a white Midwesterner would do these subjects I can only say, “They move me.”
“Spirit” is a word used with gusto in relation to art, and with good reason. Without it, a portrait is a topographical map of somebody’s head, a wildlife piece a taxidermist’s mannequin, a figure an undertaker’s stiff. And little is communicated to the viewer except technique. Spirit in sculpture is capturing the intangible essence of life, something unique to the subject, and evoking a range of feelings for which there are often no words. It is a matter of seeing and sensing what gives the individual person, animal, or landscape (yes, landscape) its specialness and expressing it in wood, stone, or bronze. When I did the portrait of Colonel Salomon, a close friend of his approached me and said, “You’ve captured something in the bronze that makes him ‘him.’”
As mentioned at the outset, I have lived other lives in arenas far removed from art experiences lived by what seems another person. What matters now is that whatever talent I have be expressed in the finest sculpture I can do, and that those sculptures evoke aesthetic feelings in those who see them.

Featured in “First Person Stories: On the Creative Process” December 2000