By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Last April, when Colorado sculptor Lorri Acott-Fowler heard that she had been awarded a commission for a public art piece, she had tears in her eyes. It was her first major public art commission. But what mattered even more was that the piece would be installed on the grounds of Mt. Evans Hospice in Evergreen, CO.
Years ago, an Oregon hospice had played a significant role in her family’s life. In 1995, at the age of 35, her brother Steve had died of brain cancer, and a local hospice helped her family cope with the profound loss. Acott-Fowler and her brother were very close, she says, so this particular project was dear to her heart. “I really wanted to get this commission and create something that would uplift people who were sad and struggling,” she explains. “But I didn’t know if I would have a chance. All I knew was that I felt so strongly that I was right for the project.”
According to Eric Maule, an Evergreen architect who served on the selection committee, Acott-Fowler’s passion shone through in interviews and in her proposed sculpture, PEACE. “The sculpture with its outreached arms and origami birds expressed the essence of what we were looking for—to give people a feeling of encouragement, hope, and peacefulness,” he says.
PEACE was installed last October. Since then Acott-Fowler has been hard at work in her Fort Collins studio in preparation for six upcoming shows. As her collectors know, some of the elements in PEACE appear frequently in her works both old and new—elements such as outstretched arms, figures looking skyward, and long, lanky legs. In fact, some observers have compared her pieces to the elongated figurative works of famed Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
Over the years, her work has evolved from realistic to more abstracted pieces, but she has always remained inspired by human relationships, interactions, and emotions. Her pieces express everything from hope, as in PEACE, to vulnerability, as in works like NAKED.
Unlike many artists, Acott-Fowler didn’t grow up knowing she wanted to be one someday. She did, however, know that she had something to say to the world. “I have always wanted to change the world,” she explains. “When I was a kid, I read every book published about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, her tutor. I have always wanted to make a difference and make the world a better place.”
It came as no surprise, then, that she studied elementary education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and followed up her undergraduate degree with a master’s in special education. For a number of years she taught in the Fort Collins public schools. During one of her teaching stints, a ceramics teacher taught her to fire raku pottery. And she began to spend free time sculpting, eventually getting licensed to teach in the school system’s art departments.
By 1993 she was taking sculpting classes regularly and has been sculpting obsessively ever since, she says. These days, she is a full-time fine artist. She thinks her transition from teaching to art came about in part because of the relatively immediate results art offers. “When you are a teacher, you don’t see the final result of what you have done,” Acott-Fowler says. “But the idea that I was actually able, with my own two hands, to create something that could be beautiful really appealed to me. For artists, there is a quick turnaround.”
As a beginning sculptor, she worked with metal armatures, or skeletons, and oil-based clay. These forms are generally used when sculptors make molds and then cast their pieces in bronze. But at the time, Acott-Fowler says, she didn’t have the funds to cast every piece. So she began experimenting with ceramic clay, among other kinds, which could be fired at a price significantly lower than the cost of casting. But the legs of her elongated sculptures kept breaking. She soon moved on to paperclay, a variety of ceramic clay with paper fiber added to the mix. Acott-Fowler found that one of paperclay’s advantages was that she could repair pieces before they were fired.
In addition, she could make an armature of paperclay, allow it to dry completely for added strength, and then add wet clay to the already strong armature. Because the paper fibers act like tiny paper towels, fresh wet paperclay binds to the dry paperclay. “This has been a great benefit—one allowing me to use an armature in my clay sculptures so they can be elongated without breaking or sagging,” Acott-Fowler explains.
Thus, the first step in her process is to complete a finished ceramic piece. From that piece she makes a mold and then casts the final sculpture in bronze. “I want the cracks that come from ceramic pieces to remain in the bronze,” she says.
In addition to the tactile nature of the process, what attracts her to sculpting is that it makes her dig deep down past the surface of things to a place where dreams lie. “Sculpting opens up a portal to that place in me that is the subconscious,” she says. “The work comes through me and says something meaningful and profound for me.”
She often incorporates an array of symbolism in her pieces to reflect the subconscious. Take PEACE, for example. For Acott-Fowler, the figure’s long legs symbolize man’s ability to rise above life’s challenges. The big feet represent the idea of being grounded. “If you can have your feet on the ground and if you have really long legs, you can have your head in the clouds,” the sculptor explains. The cracks in the piece refer to the idea that everyone is vulnerable and has suffered some pain, and they are also a reminder to be kinder and gentler with each other. The origami-like cranes symbolize hope and peace, while the raised arms are about releasing that hope and peace into the world.
But Acott-Fowler is quick to point out that it’s not necessary for the viewer to understand the artist’s intent. “These ideas are merely a guide to help others derive their own meaning,” she says.
Acott-Fowler still gets a little emotional when she talks about PEACE. She recalls that throughout the creation of the sculpture, she felt her brother’s presence. “It felt like it was a tribute to him, and he felt really close to me during that time,” she recalls. “My two other brothers came for the dedication in October. When I called my parents to tell them about the installation ceremonies, I told them that all three of my brothers were there.”
The sculptor says that a number of years ago she wrote down her life’s mission: to encourage, inspire, and move people. She wanted the philosophy to guide her in everything she did. “For me as a sculptor, if I can do any of those three things, my goal is accomplished,” she says. “I want my work to encourage people to think about the way they want to live or the way they don’t want to live.”
She is represented by Art Pic Gallery, Hollywood, CA; Aspen Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Blackhawk Gallery, Saratoga, WY; Phoenix Gallery, Park City, UT; Smith Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO; Stoneheart Gallery, Evergreen, CO; Walnut Street Gallery, Fort Collins, CO; Xanadu Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.
Group show at Lakewood Cultural Center, Lakewood, CO, through April 5. Solo show at Xanadu Gallery, April 9-May 4. Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale, Loveland, CO, April 11-May 17. Two-person show with Collen Nyanhongo at Old Firehouse Art Center, Longmont, CO, July 10-August 18. Loveland Sculpture Invitational, Loveland, CO, August 7-9.
Featured in March 2009