Wayne Salge | Economy of Form

Wayne Salge captures essence and emotion through simple angles and lines

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Wayne Salge, Agnes, bronze, 26 x 9 x 13.

Wayne Salge, Agnes, bronze, 26 x 9 x 13.

This story was featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

Sometimes a slightly off-kilter perspective can be a good thing. Wayne Salge, pondering his distinctive sculptural style, pauses for a moment. “I don’t see things quite realistically,” he says with a smile. However true that may be in his daily life, in bronze it translates into angular, expressive, often elongated figures that speak of human nature and animal grace by means of sculptural rhythm, gesture, and line.

In the light-filled, utilitarian studio next to the artist’s home near Johns-town, CO, not far from the Loveland foundry where his bronzes are cast, the 73-year-old Salge (pronounced sol-ghee) spends most of his time carving in hard clay. In pleasant weather he occasionally works outside, carving in alabaster in a similar style. Always he keeps a pencil and scraps of paper nearby to capture inspiration when it strikes. “I jot down quick sketches,” he says. “I have a stack of pieces of paper with ideas I’ve gotten while I’ve been working on other pieces. Then if one of those appeals to me, I’ll start working on it.”

That’s how the piece called SERIOUSLY! came about. The standing male figure has one hand on his hip, the other palm flat against his forehead, and his square-jawed, abstracted face raised to the sky in a classic gesture of disbelief. “I like to throw a little humor in,” the artist says. The idea for the figure emerged as Salge’s hands were busy with another piece. Something in that form suggested this pose. Simultaneously, the concept converged with his awareness of young people in particular using what became the sculpture’s title as an exclamation.

A penchant for noticing things, and for filing them away in his head, has been with Salge since his boyhood days in San Antonio. The son of a grocery-store manager and at-home mother, he was a bit of an introvert whose hands, more often than not, were busy drawing or whittling. No one else in the family—not his younger brother and sister nor his parents—seemed to have an inclination for art. “Where this came from in me, I don’t have a clue,” he muses. “But I felt like I was always observant about things around me, and now a lot of that translates into my work.”

Wayne Salge, Lookout, bronze, 33 x 37 x 14.

Wayne Salge, Lookout, bronze, 33 x 37 x 14.

Salge’s high-school art classes were of the average variety, but at San Antonio College, one instructor, Mel Casas, stood out. “He was very directive. He got me started with sculpture,” the artist says. Casas was impressed with his student’s sculpture project in class, a plaster of Paris head that already hinted at his eventual aesthetic approach. So while Salge’s focus of college study was graphic art—and he became the art director for a local CBS station while still in school—Casas encouraged him to continue with sculpture as a way of keeping a toehold in fine art.

Then came the Vietnam War and the draft. Salge served as an illustrator at Army headquarters in Saigon, and following his tour of duty, he was stationed in Washington, DC, for two years, working as an illustrator under the same colonel. When he left the Army he headed west to Denver for a job at an ad agency. That company hit the skids six months later, propelling Salge into freelance illustration and graphic art. During these years in commercial art, he was able to steadily practice the critical mind-to-hand discipline an artist requires, he says. “As long as you’re working, your hand does what you want it to. My work is all about lines, so keeping comfortable with that and training your eye to get what you want is important.”

Along the way Salge occasionally carved in alabaster for enjoyment, finding good sources of the material in the Denver area. But his creative muscles yearned to stretch beyond the limitations of stone. In the mid-1980s he took a couple of workshops at a nearby foundry, and before long ideas for human and animal figures were emerging in wax and clay, and then bronze. (The same types of figures, with a linear, strong-edged quality, occasionally show up in his acrylic-on-panel paintings. For although Salge is primarily known for his work in three dimensions, he also creates vibrant abstract paintings whose visual language clearly echoes his sculptural work, though recently most of his two-dimensional work is purely nonobjective. “I’m playing with color. It’s a departure from my sculpture,” he observes.)

As he continued to explore bronze and moved into larger works, the basement studio at his Denver home grew too small. Often he had to create a figure in sections and put the pieces together outside to see how the finished artwork would look. Neighborhood covenants prevented him from building a separate studio. So in 2000, Salge and his wife, Patsy, moved to their present location, with plenty of open space for a custom-designed, high-ceilinged studio at their home less than 10 miles from the Loveland foundry with which the sculptor works.

Wayne Salge, Seriously!, bronze, 29 x 10 x 5.

Wayne Salge, Seriously!, bronze, 29 x 10 x 5.

Salge’s largest sculpture to this point, commissioned by the city of Little Rock, AR, is a 16-foot-tall version of CECIL, a long-legged fellow poised in a graceful, one-handed handstand on the peak of a pyramid. It was installed in 2014 at the city’s downtown riverfront park. These days, regardless of scale, the artist sculpts his initial figures primarily in clay. He starts with a quick three-dimensional sketch and then produces a more refined sketch. Especially for larger pieces, this helps determine the position of the steel armature and masses of Styrofoam over which a thick layer of clay is applied. “Then I carve away. I’m still a carver,” he says.

Sometimes Salge finds himself inspired by coming across an old sketch that has been hidden away for years in a stack of drawings. Recently that was the case with a large owl sculpture titled LOOKOUT that surprised him by turning out somewhat differently than he expected. Finished in a graphite black patina, the standing bird gazes directly at the viewer, one wing down and one outstretched, as if she just landed or is about to take off. “As I worked on it, the owl became much more powerful,” the sculptor says. “It’s interesting watching something come to life as I work on it. With clay you can add or subtract. I don’t like having it too planned out, because good things can happen that you can capitalize on.” Salge also takes advantage of an array of patina colors to add to the impact of his work. Among the hues he often employs are reds, shades of gray and silver, coppery-browns, and old-world green.

“There is something very honest about the work of Wayne Salge. His forms have the depth and power of simplified ideas—the ‘idea’ of a horse, the ‘idea’ of an elephant,” remarks Mikkel Saks, co-owner with his wife, Catherine, of Saks Galleries in Denver. “Perhaps this is a reflection of the artist himself—he has been a steadfast friend with Catherine and me for 40 years. His editions are purposefully small, which not only reflects his passion for creating new forms but also connotes a welcome rejection of mass production and commercial hype. We believe Wayne is one of the truly great modernist sculptors in America today.” As a testament of peer respect for Salge’s vision and skill, the award-winning artist is an elected member of the National Sculpture Society and a fellow of the National Sculptors’ Guild.

Wayne Salge, Stanley, bronze, 26 x 9 x 9.

Wayne Salge, Stanley, bronze, 26 x 9 x 9.

Salge is especially known for the acuity of feeling his figures express and the range of stories they suggest through a deft economy of gesture and form. Two 26-inch-tall heads, for example, convey a distinct sense of personality by means of simple, well-conceived angles and smooth planes. STANLEY and AGNES may or may not be a couple, the sculptor muses. “I think of them as gracious, ordinary people. But Stanley has glasses, and they make him rather distinguished looking. They both seem to be studious types who like to read and understand what’s going on in the world.”

Likewise, Salge’s animal figures reflect the creature’s essence, whether captured in mid-stride or standing stock still in a characteristic pose. It is this telltale body language, as well as colorful phrases in spoken language, that catch Salge’s attention as he goes about daily life, continually spawning new variations on the imagery in his art. “I get ideas wherever I am, seeing people do things or hearing expressions people say,” he says. “I’m always exploring, trying to discover something a little different to create. But I think my basic style will never change.”

Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Eisenhauer Gallery, Edgartown, MA; Lagerquist Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Columbine Gallery, Loveland, CO; Ellis-Nicholson Gallery, Charleston, SC; Gallery Mar, Park City, UT; Tilting at Windmills Gallery, Manchester Center, VT.

Featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art July 2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!

all Photos by Bill Youmans

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