Interview with Bob Clyatt, a sculptor who uses nature as part of his process.
Of all the art forms, why sculpture?
I think sculpture picks you, not the other way around. I had always loved looking at sculpture, but never considered it as a medium. One day I was helping my son on a school project, making a clay minotaur, and it was like a buzzing noise in my ears just took over and I was wetting and shaping the clay – couldn’t stop. And right from the start I knew I wanted to do the figure. At that point I started eight years of formal studies, with the best figurative sculpture teachers I could find. Lots of anatomy studies along the way, too.
What do you enjoy most about the medium?
To make sculpture I think you have to be part handyman, part craftsman and part artist. I am on my feet, moving around, and at the workbench, or working on the piece itself, firing and glazing, gluing or welding. At the end I have a piece, which exists in the same 3D space we live–a real thing in the world, which conveys ideas and emotions in ways beyond what decorative or functional objects can.
And I do love the feeling of seeing this being come into the world, take shape, and start to speak. Making the heads and faces is one of the most mysterious aspects of my work, and is often not taken straight from the model.
How does the clay feel in your hands?
It has different moods–sometimes smoother—sometimes drier. Clay is earth, millions of years old, and holding it and working with it somehow connects me to something ancient.
My favorite clays to hold and work are porcelains, which feel like the most wonderful cool creamy peanut butter, just perfect.
Your pieces have an unusual crackled look. Can you describe how you make that magic happen?
After a clay piece dries it’s ready for its first firing, in an electric kiln that makes it bisque (white, rough, strong) and ready for glazing. I mix my own glazes and usually fire the pieces a second time in the raku kiln, a gas-fired kiln with a special twist. I take the pieces out, red-hot, using Kevlar gloves, leather jacket and a facemask. Then I place them into a canister with leaves, sticks and natural materials from my garden and clamp a lid on top. As the piece cools in the smoky can, an hour or two—quick by clay standards—the carbon is sucked into the piece forming the cracks and deposits, which give the raku fired figures their distinctive look.
Speaking internally, what moves you to create?
One idea guides my work: If reincarnation were true, what would I want to stumble across a hundred years from now that might speak to me and help make my life better? The beauty of thinking this way is that it doesn’t matter if reincarnation is “true” or not–someone will be here a hundred years from now and your work could help them. While artists all make a very deep and personal journey, alternately tormented and pleasure-filled, I think it’s important to remember the fruits of this journey can be shared. For that reason, I create to be part of a cultural conversation, to fully participate and contribute my voice to this time, for all time.
How does inspiration hit you?
My work is figurative, and my inspiration comes from several sources. Sometimes I’ll be moving around and suddenly feel a huge jolt of awareness about the position I am in. Then I’ll make a quick sketch and later see if it can make a good sculpture. Other times… I get a flash of inspiration for a pose, a gesture, an expression, and again sketch it or remember it for later. Sculpture takes a lot of time so it isn’t always possible to get on a new idea right away.
Each piece needs to relate to the ideas that inform and inspire my work on multiple levels. So it should look interesting, feel and resonate in an interesting way physically, and also nestle into the back of the mind with a grain of something that keeps you thinking.
Walk us through your process.
My studio is my home. I just built an all-glass conservatory, including the roof, which makes it easier to keep multiple pieces going at once. Around noon I start getting focused and usually have clay on my hands by 1:00. I work steadily through the day, sometimes ending well after midnight.
Often I work out a new pose with my model. For example, I think a lot about freedom and restrictions. My work and life seems preoccupied with trying to get a glimpse back to something lost or forgotten—like trying to remember a dream upon waking. So I may have new ideas for a gesture, body position, or composition that will reflect that.
Can you describe how you work with live models?
In a recent piece, Returning, I had the idea of “Turning, Returning, Retrieving something precious that has been lost, left behind.” I discussed this at length with my models, a young couple, and we looked at a number of my pieces (and some art history books!) then left them alone to process these ideas. When I returned we went through their ideas and made refinements. Then I raced around them looking at the pose from all angles, trying to see it as sculpture and whether it would work, whether it felt like something done by someone else already, would convey the ideas effectively, and whether it worked practically as a piece that would stand up and not fall over. So the piece is really a creative collaboration with the models – with the best models it’s always this way.
Then I sketched quick drawings to capture the gesture and help us remember the piece later, and I made a quick sculpted maquette— small, loose, taking an hour or so—that let me see the piece in 3-D and understand the key aspects of the composition. For the maquettes I use an oil-based clay that doesn’t dry, around wire armatures that bend easily and stand up. After a few days of looking at and playing with the maquette, I blocked in a larger clay figure (regular clay that gets glazed and fired) and let it harden overnight. The next day the woman model came and I refined the clay piece. I did the same thing over the following days with the man model. Finally I connected the two figures and refined the overall interaction between them, get hands gripping arms right, etc.
We worked in the all-glass greenhouse, wall shades down for privacy, but with light from the ceiling all around, deer and rabbits munching away just outside the window, music from my ipod playing randomly everything from Hindu chants to Django Reinhardt. Really bliss – not sure if ‘work’ is the right word…
(Bob Clyatt can be reached through his website, and will be exhibiting his work at the Contemporary Art Fair NYC on November 18 • 19 • 20 at the Jacob Javits Center.)