Interview with Linda Wren
Describe your style
Briefly, I would say it is figurative sculpture with emotion, character, color and texture.
What is your background and what influenced you?
I graduated with a BFA from Carnegie Mellon in graphic and industrial design and then spent 40
years in advertising, working within a constrained two-dimensional space. I designed ads for such companies as Nike, Seiko, and Mercedes while working at various Ad agencies inRichmond. Eventually I rose to be Vice President and Senior Art Director of The Martin Agency.
As long as I can remember I was interested in art.
In Elementary School, I sat next to Steve Kelly, who is now a famous cartoonist. He would doodle cartoons in class, while I would sketch real-life renditions. My parents encouraged my artistic interest and enrolled me in art classes over the summers. My mom was a big influence as she had been a fashion illustrator in New York … before photography was used in ads. At age eight I was ‘dragged’ through the major museums in Europe. I say ‘dragged’ because … hey… I was just a kid and I got tired of seeing all those stone sculptures … so at some point my dad agreed to take me to zoos while my mom went with my older brothers to museums. Years later, when I was in college, one of my brothers, also an artist, acted as our tour guide, again in the museums of Europe.
My art teacher in high school, Reji Carreras, was my absolute favorite teacher. She influenced and encouraged my art. So I had an extensive portfolio to send to colleges.
In 2002, my focus temporarily shifted when I totally switched gears and started a Physical Therapy Clinic with my husband, Matthew, whose reputation as the “go to” physical therapist in Richmond was growing fast. I managed the business and marketed it. We sold the clinic after 8 years, after which I continued business and marketing consulting.
Longing to work in three dimensions, I took classes at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond and renewed my interest in clay, which I had not touched since High School. When Covid-19 denied access to the studio and the ceramic wheel, my style had to change. Only then did I explore doing figurative sculpture. I could hand-build at home without making a mess of the house.
Lo and behold, my passion was found! Molding characters out of clay! Being a production potter wasn’t an option anyway, since I had no interest in making the same thing over and over. I loved the thought process of how to create something new each time, all the while exploring new things like how the muscles of a human face change with various emotions: a beaming smile, a worried brow, a giddy laugh, or the simple joy of eating a watermelon. At some point I ventured out of my comfort zone of human subjects into the “jungle” of the animal world—asking myself how on earth I could possibly portray the intricate creases of a Mandrill monkey’s face or the unwieldy webbed feet of an Emperor Penguin. (FYI there aren’t many close up pics of Emperor Penguin feet!)
In summary, I have taught myself figurative sculpture, which has allowed me to “reinvent the wheel” in any unorthodox way I please to suit my whims. It’s all about observation: studying colors, shapes, proportions, textures, and light.
Some figurative sculpture artists model a stoic pose or try to make a statement. Instead, I try to capture a fleeting moment, frozen in time, that evokes an
emotion or a memory. A candid portrait rather than posed. Maybe you will see one of my sculptures and say ‘Hey, I know that person or character.’
Tell me about your technique and materials?
I fire paperclay to bisque. It is not yet vitrified and thus it is more porous to accept the acrylic washes/paint I apply. I tried ceramic glazes, but could not achieve the depth and nuance of color I prefer.
I then add whatever other materials are necessary to finish the concept. Wood dowel to make a straw. Hammered wire and wood to make glasses. Wire for whiskers or a cherry stem. Feathers in a nest.
I saw that your characters have names.
Do they represent real people you know?
They are not real people, rather a blend of personalities I have known. It is like reverse engineering a character. This imaginary character will determine the tilt of the head, the glance of the eyes, the type of clothes they wear, their expression and their hairstyle. So as the clay takes shape, so does their personality. Each has a name and a brief caption explaining the personality that evolved.
Who were your Mentors?
Those who taught me to really observe things in a penetrating way were my mom, my brother, and my high school art teacher.
Some people think art is a talent you are born with, but I disagree. I think it is like everything else: it takes lots of practice and learning to master. Learning perspective is about seeing objects in relation to other things and how they sit on the horizon line. And learning proportions is all about understanding what lines up, just as Leonardo da Vinci showed us in his annotated notebooks 500 years ago. For example, human eyes are in the middle of your head, the bottom of the nose is halfway between the eyes and chin, and the mouth is halfway between the nose and chin.
What are your favorite pieces?
My favorite pieces change regularly. As my ‘craft’ improves, I look back at older pieces that I liked and only see imperfections.
I like pieces for different reasons.
Some pieces I am fond of the emotion portrayed. For example ‘Tyler and the birdwing butterfly’ was modeled after a photo I took of my son. A child’s innate curiosity is what I tried to capture in clay.
Some pieces I am fond of the character. The older woman who is all put together, titled “Irene”. While she does not look like my mom, that is my mom. She never left the house without being totally put together. Make-up, jewels, hair and outfit.
Some pieces I am fond of just because I figured out how to do it. I try to figure out the process and steps in every piece before I start, but am never 100% sure I will succeed in my vision. For example..the piece titled ‘Forever a work in progress’ with layered puzzle pieces. I had to assemble in layers to achieve the depth. Painting lower layers then adding more layers with epoxy. I like the ‘depth’ and how the colors worked in that one.
What is your process?
Sometimes I peruse images for inspiration … whether it’s stock photos or Pinterest. Some image, or idea of a pose, a pattern, or an emotion resonates with me, I put it into a Pinterest file and I start to ruminate. But the image is only a fraction of the whole. It is only two dimensions. I don’t have views from all angles, like an artist would with a model present.
What is the pose? The expression? What do the faces look like, and where do I crop the figures? I ask myself all these questions, while trying to figure out the ceramic physics of it and the process of putting it together. I collect as much photographic reference as possible in Pinterest. So I study anatomy and proportion. I need to figure out what clothing they will wear and what hairstyle. If they are wearing a sweater, I need to figure out how to make the texture. Now it’s on to the physics. Do they have an outstretched arm? Or how to support a watermelon or ice cream cone. Then I create the heads on an armature, each separately. That way the head position can be determined after sculpting everything rather than predetermined. Just a slight angle of head tilt can change the character and emotion. I try to interpret the body language.
Creating open-mouth smiles was especially difficult. There is no YouTube video on how to do that! I had to figure it out on my own. What I ultimately realized was that the mouth widens while the cheeks go up and become more bulbous. The eyes squint. The jaw goes down and angles back. Then I put the heads on the torsos. I had to figure out the angle of the head turn and tilt and how far back the boy’s head can go
realistically and anatomically.
Sometimes I ask my husband or my son to model for me, so I can see what the head does at a certain angle or what the shoulders do in an embrace. It turns out that when your head tilts the sternocleidomastoid muscle accentuates. You have to know anatomy to appreciate this. It is also helpful to be married to a Physical Therapist who can offer anatomical advice.
After everything is attached I wait about three months for the piece to dry thoroughly before firing since I don’t want it to explode in the kiln if it’s still damp! I had that happen once, and it was a nightmare...until I discovered a way to turn that “lemon” into lemonade by reassembling the pieces into a fractured, downtrodden bust that I entitled “Broken in 2020”.
What is a typical workday?
I get up at 6 AM on weekdays. Breakfast and coffee, then venture upstairs to the studio. Sometimes still in my pajamas.
If I am working in clay rather than conceptualizing, I start early. After I have determined all the details and start a piece, I pretty much work full-time. I don’t want the clay to get dried out before completion. Some pieces will take several days to create, while some take over a week or two depending on the complexity. If it’s just a simple head and shoulders it’s faster. The more detailed the project, the longer it takes. Smiles take longer, as do hands.
Tell me about your ‘ceramic canvases’
I like to think of them as human and nature, or human nature. For example: ‘Inertia’ is a combination of human and nature - the leaves, but also human nature. Inertia is something we all experience at some point in out lives, when we find ourselves in a rut and need to change things up.
The one entitled ‘Forever a work in progress’ is not so much about nature, rather human nature. We all are a ‘work in progress’ and forever evolving. If you are not evolving, well then you are in inertia.
‘Entanglement’ is both human and nature. The fractal pattern is found in nature and entanglement is also something most experience – human nature. When someone or something ensnares you, good or bad.
Do you have any other pastimes?
Other than spending time with family, another pastime is “chasing sunsets”: finding a good vantage point to see the open sky and watching the phenomenal show of colors changing hues every moment until darkness devours everything. The clouds are like brushstrokes in the sky—the celestial artistry of some Higher Power.
You say this is your semi-retirement?
I do it for my own joy and creative fulfillment, so it does not feel like a real job. When I worked in advertising I had to please the client. Plus, everyone wanted input. It is nice to do my art without anyone wanting input! I do however greatly value those that I ask for advice. I enjoy being creative on my schedule, rather than on a tight deadline, and I relish that I don’t have to keep track of every moment of billable time!
Do you get artist block?
Sometimes I can stare at a piece and know something is not right or ‘off’, but not know the solution until I step away from it and come back fresh. Always learning. As far as what to work on next, I have a file of potential ideas that hibernates and incubates, while I ruminate on the menu of tantalizing possibilities. The mental crystallization of those incomplete ideas can come at any time. While I am on a spin bike or lying in bed in the middle of the night.
Do you ever create the same piece twice?
Never! I like a new challenge each time. The thought process of creating something new is what energizes me. Nor do I make duplicates via molds. What you get is truly one of a kind.
Describe your studio
Unlike most studios, mine is upstairs and carpeted. It used to be a playroom, and is now a “clayroom”. I do not use a potters wheel, so no clay “shrapnel” adorns walls. Nor do I own my own kiln. I have a friend who fires my sculptures for me. I hand-build everything. I work standing up at high tables and one slightly lower for rolling out clay. Lots of shelves and large airtight
plastic boxes so the sculptures can dry slowly and won’t crack. Sculptures sit in a box for 3 months to dry before firing. My husband says it looks a little “sketchy” sometimes (like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory?) as heads are sometimes separated from their bodies.