Looks Alive

Looks Alive

You could say the south room of the Eli Whitney barn, located across the street from the famous Whitney museum and workshop that owns it, is “lived-in.” Sawdust marks the spots where file, rasp, radial blade, chainsaw, orbital sander and drill press have been put to wood. Tubs of adhesive, cups of brushes, pairs of pliers, spools of wire and rolls of tape lie here and there. Stray paint, glue, stain and epoxy fleck the cement floor.

Plus, it’s got hundreds of people living inside.

Sculptures of people, to be more precise—made from clay, or wood, or stone, or paper, or wire. Still, there’s something undeniably alive about them. Gnarled figures, carved out of Lake Michigan driftwood, wear expressions of deep sorrow. The floating head of an old woman, ghost-white, looks like you’ve just startled her. A man with lean clay muscles tensed in a dramatic pose looks skyward with closed eyes, as if savoring the feeling of the sun on his skin.

In their stillness, there’s motion. In their matter, there’s mind.

Susan Clinard is the wizard behind this sorcery. Last Friday when we spoke, a red do-rag was her conjurer’s hat, her cloak a paint-streaked winter vest pulled over a leather jacket. Sensitive and down-to-earth, she’s also funny and irreverent, with an explosive laugh.

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Lately the Eli Whitney Museum’s artist in residence, she did her first work some 24 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, taking a chance sculpture class on the way to an anthropology degree. After college, she became a social worker in Chicago, aiding foster children and abused kids. When three years of that proved “too heavy,” she says, she embraced life as a professional artist. “I dove into it like an insane person. I started teaching sculpture in the public schools. I taught adults in continuing ed classes. And I made my own work constantly.”

She still does. Exhibit A is her studio, where sculptures old and new (and in-progress) line nearly every available surface, high and low—walls, tables, ledges, shelves, even suspended from the ceiling.

Exhibit B is actual exhibits. She participated in eight of them in 2014 alone, five of which were either solo or duo. Meanwhile she’s done a number of special commissions in the past couple of years, including several of local note: a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, a bust of Abe Lincoln from a chunk of New Haven’s fallen Lincoln Oak and pieces using materials salvaged from the old Winchester Repeating Arms Company factory, now being developed into a luxury apartment complex, the Winchester Lofts.

Of all the materials she works with—even stone, “a much harder material” that “pushes back at you” and “forces you to sculpt in a different way”—she says found objects are the most challenging to work with. “I have to try to find what that object represents—an anxiety, or an emotion, or a place in time—and put it in a context that helps me tell a story. It’s more conceptual.”

Oh Louise, a relatively new assemblage piece that hangs in the barn, is an homage to Louise Nevelson, who did work along its general lines. With permission from the museum, Clinard took “old 19th-century machine patterns”—carved wooden templates once used to cast metal pipes and other parts, left sitting in the barn for who-knows-how-many years—and carefully mashed them together with other found objects, like an old clamp. Fusing various forms and types, some of the amalgam’s contours are sharp and boxy; others are soft and curved. All evoke machinery and industry, save the faces and hands Clinard’s carved into various pockets. Painted entirely black, the finished package achieves a sort of still-frame Rube Goldberg effect, a visual puzzle your brain feels compelled to solve.

Even with this kind of work, she manages to pull animation from the inanimate. How she does it remains something of a mystery, even to Clinard herself. The work springs from a subconscious place, she says. “There are times where I finish making something and I’m like, ‘Holy crap. Where did that come from?’”

For the rest of us, at least, ours is not to question it, but to experience the motion in the stillness, and the mind in the matter.

Susan Clinard
Clinard Sculpture Studio – 920 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 435-7304 | susan@clinard.org

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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