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FUSION SCULPTURE © 2002 by Chapel

I first recognized a desire to create art when I was 11 or 12 years old, headed west, out of Grand Junction, ostensibly to hunt pheasants. We never even saw any pheasants that day, and I've come to realize only recently that most of our hunting trips with our father were something else entirely. We never saw game birds, let alone shot any. We hunted rabbits with .22 caliber single shot rifles, when everyone else used shotguns. Needless to say we didn't kill many rabbits either. This was probably the foundation of my sense of fairness and total lack of interest in hunting. Anyway, on that particular day, the colors and shapes of the dried corn stalks, and yellowing leaves against the intense desert blue Colorado sky woke something in me. I wanted to paint. I had been drawing for years; had my Jon Gnagy screen for the TV, and sent in those “win an art scholarship” drawings from magazines. Suddenly I wanted to paint, and that meant Real Art. Of course, sculpture was the farthest thing from my mind, since, like most everyone else, I thought Art meant oil paint.

My initial attempts were copies of Harold Bryant western paintings, which multiplied madly, becoming Christmas and birthday presents for unfortunate relatives. I even put them up for sale, over the soda fountain at the Rexal Drug where my father worked. Incredibly, some sold. I was hooked. Second only to the feel of creation, is the exhilaration of a sale—even forty years later.

I started college on an art scholarship. Coincidentally, Bruce Cody, a talented artist then and now, taught my first art class in college. I owe him a tremendous debt for completely humiliating me that first day. It was a "let’s see what you can do" assignment, with no restrictions on subject. I executed a very detailed rendering of a rural mailbox in a rustic setting. My realistic drawing was held up in front of the class, no, actually waved in outrage, as a perfect example of trite, unimaginative drivel. It was months before I drew, painted, or even thought of anything recognizable. It was “non-objective all the way for me: chevrons, checkerboards, and swirling shapes (this was 1966, remember)

Later, I began winning awards for my paintings, but slowly came to the realization that I was still not doing anything really unique. Moreover, there were many artists who would always paint better. This was not an acceptable state of affairs. I had this white knight personality defect derived from my other childhood occupation: devouring Zane Grey, Burroughs, and other unrealistically romantic authors in a compulsive frenzy. My personal version of the “Code of the West” (no doubt heavily influenced by that first college art class) dictated that following in the footsteps of others would compromise my artistic principles; therefore I needed a new art form, and "unique" became my Holy Grail.

Eventually, metal entered my life, along with another freethinking art professor in the metal-smithing department at CSU in Ft. Collins. I began to catch glimpses from the corner of my eye of an unexplored world. This was a place where most people worked in one metal (gold, silver, copper, etc.), and the more adventurous added gemstones. It appeared wide open to new interpretations like combining gold and silver in the same piece and using gems. Why not use patinas for some contrast? In fact why did this stuff have to be wearable? Well it didn’t. It could be called sculpture.

The desire to create perfection in pure form obsessed me for several years, until these small creations began to grow large enough to seem a little empty. Something was missing. Something recognizable. A little reality might bring life to a beautiful but empty landscape. Now I was fusing abstract and representational art. Although the reason for the change in style wasn’t clear at the time, they were a unique new direction. It didn’t matter why they worked, they did work.

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The contrast between polish and texture was the first and most obvious carry-over from jewelry making. Adding to that a lifelong love of water led to early experiments with the contrast between land and sea. I was interested not only in establishing a difference at the interface, but in capturing some of the more elusive properties of water, such as the shimmery surface, the vagaries of ripples, and the real kicker: reflections. I decided to ignore transparency for the time being.

The question of reflections dictated the obvious solution to the portrayal of water in metal: polish it. I had already been using polished areas to draw the viewer into my compositions in a concept ual sense; that is by glimpsing distortions of themselves in my figurative pieces. So beguiling was the next step of reflecting part of the sculpture, I was able to endure the enormous amount of added labor to achieve this environmental aspect. Once you start adding parts of your subject’s surroundings into a sculpture, it becomes hard to stop: a woman walking on the beach leaves footprints in the sand behind her that are also being washed away after a few steps. The sand is untracked ahead of her. Time has entered the picture: Past (tracks), present (woman walking) and future (untracked sand). This paragraph and the one before it really have me hooked…it is almost like you are building suspense for the next paragraph and for the viewer who looks at your art.

Speaking of pictures, there is a scene reflected in the polished lenses of the woman’s sunglasses. The reflection is the gold of sunset, or sunrise, hinting at the time of day. Her hair and clothes stream to the side away from the ocean. An onshore breeze is blowing and its effects are apparent. Weather has entered the picture.

The difference between skin and clothes could also be defined by changes in texture, analogous to brush strokes. These changes in texture would change the appearance of the applied patina. At last I was a painter. These concepts define my work to this day: the subject's environment, time as an element and the hour in a day, weather, and painterly textures. Of course was hard to be painterly with a patina pallet of brown, the predominant color of bronze sculpture in those days. Some colorful chemical experimentation was called for, and bronze would become a lot more interesting.

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The sculpture described above is SAND DANCER. She was finished in late 1973, after completing the Livingston Collection—a 45 piece collection of bronzes that was supposed to launch my career. Unfortunately, in my youthful naiveté, I had neglected to read the fine print and was left with tons of sculpture that would not generate my share of income for years, if ever. I was forced into foundry work to make a living, and thus acquired an expertise in the craft of sculpture that made everything since possible. Coincidental to working at that foundry, and correlated to our main customer, I received numerous commissions from the Franklin Mint to do very realistic, detailed sculptures of people and animals. My education was nearly complete.

I once again ventured forth into the artistic life, thinking I had all the requisite physical skills for sculpture…only to trip over my own ego and tumble headlong into the abyss of Jungian analysis. I discovered symbolism, the spiritual component of art. Actually, I didn’t discover it, I was beat over the head and dragged kicking and screaming into a realization that the world was not this rational, black and white epitome of logic I had believed in. Sometimes I know I’m still being dragged, especially when I think I’m not.

To continue in this philosophical vein, please consider the idea that mythology, poetry, and art are humanity's attempt to describe the ultimate mysteries of life, which are otherwise beyond our ability to consciously comprehend. Joseph Campbell once said that the “best things can't be told, they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood because they are the thoughts referring to that which can't be talked about. The third best are what we talk about.” This is the essence of the appeal of visual arts, poetry, literature, and music; they excite an emotional response, or memory that transcends words.

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SOMBRA ©1989

FISH NET ©1997


THE NEST ©2000

There is still a battle that rages within whenever I stand before a bare armature: how far to take the realism? How far to take the abstraction? Obey the rules or flaunt them? If I stay with realism in a piece like SOMBRA for instance, how do I portray a bird in flight, without using gravity nullification? A flying bird's wing does not brush the ground, or rocks, or tree branches, or water without undesirable consequences. This is when I really envy painters. In this case I looked under the flying hawk, and noticed that its flying shadow was touching the earth. In fact the shadow glided effortlessly over gravel, grass, water, trees, and rocks, only darkening them momentarily. Perhaps by de-emphasizing the realism of the hawk, augmenting the presence of its shadow, I could create a bridge between reality and imagination, known and unknown. At the point of fusion is a brilliant flash of gold, shining from the crevice between worlds. This is spontaneity in sculpture.

Still, the question of how real within reality? How much detail on the body of a fast, flying bird? What do you see when you watch birds in flight? Every feather? My eyes aren't that good anymore; I glimpse a few details depending on where my eyes focus. So I've decided to detail the sculpture that way: some feathers are minutely detailed while others are a blur.

I discovered that this technique works for fur as well. In creating ARRIVAL, I use this same shadow device. I fuse the spiral motion of a descending cougar with the echo of a spiral world thus illuminating the cougar’s environment.

Remember years ago, when I decided to ignore the transparency of water? At some point in the creation of FISH NET it became necessary for stainless steel to acquire transparency. A Night Heron perched on a swaying dock line needed the emphasis of human presence. Humans needed a reminder of heron’s presence.

Where is our most visible interface with the natural world these days? Where is our impact? It is our pollution, the shadow trailing behind us. The fish net carelessly discarded, caught on swaying dock lines hanging beneath an aging pier. This net stretched by current, becomes wavery, inlaid bronze, as it recedes into the depths. A hidden trap. Suspense. Tension is generated not only between the heron and its unseen prey, but also by the bird's own unwary proximity to entanglement and death.

Brushed stainless steel has become my favorite device for suspending flying objects in space. Outdoors, it reflects the color of the sky, enhancing the illusion. THE NEST was commissioned by the town of Breckenridge in 1998, and installed in June, 2000. It is a sculpture about the fusion of ideas coalescing out of thin air into a coherent structure. It is about thoughts moving up from the depths of our unconscious to form around an idea, like a pearl forming around a grain of sand. It is about people gathering at a crossroads of interest to become a community. The branches become closer together, more real, as they near the focus of the sculpture: the nest, where the branch shapes form a lens, a mandala, or spiral that draws you into the vortex of archetypal symbols buried in our psyche.

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AGING MOON is also a circle within circles at an intersection of opposing forces. The spinning life-including circle is cutting into, and through an ancient cliff, freeing imprisoned symbols to strain outward, on one side, while fluttering inward on the other. This composition is a complex, interwoven description of the fossilization, or maybe I should say preservation of a myth.

RAVEN STONE portrays at least four ravens, maybe more. At this point I've conceded the battle over how much realism to incorporate; how much abstraction to indulge in. I simply gave in, abandoned the field of rules, and embraced the rhythm of creation for it's own sake. I'm not sure I understand this sculpture even today, after it has occupied the center of our main salon for almost a year. These ravens might be of two generations; though certainly of many different realities. This is the rough side of the composition, in counterpoint to the extreme order of the steel side. Between these harsh actualities is inlaid an interlude of teak, kava (an ivory-like wood nut), Montana Soapstone, and purple heartwood. Of course from the other side these ravens might as well be a myth. They are visible only as a collection of anomalous feather shapes carved from white and black marble; a transition to complete abstraction, where structure alone holds back chaos.

AIRBORNE is the culmination of my attempts to include as much surrounding environment as possible. Stainless steel becomes the sky, scarred by forest branches. Forest branches form the matrix cradling this bird. This master of the skies: the “eagle eye” seeing beyond us…seeing movement far below. Our majestic national symbol, facing into the wind, feathers ruffled, poised for flight. The shadow of the sky stretches across the earth and into it. The reflection of the sky is the bond of heaven and earth.

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I have tried to make sculptures that have a dynamic, pleasing composition, yet possess a complimentary level of representation. My artwork includes enough of the environment of whatever creature is portrayed, to provide an experience to the viewer. They are also an in-depth study of that archetype and the symbols used in communicating its relevance to our everyday lives.

In attempting to fuse the wonder of life all around us into bronze, stainless steel, and stone representations, I have come to a greater appreciation of how fragile and transitory our existence is. We live in a time when it is not advisable to separate ourselves from the planet that gave birth to us. We can venerate it, or destroy it. I hope you can look into whatever art work you enjoy and see a reflection of your world.

© 2002 Chapel
aboard Two Shadows,
Ballena Isle, CA

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ON WILDLIFE © 2002 by Chapel

I still bear the scars of that explosion 40 years later. A sappy pinon log erupted just as I bent to retrieve my foil-wrapped potato from the glowing embers of our campfire on Jacob’s Ladder, outside Grand Junction, Colorado. A couple of hot coals lodged between my coat collar and neck, where they danced and sizzled for an eternity. It was early spring nearly 40 years ago when Walt and I chose that site to park our Cushman motor-scooters (remember those? Shriners used to ride em in parades, wearing their fez, maybe still do). We were doing something completely normal for 14 year old boys in those days: ride our Cushmans out of town, up into the mesa country, then off across the desert to camp for the weekend. At this time Highway 6 was the main route from Grand Junction to Denver. Parts of it were still gravel. Interstate 70 was barely a gleam in Eisenhower’s eye.

If we tried that today, we’d be violating numerous federal and state laws, and there’d be someone close enough to report us, assault us, or arrest us. These new regulations are probably necessary. There are just too many of us. Because of our own proliferation, this level of control is necessary, if not insufficient. This relates to Wildlife Art in the sense that artists my age and older are probably the last to have had almost unfettered access to the American wilderness.

We grew up steeped in outdoor survival, wandering the deserts and mountains like today’s children wander a city park. Actually, no sane parent would allow a child to wander a city park unsupervised today. But we camped, fished, hunted, and absorbed the wild as if it were the very air. My sculpture is the symbolic creation of a modern man with primitive experience. It is an attempt to make my experience of the American wilderness accessible to anyone viewing this artwork. It is also my attempt to reconcile what was, what is, and what will be.

Traveling recently across the western United States, I stopped sat at a cliff edge, overlooking a dry river. I imagined an old man, gazing across the sere, grassy plain that stretches endlessly eastward. If you were able to see him, you would notice his empty unfocussed eyes. He is looking far away, seeing a dust plume growing. Forms emerge. Great shaggy bison, moving toward the river below. As they lower their heads to drink, reflections confuse the image.

They are but a GHOST AT THE RIVER.

A wrenching twist. People are gathered at the rivers edge, the bison a shape, a memory, blurred by time, behind them.

The river is gone. Its passage through the centuries etched in arroyo walls. Reflections preserved in sedimentary layers, become more precious as they age.

There are images hidden between these lines, just as they are hidden within the sculpture. There are images hidden throughout this essay. I allow my unconscious awareness of symbols to influence their spontaneous appearance in an evolving sculpture as well. This is a little like mindful dreaming, where the sleeper is an observer as the dream unfolds; but whether a participant or not, exercises no control. The only difference is that I direct the reality and texture of the shapes accreting before me. When I began the GHOST sculpture, I had no idea there were going to be people in it. It was simply a herd of Bison. This is the essence of the idea that mythology, poetry, and art are humanity's attempt to describe the ultimate mysteries of life, which are beyond our ability to consciously comprehend. Joseph Campbell once said that the “best things can't be told, they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood because they are the thoughts referring to that which can't be talked about. The third best are what we talk about.” Hence the appeal of visual arts, poetry, literature, and music: they excite an emotional response, or a memory that transcends words.

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A word or image is symbolic when it implies something more than the obvious, immediate meaning. Our five senses tend to limit our experience of the world around us. For instance, if you see a photograph of a Cougar in a magazine, you might think to yourself "what a beautiful animal" and turn the page. But lets say you're out hiking, and a full-grown 200 pound lion steps onto the trail ten feet in front of you. you're not going to say: !!oh what a beautiful animal! No. Your heart freezes...You will be seized by a primitive emotion so powerful as to take you over. You don't just give it a name. You are transported. You are thrown out of the rational mind. This is the emotion, the feeling that an effective symbol encompasses.

Our ancestors lived with these animals on a very intimate basis. They became symbols in part, because of our strong emotional reaction to them. You can experience this yourself every night when you dream. Your unconscious mind produces a multitude of spontaneous symbols while you sleep. You can fly and feel it; hunt or be hunted, and feel terror. You are experiencing symbols at their most basic level.


FISH NET ©1997

Symbols needn’t be threatening to be evocative. I think back to a crisp fall afternoon on the 300 acre ranch in Northern Sonoma County, where we lived for a time. The late sunlight has that long, hazy slant of autumn. There is a tension in the air as if time is short for all that must happen before night, before winter. All around me small creatures are rustling, darting, and flitting about. The rattle of dry golden leaves permeates this old, abandoned vineyard. It was time for a sculpture about WINE COUNTRY.

Long ago, that sagging, rusted fence stood straight and proud, providing support and protection. A ranch hand rushing through the day, had to drive an extra staple when the first one half missed its hold in the freshly milled fence post. The indication of haste has been here sixty years now, maybe more, slowly rusting. That post once lived, and grew a few hundred yards off, where its siblings now tower in their age. Clean, new wire once gleamed in this same oblique light.

There were no tangled vines holding it up then, but after some time the fence supported the young grape vines, providing a structure for their growth. Like many such structures, that fence is now supported and weighed down with aging growth. Its original purpose long forgotten, the wire has rusted, the posts have rotted, leaning slowly toward the ground.

Juncos rest along the sagging top wire, pausing for a moment in their frantic rush. Some of them are preening, some jostling their neighbors for a better perch. Some stare into the middle distance of some small, bird dream. The shadows lengthen, the sun slips quickly behind the western hills...again.

In order for a symbol to fully express itself, some of its environment must also be apparent: wind, time of day, and season. AIR BORNE includes as much surrounding environment as possible. Stainless steel becomes the sky, scarred by forest branches. These same limbs form the matrix cradling this bird. This master of the skies; the “eagle eye” seeing beyond us; seeing movement far below. Our majestic national symbol, facing the shadow of the sky stretches across the earth, and into it. The reflection of the sky, like a bond between heaven and earth.

Vanessa and I live again at the interface of wilderness and civilization. That wilderness is the Pacific Ocean, and we live on a forty-six foot sailboat. The ocean is an environment just as powerful, and just as fragile as any other. This realization led to the creation of FISH NET, a bronze/stainless steel sculpture of a Black Crowned Night Heron hunting from a swaying net, which disappears into a stainless wave. The carelessly discarded net is caught on two lines hanging beneath an old dock. Tension in this piece is generated not only between the heron and its unseen prey, but by the bird's own unwary proximity to entanglement and death. Human thoughtlessness has become a major component of a formerly pristine marine environment.

One of the challenges of this work was to create an illusion of the net disappearing underwater. This transparency was achieved by inlaying bronze into the steel in the wavery pattern of a net receding into the depths, and using a mottled black patina to echo the marble base. Not only does this technique make the steel seem more water-like, it also emphasizes the hidden nature of this indiscriminate trap.

This piece was conceived as a statement about environmental pollution, a problem that will now be with us for thousands of years, even if all pollution ceased tomorrow. My daily bike ride takes me around a marina, then into a "restored" wetland. The amount of trash washed onto these shores is astounding to me, as is the fact that birds of all kinds seem to be increasing and maybe thriving in this combination salt marsh and dump. Thus the sculpture needed to imply unforeseen future events. However, a good artwork must also have a pleasing composition, one that engages both the eye and the intellect. This is the reason I chose the tension of the hunting heron juxtaposed with its own possible demise; the tension of the water flowing against and through the net; the tension of the bird balancing on this unstable perch.

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I never planned to work with “national symbols” until the events of September 11, 2001 changed things in America. That tragedy altered my view of this country and my place in it. WINDS OF CHANGE was begun months before that awful day, and finished in August, 2001; I thought. The experiences of that week resulted in a transformation of my perceptions and work.


I was scheduled to fly to Phoenix on September 12 to deliver a lecture on “Serendipity” at the Society of Animal Artists annual exhibit. Though initially inclined to cancel, I was finally persuaded to make the trip by car. It was during that 11 hour drive through the shifting static of NPR stations from San Francisco, down the deserted Central Valley, then East into the Arizona night that I began to realize things were different now. The skies were silent, empty. Virtually no one was on the road but semi rigs. The whole country was stunned. My wife (a psychologist specializing in trauma) was on duty at San Francisco General Hospital, unable to leave in case that city was targeted. Newscasters speculated on the possibility that 40,000 might be dead. Monday I was panicked at the prospect of delivering a speech Thursday; on Wednesday, tomorrow’s lecture was the least of my worries.

It would now be impossible not to change the direction of my own work to reflect this new awareness. The eagle flying alone over an abstract country would cross into a new dimension. Bare, hard bones of steel became wrapped and merged with the Stars and Stripes. The wind itself changed direction and streamed that flag out in support of our living national symbol. The empty space below has been transformed into golden fields of grains and fruit, from “sea to shining sea”, where salmon fight against the current, their offspring rush madly downstream. There are hidden things, still buried. There are visions, hidden among the clouds, and under the veils of high ideals. Some things are smooth, polished, and finished; some are rough, as yet unformed. There are dangers in hidden nets, moldering waste dumps; but most of all a cantilevered balance must be achieved and held, lest all civilization perish.

Two months ago these thoughts would have seemed pretentious? theatrical? grandiose?, but not now.

Not to me.

We have all peered over the edge, into the abyss.

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