Western Artist Points The Way

wapFritz White defies the stereotypical image of the Western artist You can usually find him in his studio, a partially renovated church in Loveland, wearing shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and tennis shoes. Strains of classical music jazz fill the cavernous space. Here, every day, he paces around a work in progress, sketches new ideas on his chalkboard, and discusses board with other artists, referring to Rodin and Michelangelo more often than Russell or Remington.

The human figure has always been the primary focus of his art. Western art, especially his studies of the Native American, is a natural extension of his interest in the human body. “I like to keep my figures as naked as possible,” White explains. “As the Greeks did with their nude figures, I want to expose the full dynamic capability of the human body.”

For White, from the first thought that serves as the basis for a sculpture, movement must be at the fore as the piece develops. It must be accentuated, refined, and exaggerated until the piece is ready for casting, and a sculptor must be willing and prepared to change the original design, taking advantage of every opportunity to emphasize motion or otherwise improve it.

Before one stick of the armature is positioned, before one lump of clay is shaped, White often plays with and refines an idea–often for months or, in some cases, for years or decades. He views the mind as a hopper full of images, sensations, and emotions the body has experienced, and it’s from this pool of experience that all creative thought emanates. The longer an idea is left in the hopper, the more the mind will consciously and subconsciously refine it.

White believes this long period of mental refinement is a necessary first step in creating good, vibrant sculpture. The process allows him to really think about what the action in the piece will be and how to complete it. He doesn’t trust in the inspirational thunderbolt that suddenly strikes artists–what he refers to as “divine concept.”

“People have a conservative tendency that becomes very apparent in sculpture,” he explains. “Suppose an artist is struck by a wonderful idea that is packed full of motion, has interesting mass, tells a wonderful story–a solid ten on a scale from one to ten. By the time the armature is created, the artist’s timidness has watered it down to a seven.

The concept is probably okay, but a lot of work lies ahead before it’s worth a damn. If you start with a seven, the best you can hope for when it’s finished will be a four. You have to know what you’re looking for in the sequence of action and find a way to get it into the sculpture. Once you do, it’s crucial to exaggerate it in order to maintain the force of the inspirational thought. I firmly believe in building more action into the figure as it progresses. You should still be changing it until the mold maker shows up, and then you should fight him like hell all the way to the door because there’s just one more thing you can do to improve that sculpture.”

More than once he has altered pieces after they’ve been cast. For instance, a thirteen-foot sculpture of a Pawnee brave was already welded and chased when White realized that if he repositioned the shoulder of the upraised arm, more strength and action would result. He cut away the shoulder and arm and reconstructed a new piece to be inserted–one possessing more magoo. There are two tools that White believes are essential to every sculptor’s studio: a large chalkboard (at least 4′ x 8′) and a mirror. These items help him build action into a piece during all its stages of completion. Sketching his original idea on the chalkboard, he can partially or totally erase and redraw it as it matures. The imposing size of the board allows him to use large, fluid strokes when sketching and keeps him focused on the artistic challenge at hand. As the artist, White believes only he knows exactly how a figure should be posed. A mirror allows him to use his own body to model the action for the piece in order to achieve the correct composition and design. Only after he has taken the design as far as possible is a model brought in so he can closely study and sculpt the missing details.

Once the basic composition is decided upon and White has made a draft of it on his blackboard, he’s ready to build his armature. An armature, according to the artist, is more than just a structure on which to pile clay: “A properly constructed armature helps with the overall design of the figure. It can assist in the correct construction of anatomy and suggest or add to the intended motion.”

Plywood and Styrofoam are the primary materials of most of White’s armatures. Body parts–such as the thighs, spinal column, pelvis, and so on–are cut out of the plywood in silhouette. The pieces are hinged as the human body is jointed. A knee, for example, is hinged with a screw to allow the lower leg to move as the human leg moves. Once the figure is constructed and positioned to match the chalkboard sketch, White freezes the joint by inserting another screw. He uses Sheetrock screws for easy removal and reinsertion. The musculature is added using Styrofoam pieces glued to both sides of the wood. The Styrofoam is easy to shape with anything from wood rasps to hacksaw blades. White likes to build his armature within one-eighth of an inch of the finished surface to reduce the amount of clay it must support. He emphasizes the need for an adaptable armature up to the time a mold is made. “If the mold maker comes and you just figured out that you need to extend an arm and twist the body at the waist to really produce the magoo you’re looking for, that armature must be adaptable or you’re sunk.”

All of his pieces, perhaps with the exception of his busts, are studies in capturing motion in bronze. But Out of the Mystic Past is likely the sculpture that catches the essence of magoo. It depicts a medicine man poised on his launches, ready to leap as he performs a ritual dance. White originally worked with the concept more than two decades ago in another piece. As he examined it over the years, he realized it was lacking one or two elements that would make it a great piece of sculpture. “I wanted this man to be the embodiment of the spirit in which the Native Americans live their religion and the deep mysticism that is integral to it,” he says. “I could see him leaping over the fire at the council lodge and frightening the entire assembly as he shoves this wolf skull into their faces. I could see them all sucking in and holding a collective breath, eyes wide open and staring at him.”

He reworked the pose of the figure to imply anticipated action. Raising the pelvis and slightly lifting one foot brought it closer to the instant the man must jump or go headfirst into the fire. Every muscle in his body appears tight reflecting the passion he applies to the dance and to the preparation for the leap. The new piece possessed enough magoo to capture a Gold Medal for Sculpture and Best of Show at the 1983 CAA exhibition. A monumental version of it was also placed at the CAA’s museum in Kerrville, Texas, and in a sculpture park in Loveland.

Out of the Mystic Past also utilizes White’s favorite composition: the egg. He says he likes to create designs that fit neatly into the shape of an egg, then extend something–an arm, a leg, a piece of clothing, a tool, or a weapon–out away from the main mass: “I like to create a relief that lets the eye slip away from the main mass but that has something at the end to redirect the eye back into it. If I’ve done my work correctly, the viewer’s eye should run the length of the relief and, instead of drifting out into the space that it’s pointing to, be turned around so it flows back into the figure.”

The position of the feathers near the wolf’s skull in Out of the Mystic Past, for instance, defies logic. With the stick and skull thrust out, the feathers should point back toward the figure, but White has placed them in the opposite direction so they create a pointer guiding the viewer’s eye back up the arm and to the figure. In contrast to the obvious action of some of his pieces, White often uses the beauty of the human body to define a more graceful and elegant type of action. For example, in In Search of the Snow Goose, the hunter arches his back to take aim at an unseen goose flying almost directly overhead. The result is a long graceful line from his outstretched leg up over his chest. Here, White displays his love of working with the human figure. The brave’s flexed and extended arm serves White’s compositional objective of taking the eye away from the central mass, and the arm extended toward the sky holds a flexed bow that frames the figure in a complementary arch, stopping the viewer’s eye and returning it to the figure.

Quite often, the action in White’s pieces is augmented or created by elements other than the positions of the figures themselves. In a sculpture of a boatman dragging a cargo of goods up a river against the current, for example, the real movement is caused by the water, which seems to swirl around the trader, who pulls the unseen boat with one hand and steadies himself with a pole in the other. The artist has also used surface texture to create motion and direct the viewer’s eye. In one sculpture, he altered the figure’s musculature and bones to direct the eye to the head. In sculpting the ribs, he dragged his thumb heavily through the clay, creating directional lines up the body.

After thirty years as an artist, White has learned there are infinite ways of bringing motion to sculpture. Artists must bring motion to their work or, in his view, they have no chance of accomplishing the coveted magoo. According to White, life is motion, motion is magoo, and magoo is the goal of every artist who has attempted to portray the living form. His understanding of that concept and his ability to translate it into bronze have made him the successful sculptor he is today.

White is represented by Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Trailside Galleries in Jackson, Wyoming, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; Don Huntsman Gallery in Aspen and Demott Gallery in Loveland, both in Colorado; and Nymeyer Gallery in Chicago.

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