The following is an interview with Canadian sculptor Michael Binkley of Vancouver, British Columbia. Here he responds to an interview questionnaire.
Tell us about your life history related to being an artist. Why did you become an artist?
I was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1960, and my father's company moved us to Vancouver, BC in 1966. I have always been interested in art, and had an aptitude towards creating it on paper. I could draw and paint, and got my first set of oils form my grandmother when I turned 12. I loved to paint, and pursued art as an elective through high school. My whole family kept saying "You should be an artist when you grow up." But like many laypersons, I did not think one could actually make a living at being an artist. So, I wanted to become an architect, and chose my education in that direction. However, after two miserable years at the University of British Columbia, I found my left brain was losing the battle.
What key life experience affected your direction in your art?
In the spring of 1980, I decided to take an art history course, offered by Capilano College, wherein the class went to Florence, Italy, to study Renaissance art. Instead of seeing slides of the artworks, we got to go to the cathedrals and museums, and see them first hand. I thought it would be a kick to go, and a chance to get to Europe. It was there that I was introduced to Michelangelo's David, and the four unfinished Captives at the Accademia. Sure, I'd seen pictures, but they can never convey the power of the real thing. I remember returning a few times to sit in front of those four unfinished sculptures, and realizing I could see what Michelangelo was trying to say. It was not until several years later that I recognized that I was actually finishing the carving in my head. I could see the completed sculptures. I guess that was my epiphany, my calling, if you will.
When I returned home, I asked George Pratt (of Vancouver B.C.) if! could work with him for a summer in his studio. He had been in business with my uncle, but at that time had quit the furniture business, and had turned his hobby of stone carving into his career. He agreed to let me work, but in an unusual arrangement. The classic apprenticeship calls for the protege to pay the master. But George paid me to work on his large commissions, doing grunt work, and in the process, learning about tools and stone. In my spare time, I got to work on my own projects. I remember having a devil of a time with my first piece, which was a dolphin. I had so much experience at trying to make a two dimensional surface look three dimensional. Being confronted with a 3D piece of Texas limestone got my brainhand coordination in a knot. But all of a sudden, it clicked. Don't get me wrong, I was not as talented as most of our new members are right off the bat. I look back at my work of 20 years ago and cringe! But it was the best I could do with the experience I had. I was learning as I went.
My father bought my first piece as a corporate presentation gift to an associate of his who was retiring to Florida. I hope that fellow still has it-I put a #1 on the bottom beside my signature. I worked for George for the summer of 1980. During that time, he convinced me that with the right approach, one could make a living as an artist. He showed me how to have your own exhibitions in your home, and how to get into galleries, in order to sell your work. But it wasn't instant success. So, I got a job at a grocery store, stocking shelves -as my "real" job, and worked off-days at George's shop. He was very helpful-I pitched in what I could for stone and supplies, but it was never enough to compensate for what I consumed. Eventually, George had to move his studio, as Expo '86 was being built on the site.
We moved to a location just off Granville Island, and set up a studio/ gallery space. It was very successful, and I managed to contribute more, but it was never a 50-50 split. I guess George really had confidence in me. In the summer of 1985, he told me it was time for me to set out on my own. I've learned so much of the business of sales from George, and am so thankful to him. So, I attribute my artistic career to two people: Michelangelo for the inspirational "why", and George Pratt for the "how".
I bought a house in North Vancouver that backed onto industrial land. My father and I built a small garage studio, and I used the living room as my gallery. That fall, I started my own gallery, Stone Images. In 1987, I had enough sales of my sculpture to support me, and I quit the grocery store job. Now I am a full time sculptor, and the breadwinner of the family. Those bills are a real incentive to get up and at 'er in the morning! Some may criticize me for being somewhat of a prostitute, making sculpture that wi II sell, but I feel that I combine projects that are purely from my heart with those that are commissioned. And hey-isn't that what we all dream for-to be professional?
I'm completely self-represented. I tried the gallery and high end gift store route in the 80's, and some of those outlets worked very well. But none were able to sell enough for me to live.on. In 1986, I started to sell at the local market at the Lonsdale Quay (like Pike Place in Seattle). Every weekend for five years, my wife Michelle and I lugged sculptures and display paraphernalia down there, set up and did our song and dance. We sold a lot of sculpture that way, and trained our clients to come to the house to see more. That, coupled with our two shows each year (the Studio Show in late November, and the Garden Sculpture Show in May) increased OlIf client base to the point where we were in the position to be selfsustaining from sculpture sales. Now I get a call every few months from some gallery wanting to show my work, which is a nice feeling. But they all want to work on consignment, and I can only work with outright purchase, so Stone Images Gallery is the only place to buy my work.
In 1997, we were finally in a financial position to realize a separate gallery to show and sell my sculptures. This has been a real blessing, as it has given us back our private space. We had a 1000 sq. ft. addition built, consisting of a gallery and an office. The space has won praise from our clients, as they feel welcomed and relaxed, making their experience with buying art a pleasure. Our contractor also won an award for his design. The gallery has lots of windows to let in natural light, and to see out into the sculpture garden. The 24' ceiling and exposed trusses give the space the feel of a New England barn, or a warehouse garret loft.
In March, I entered cyberspace with my own website (www.BinkleySculpture.com). I maintain it, and try to update it every two weeks Of so. I've learned the medium is very complex, but it should be worth the effort. Michelle and I track the stats on the site, and so far there are a lot of people looking, all over the world. Kind of eerie. I am using the site so far as a support tool. I get many reqnests for photographs from clients, and the site has saved a lot of time and expense. I'm skeptical as to someone surfing to buy sculpture, but maybe some of those "lookers" will surprise me.
Who and what influenced your artform?
My favourite subject matter is the human nnde. That's Michelangelo's influence. As to other influencesI would have to say "Life". There is no one artist in particular that I could say is an influence on me. I am always bumping into new artist's worksome move me some don't. Just as all life experiences affect one-some influence you to the point of addlng a new slant to your work.
What kind of art do you create?
I divide my subject matter into three categories: figurative, animal and pure abstract. I've concentrated on representational work mostly. My thinking is that until you have a handle on proportion, balance, and line, you aren't going to be able to create good pure abstract art. I tried it long ago-thinking that if someone could splash a blue stripe on a red background, call it "Voice of Fire" and sell it for 1.5 million dollars, why can't I? My first forays into abstract-painting and sculpture-were terrible. I feel more confident in my representational abilities now, and so am finding most of my abstract compositions are pleasing, or at least better.
A recent interesting project was the transformation of an earlier piece. I did a life-size sculpture of Eve in the Garden of Eden, just after she had bitten the forbidden fruit. She was seductively posed, the apple concealed in her left hand behind her back. The serpent was coiled about her feet, and reaching up to lick the apple. I called it the Temptation of Adam. Loads of symbolism. Few viewers got it. They didn't.walk around the sculpture.
I was happy with her when I finished it. But as the years went by, and I became disenchanted with her, I thought I'd rework her. So off with her head, her legs, and arms! She got a spine, lost weight in her butt and hips, and I plunked the apple right there in front of her. Voila, Temptation of Adam II. A much more dramatic sculpture, and everyone gets it now.
I've been asked, why torsos, and not complete figures? I like the expressive power of the torso. I find that the whole figure can sometimes negate the expressive power of the torso, especially in stone. I think the whole figure lends itself more to the medium of bronze. One of my clients said she does not like figures with a head and face, as they make her associate them with someone she might know. She prefers to complete a torso's limbs and head in her imagination. I agree with her. Temptation of Adam is a good example.
Another recent piece is "Torsion". I used a piece of Jim Gill's "magic"pink alabaster. (He calls it magic, as anything I make from it sells first at an exhibition-until now!) Tbe female torso is quite nice, in a twisted composition. . But what Michelle noticed is that there is an unusual amount of negative space in the piece- more than] have included in the past. I call it "pushing" the stone. But I don't want to go too far. I like to keep the "stoniness" in my sculptures.
How do you develop ideas?
I direct carve almost exclusively. I never leamed the process of doing maquettes first, so have not pursued that route. I wi II, however, make drawings for a client first to help them to better understand what I will carve for them. And if I ever get that big commission, I'll for certain make a maquette or two to get the kinks out. I just find that with most stones, one cannot be certain of what's on the inside of a block. I would not want to be tied down to a blueprint model, as the stone may have an interesting veining happen deep inside that would encourage a subtle or drastic change in composition. As T mentioned, I see the finished sculpture already before I begin, and just take away what's not supposed to be there. I see the end result, as opposed to seeing it develop along the way. I guess I see what the stone is saying to me, and go after it. For the most part, I don't spend a lot of time communing with a stone before I begin. I'm quite brutal. I look at a piece, decide quickly what I'm going to create, and get down to it. I'm impatient, so I like to finish one piece before starting another. Every now and then, I get itchy to make a largish piece on spec, and then I will have it ongoing as I work in tandem on smaller projects. I must always think of those bills, so the commissioned sculptures always take precedence.
What size or scale is your sculpture?
I work in scale from something that will fit into the palm of your hand, to something that will fit into a park, or plaza. I prefer life size to about half life size scale. This affords me the latitude I like to create, but I still have a way to go to be able to subsist on the sales of those scaled works.
What stone do you prefer to carve?
I like all carvable stones. I stay away from soapstone for its stigma. There are a lot of folks who think that the only sculptors working in stone today are Inuit, and that they carve soapstone. I love marble most, particularly statuario. It has an integrity, crystal structure and workability that I've not found in any other marble.
What tools do you use?
I mostly use diamond abrasive tools-angle grinders, bench grinders, die grinders, etc. ( I've yet to try the hydraulic diamond chainsaw ... ) If I'm working on a larger piece, I'll use pneumatic chisels. I like the sensation of the chisels-they seem to be the "real" way to carve. It's just faster to remove stone with diamond. (He says he's interested in the possibilities of the high pressure water cutter for stone.) My impatience precludes my using hand tools, but if all I had to do for a few years was the great piece, and there was no deadline, I'd dig into a Carrara quarry block with hammer and chisel.
How much sculpture do you complete in a year?
If you include all the flower vases, and small animal and bird sculptures, I produce close to 200 sculptures a year. I figure I've made over 5,000 in my career (one contract alone for a Japanese client was for 1,000 white dove sculptures!)
Do you teach?
I don't fancy myself a great teacher. I do workshops at the NWSSA Symposiums, but aside from that, I don't teach. My shop isn't big enough for classes, and the city zoning would not permit it anyway.
Why is art important to you?
Being around art-paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, prose - is an essential for Michelle and me. Art communicates from one human being to another on an emotional level, as opposed to a purely mental level, such as most technology does. Creating art is essential to me. I think that is what is meant by the saying "an artist must suffer". It's not that we have to endure physical hardship (that happens to everyone). The suffering is that we artists need to create-we can never turn it off. We are always thinking out the next sculpture in our heads. It's not like other jobs where one can walk away after a 9-5 work day. Our work follows us everywhere, all the time. Now fortunately for me, my "suffering" is not a hardship. I just get annoyed when I get a great idea, and can't get hold of a piece of paper and pencil to write it down or draw it!
What is your relation to NWSSA?
I joined NWSSA in 1992, at the suggestion of George Pratt. I'm so glad I did. I've met so many wonderful people, who share my same insane passion for getting extremely dirty. All for the love of trying to make a rock look a little more beautiful. I am humbled that there is so much talent in our organization, and I am honoured to be among you all. I love the symposiums, but cannot get to them all. Unlike some of the members who make the symposiums their holidays, this is my work, and I like to vacation where there isn't a chisel around ... I have been an instructor at workshops at past symposia, and will again insttuct at the September '99 Thetis Island Symposium. I will come to Camp Brotherhood (July '99) for a day trip to visit.
What is your life philosophy? How does your art reflect that?
We are here to be the best at whatever we can do, and to enjoy our time as best we can on this earth-plane. If we are to be shit shovelers, we should be the best damn ones around. Never risk more than you are willing to lose. Take baby steps. Always observe-never stop looking. I try to approach life in a very pragmatic, and realistic way. I try to set realistic goals, and go about achieving them in a practical way. I love to carve stone, the process of removing what I don't feel should be there to realize what I hope is a beautiful artwork. If it brings pleasure to someone else, then my accomplishment is enriched. I am not into making big political statements, or exploring sensitive issues. I just feel that I want to make a small corner of the world a little more beautiful.
My wife and I are blessed with curiosity. We want to explore as much of this earth as we can while we are here-the physical locations and the emotional responses they lnspire in us. If we had the financial means, we would go to as many places as we could. But by the same token, we are very grounded in our home environment, and love to be here. Our house and garden are our sanctuary, and we feel whole when here.
What have been your satisfactions in your life as an artist?
Being able to play every day and get paid for it. Getting my hands to do what my mind and heart see. Hearing from a client how much they enjoy my work, how the piece has affected them, and having them caress a piece of my sculpture.
What have been your obstacles or challenges?
Still not having been able to do the great piece. I have wooed clients for almost 20 years, and still haven't gained the confidence to have a large sculpture commission. I see more and more cities adopting public art programs and bylaws which restrict my ability to directl y sell to "tall building clients". Instead, open competitions are the only option, and while on the surface these might look like great opportunities for artists, they really are not.
Art by committee usually results in mediocre (at best!) art. These competitions are so wrought with problems and elitist mentalities that the public they are supposed to serve gets forgotten. The competitions are usually directed by a government body (municipal or state/ provincial), and are another example of how government should really stay out of the way of private enterprise.
What are you looking forward to (goals, wild ideas)?
If things go surprisingly well.... Finally winning a competition! My record is 0-71, with two more in the judging stage. Also to go to Pietrasanta for a month and carve statuario marble in one of the studios there. Many of the members have done it already, and I salivate over it. Another goal is to rebuild my studio. I have a much better understanding of what my working needs are, and the tools I use have changed since I built the first one, so I would like a different setup.
This is an interview with sculptor Joyce Taylor of Shelter Bay, La Conner. She is a regular at the yearly NWSSA summer symposium at Camp Brotherhood. She's been a member for eight years and is an unassuming 'jewel" among us. At 70 (and getting younger), she has created an array of beautiful work in many styles and media over a period of some 2S years. She is always interested in improvlng and challenging her skills. I suggest seeking her out for feedback on your work, as I have on many occasions.
We start by looking at her work around her home: "Introspection", a large and gorgeous piece in Carrara marble, which she roughed out while working at a studio in Italy. Then, "Moods of the Sea", a waveform in alabaster, and "Leroy", a head in dark terra-cotta with dark patina.
"Quiet Opposition" is a beautiful, non-representational form describing two people having a slight disagreement, hand-tooled in alabaster. She integrated the base block with the stone, leaving a lumpy organic texture, done by wire brushing the alabaster until smooth and soft looking. We look at her large "Frog" in translucent alabaster, seemingly ready to hop, also carved with an integrated base. We look at her life-like fox head, "Red Fox", in bronze with red patina.
JT: I did that in Scottsdale with an AnimaIier. He showed up one day and said, "In four hours I want a skull done." We did the skull in the mODling and started putting on the muscles in the afternoon; I learned a lot by this "building up" process.
With "Torso" in alabaster, polishing that bottom was the most sensuous thing in the world. It's always difficult when doing a torso to know how to end up in the shoulders and arms. It's so hard not to have it be static. You've got to have some movement in it.
SS: In forms like this (abstracted torso form) do you have a sense of trying to express something in particular?
JT: It just happens. Usually before I start a piece of stone, I set it out somewhere for two or three weeks. Every so often I turn it and look at it. Then some morning I say "Hmmm" and off! go, carving the stone. It's just there and you begin to get a rapport with it; it's sort of neat.
SS: How long have you been carving and creating?
JT: Twenty-five years.
SS: How did you get started?
JT: I had to have a wrist operation, so I quit work as an economist and securities analyst. While I was recovering I went to a community college class called "You Can Draw", taught by a little old lady. No matter what anyone did it was "marvelous". She was an enormously positive person and made everyone want to do more. I had a grand time.
One day I sat down and did a portrait of John Wayne. I don't know why, as I don't even like John Wayne. When my husband came home he took a look and said "Oh my God" (positively impressed). So, at Christmas he gave me a year at the Laguna School of Art. I never had any art training before that and Ijust took off. I tried watercolors, printmaking, terra-cotta sculpture, and lots of life drawing. [' m a strong advocate of life drawing and sculpture at the same time. Nothing teaches your eye to see like life drawing.
My terra-cotta class instructor handed me a piece of stone, a chisel and a hammer, and said "Make something." (Joyce brings out a "primitive" carving of a salmon). That was my first stone piece.
This is the only piece I've ever done that I have had to explain. "Flight of Childhood" is a child form held by a parent's hand while the child is trying to spread his wings. (It has a very mystical quality to it.)
(We look at her indoor carving area, a 12' x 12' room incorporated into the garage. A Foredom flex shaft grinder hangs next to an alabaster waveform in progress.)
JT: Ever so often I have to do a piece of stone by hand. You have so much more rapport with the stone when you do. Otherwise I use power tools. (We look at "Crow" in fossiliferous limestone). We did not enjoy working together. The stone was hard to carve and dirty.
She direct carves her large waveforms in alabaster.) "This is the fifth one I've done, and let me tell you, they sell." She mounts the colorful alabaster sculpture on a polished black Belgian marble base. We look at other works in progress around the studio: "Leroy", a torso fonn in terra-cotta with applied patina. We look at a 24" high clay figure to be cast in bronze. We look at her clay maquette for a large bear, which is now being roughed out in marble.
JT: Unfortunately, the piece of Carrara marble for the bear is so valuable that he's sat for three years with his head just a block. The stone is from the same vein that Michelangelo used for "David". And now that vein is quanied out.
(We talk about her trip to Pietrasanta, Italy, where she studied and worked for two months at the Silverio Paoli studio.)
JT: It was absolutely grand. You went through these old wood doors into a 30' high studio, then into a courtyard with an overhead grape arbor. You look up the hill to the old battlements. I elected to work outside under the grape arbor, which was delightful. We worked until 1100n, then bought lunch in the local market, then worked until fi ve. It was HOT! We'd shower and go out for wine, bumping into people from all over: Russia, Japan. Dinner (multi-course meal at the pension) was at 9 pm, so at I pm you had to go for a walk. Then it was back to the studio at 7:30 the next morning. Silverio, master of the studio, was a grand person. He would take us around, get us stone, and show us various outstanding sculptors' studios. His son, a master at finishing, would teach liS finishing techniques while Silverio translated. Tools were abundant and my fecding frenzy got expensive.
(We continue the tour to an enclosed side yard).
JT: This is my outside worktable with my compressor nearby in a sound shield enclosure. r have three pneumatic handpieces, but really like the smallest, a Y2" Cuturi, the best. You can cut the air back on that one and go anyplace. (We look at a fine collection of carbide-tipped chisels for her air-powered handpieces.)
(We look at her photos).
JT: You have to be so careful of what you say when someone wants to buy something. I couldn't use a person's name as a sculpture title for pieces in the Laguna Beach Gallery. The owner felt that someone might love the sculpture, but might have a bad association with the name. This bronze figure, called "Apprehension", was too strong to live with. A couple saw a photo of it and tlew over from Idaho
to buy it. She thought it was "the sweetest thing", where I saw it as an ominous and threatening figure. I had to keep my mouth shut.
SS: You seem so fluent in realistic, abstract, and nonrepresentational styles. For example, "Torso", an abstracted torso form, seems both realistic and abstracted, as if it could be seen both ways. Is that a conscious choice on your part?
JT: I put a twist or turn in everything I do, absolutely unconsciously. It just happens. (Looking at another photo). This is a large clay figure called "Pathos", an emaciated figure in a tattered shawl. This is the first of a series representing the emotions.
SS: Do you find you prefer modeling clay or carving?
JT: I like them all. That's the problem with art, there's so much you could do, but you can't do it all.
SS: With "Wild Horse", did you model or draw before you carved? You get such a good sense of movement.
JT: I walked near a pasture where a horse was kept. I fed him lots of carrots and I'd feel his nose, and his bones.
SS: How much do you work through galleries?
JT: I sold through a gallery in Laguna Beach for years. The gallery owner and I had excellent rapport, important for a continuing relationship. We liked each other. I ended up selling from my home studio when we moved to Gig Harbor.
(Now living in La Conner, WA, she is showing at the Galen Gallery in Mt Vernon, WA, and, in her home.)
SS: (We look at a piece called "Discovery", a non-representational form with plane and concave elements, in gray-white Carrara marble.) Were you inspired by the stone's original shape?
JT: No, the previous piece was very demanding and I wanted to have some fun with this one. I didn't know where I was going with it so I cut a plane here, a plane there, then I thought "How am I going to relate these?" You've been there. I had fun with it.
(We look at a photo of "Seal", coming out of the water.)
JT: It was in a show in Tacoma. I was delighted because it was purchased by a Seattle architect for his entrance lobby. It's quite a large piece and I was thrilled that an architect bought it. It's interesting that over one-third of my work has gone to corporations or professional offices. The first piece I ever sold went to the 3M Corporation.
SS: Were you creating art when you were working in the securities business?
JT: No, I didn't know that I could draw. When I was young I drew a child's stick figures of the family, and my mother said, "You haven't much talent, have you?" I thought no, I guess 1 don't. I never did another thing until I took up art in my forties. I guess it was meant to be.
SS: It sounds as if you just woke up one day and started work.
JT: I explored different art mediums, but the stone bug bit. When the stone bug bites, you stay bitten. Stone's challenge is enduring.
(We look at "Jonah and the Whale", a terra-cotta form created by an instructor's assignment to combine human and animal forms.)
SS: Do you ever teach sculpture? I think you'd be a great instructor with such diverse talent.
JT: In the summer, sculptor friends worked with me at my studio. I thoroughly enjoy helping people with the relationship with their stone. But I get frustrated when I find that people are sometimes reluctant to really get into the stone. They seem to want to put the eyes in right away in an animal, or human face. I like to say "Come on, let's get the form first, shut your eyes and see into a mist and look at the form, forget the detail for a while." It's hard to get people to do that.
SS: I know you're involved and interested in many art forms, but are you primarily a sculptor?
JT: Yes. As a sculptor you have to become very observant. One of the most interesting things we did at the summer symposium was when Rlch Hestekind had us pair up and walk into the woods to observe what we were drawn to in a natural setting. A twig and leaf on the water - you have to let yourself see. (Since then she's noticed how unobservant people can be). Observe the world, it's just marvelous!
When I started carving I had a free source of stone, so I never had any fear of the cost. As a result I pushed stone to its limits and thought "so what" if things went badly. Well, I pay for stone now but I've learned not to be afraid of it. I thoroughly enjoy stone carving and I will do it as long as I enjoy it. When I was showing in Laguna Beaeh I was a resident artist and I worked full time at it and I liked it very much. I feel I had more growth then than now. You don't grow unless you challenge yourself.
She talks about her next creative challenge being portraiture in stone and and notes some fear about "getting it right". Her advice for other artists: "Enter juried shows. But don't do it until you find out who the jurors are."
She recounts being rejected for a show because "stone sculpture is passe, it needs to be incorporated with ntixed media", according to this juror.
JT: It's your job to find out about the jurors and their background. You're wasting your time if you don't. They may be into completely abstract art, or may be completely into realism.
I was fortunate when I started because I entered a juried show. I won Best of Sculpture and Best of Show. I got a call from a Laguna Beach gallery owner who said that a show juror had told her about my work and that she would accept my work sight unseen. I was in that gallery for years (Esther Wells Collection); your recognition from juried shows, if you pick the right ones, is highly valuable. It leads to contacts and phone calls.
Joyce's parting thoughts: "ENJOY!" Which she is obviously doing, big time. And we'd be glad to join her.