Sounds From the Heart of the Sculpture
R.J. LeBlanc


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Searching for the spirits locked in the wood.
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Prelude: Any work of art be it painting, sculpture or architecture, has within it the spirit of the artist. That spirit may be likened to the soul of a being and, as an artifact, it may be totally invisible, represented only by the external qualities of the work itself. Yet some artists see within their work a whole universe of life, perhaps populated with beings that exist only in their imaginations. This soul of a creation makes it more than merely the sum of its parts.

Now, even as the artist envisions this landscape and its populace, the other dimensions to the work have nothing to do with him or her, but are products of the audience. The viewers see the work from their own perspective, essentially through those "multi-spectral spectacles" which are the unique vantage point of each person.

A work of art then has many dimensions beyond the visible surface.
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Marcel Duchamp's nude started to descend the staircase and her image began to multiply until there were dozens of her on various steps, from the first landing to the last. Her greeting from the top had been, "Hello," which quickly became a multiple echo - Hello! - Hello! - Hello! - Hello! - one more echo for each additional image, surrounding James. The sound increased in intensity -- runaway feedback -- until he had to hold his his hands cupped over his ears to avoid the pain.

He blinked and found himself in a field of tall grass. There was a young woman lying there, looking toward a white house in the distance. He saw the viper next to her, poised behind the woman and he wanted to warn her, but when he tried to yell, he found that he had no mouth. Groping for his lips he felt only a membrane of twisted skin. The viper struck, the woman screamed, and her face turned to butter and melted into the earth. He closed his eyes and opened them to . . . a bedpost and the screams turned a clanging alarm clock. Dripping with sweat James turned off the alarm and walked downstairs for breakfast.

Among those of us, "old timers" who learned electronics during the age of vacuum tubes I doubt if there are many who never looked into a vacuum tube and didn't ask, "Who lives in there?"

Most radios of that day had open backs, to let out the hot air from all the heat those tubes generated by their filaments. So as you looked into the radio you could see a village of sorts, perhaps a dozen or more red campfires burning with a warm red glow down there inside the jungle of wires, resistors and capacitors of the superheterodyne.

Of course this thought, that someone or something lived within the tubes was only a passing fantasy, usually on a subconscious level, never uttered out loud or even considered as a legitimate thought.

 I built my sculptures and was content with them until a seven year old asked me, "Who lives in your houses?"

"What!" I replied, "Why they're not . . .  I mean, they may look like buildings. . .  Well, maybe they are structures, buildings, but they're not . . .  and nobody really . . . " I stood there, scratching my head. But I knew then that she had me. That impish smile on the little girl face, I'd seen it before -- many years past as a small child standing next to me on the beach asked, "What kind of dragon is that you're painting?"

"It's abstract," I said, "not a  . . . Well, it does look like a . . .  maybe, but . . .Yes, your right. Of course, it is a dragon. . . "

"So what kind of dragon is it?" she said sliding down in the warm sand next to me as her little brother toddled up to join in the party.

"Okay," I said, giving in to the power of her childish smile: "Dragons! There be many kinds of dragons: sea dragons, flying dragons, fire breathing and . . . "

That was it:  the summer was ruined. My image of sitting on the beach and painting abstract pictures was shattered by a kid, and a dragon. There are moments in your life which vaporize the line that you're following, instantly, irrevocably, and, for me, that was one of them.

I drew them a dragon, and then drew a stick-form of a little girl and then a smaller boy and a sailboat on the sea. Of course there was a dragon in that crowded picture.

"Does he like kids, the dragon?" asked the girl.

I was tempted to answer, "yes, he does, with a little garnish." But instead I said, "Yes, I think so."  I drew about fifty pictures that afternoon as one child after another stood before me and said, "Draw my picture, please."

That night my dreams were interrupted by strange music coming from the house next door, a new musical group, what was their name, The Bugs or no, the Beatles, I think. At the time, they weren't famous. And their music was an odd song about a girl named Eleanor Rigby who hid her face in a jar by the door. I slept after a while but that faceless woman kept opening doors and walking into my room.

I didn't see those two little kids again but for the next few days I churned out a lot of dragons and other pschedelic stuff, women with swirling faces, skies that looked like "starry night" and all that.

When, one evening, my landlady and friend Rhoda complained that 9 year old Amy was not having much of a summer since she didn't have any friends there I thought about the problem for a  while and then had an answer.

We lived in a summer community, The East End of Provincetown, made up of artists, musicians, their wives and children. When the musicians went on the road they left the families behind for days at a time. So here was a whole neighborhood of "Pro Musica" kids and a few "Starving Artist" kids thrown in too, but none of them really knew one another. What they needed was a mythology, a common bond. That's where the dragons came in.

Amy discovered one of my dragons, not by accident, since I left it where she had to sit on it in the living room. "Did you do this dragon?" she asked.

"Yeah, its one of mine," I said.

"Draw my picture," she said.

"Okay." So I drew her, then warped her face, much like Eleanor Rigby and handed it to her. She nodded and left the house with the drawing. In five minutes she was back with nine year old Toby from the wharf across the street. "Draw my picture," he said.

Now there was a psychedelic boy and girl. They kids went out to the beach and in came two more, then another two. I said to Amy and Toby, "I'm writing a book, would you like to be in it?"

"Sure," said Amy. "Okay!" shrugged Toby.

That began a process wherein I took the children to the beach the first day in my green old Chevy Van and the following day there were two more kids for the beach and two more the next day, until I was driving off with a dozen neighborhood kids each day. I didn't write a book, just sat in the sand and wrote or drew pictures while the kids scampered off down the beach, playing and doing whatever kids do. My son Tony, who was fourteen at the time, only shook his head at his crazy dad, then he shouldered his guitar and took off with a friend for the Far Point.

At the end of the summer the kids had all become friends, but there wasn't any book. So, one day when Toby and Amy came for their ride I told them I was going to "finish" the story and that we weren't driving down to the beach that day. I took my portable, manual, typewriter across the street, plopped myself down in the sand and began writing. All day there was a steady parade of neighborhood kids, one or two at a time peeping over my shoulder as the typewritten pages began to pile up. By the end of the day there was 45 pages of "The Children of Gronicus."

I said to Lorn, one of the kids, to tell his mother that I'd babysit for the neighborhood that evening. Right after supper Lorn's mother went out to the movies with a friend and I had twelve children sitting in a circle around me in the living room. I read all 45 pages without an interruption, or a single cough, that I could hear. When it was done, they nodded, and I could tell it was a success. This had been the final stitch in creating a summer mythology to bind them together. From then on they were a neighborhood and you always saw them in pairs or groups and when there was an event that needed a group they all went as one unit.

I sat, a few evenings later, on the lawn with Rhoda, drinking a gin and tonic as they boys and girls zipped up and down the street on their bicycles before heading off into town. "It worked," said Rhoda, "I didn't think you could do it, but you did."

Over the next few years I kept in touch with the families via a magazine that I put together with my son Tony, called "SandCastle Lands" and each issue had a new chapter of "The Children of Gronicus" with hand drawn illustrations based on photos I'd taken of the kids on the beach. After the kids grew into their teenage years I mostly lost touch with them and the story was never completed entirely.

I began to build sculptures soon after that, when I was back at Yale, as an electronics associate with the physics department  and I didn't think too much about who lived in my sculptures.

Recently I went back to revisit friends in Provincetown, met Toby his wife and children, and Amy who was visiting her mother. Amy was now a 28 year old single mother living in New York with her child and doing well. We talked about the other "Gronican kids" who were now living in Paris and California and elsewhere around the world.

I came home, built some more structures and forgot about who might live in them. Then John Sims and I got together and attacked the concept of "Time" with our sculptures. That kept me busy for a long while, until a little girl asked me, "Who lives in your houses?"

Then, I realized that there were occupants within, in each and every one of them. I'd  just been so busy building them that I hadn't noticed.  It was time to consider the residents of those various worlds. After the next sculpture was built. I began to wonder who lived in it and why? "What did they residents look like? and who were they?"

But the characters couldn't just be drawings, they had to be three dimensional. They had to move. I took out some clay and began to shape faces which I quickly realized were Trolls. So, that's who they were, Gremlins, Trolls, Elves, and a whole range of mythological creatures.

As the characters started to arrive at my doorstep, some of them literally, I needed a place to put them and so revisited the Land of Gronicus and found that it was a good vehicle for my characters. Sand Castle Lands, the magazine, then came back into being.

So that seems to be my direction, at least during this period of time, populating some of my structures with citizens. There are structures that I truly don'e know anything about, who lives in them, or what their purpose is -- the ideas and designs came from my subconscious and my hands merely followed the dictates of those subconscious messages.

I've found too, recently, through a visit by Arthur Wensinger, co-author with Walter Gropius of "The Theatre of The Bauhaus" that I'm a third generation Bauhaus artist. Professor Wensinger recently discovered my work and gave me a copy of his book with the inscription, "To Bob White who has authentic connections to this material."

I hadn't thought too much about where any of my designs came from except from within. My ego said that I was an original, but when Arthur mentioned Bauhaus it dawned on me that my teacher/mentor, Jordan Abeshouse was a student of Albers at Yale. Albers, master of color interaction, a Bauhaus artist from the old school. That caused me to think and to realize how Jordan had steered me, very subtly toward the Bauhaus artists who I grew to know and to love. Of course their work was reflected in my own, how could it not. So I did have earthly roots after all. Images of the work of Mholy Gnagy and Marcel Duchamp slowly materialized within my mind. Yes, there were strong connections.

I wanted to get back to new sculptures but I couldn't get away from the old ones. They called to me with words such as, "Who am I? What am I? Where am I? And, who lives within me?" So, I picked up my camera in one hand and a hunk of clay in the other and got to work creating stories for each work to exist within.

Now, almost once a week, someone knocks on my door and says, in their own way. "Hello, I'm here, another character. Do you have a role for me?"

And, of course I do . . .

Addenda: I began searching second hand stores for children's toys, as I wanted the mechanical elements to add life to my beings, and then went directly to toy stores themselves to see what there was that I could use as raw material for creating characters. I was surprised to find the evolution in toys from Furbees to Dancing Santas and Robotic Dogs. I think life is about to get very interesting . . .

Robert J. White               March 16, 2000

http://www.wesleyan.edu/av/gronican.htm

or email: rwhite@wesleyan.edu