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Eye of the Beholder

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Ben Hammond left Brookgreen Gardens last week, he was $10,000 richer and had two prestigious titles to add to his resume.

Hammond's 3-foot, full-length model of a female figure took first place in the 31st annual National Competition for Figurative Sculpture, which was hosted by Brookgreen this year. He also won the award for the best work of sculpture in bas-relief.

While both awards came with a check for $5,000, Hammond said the real prize was in Brookgreen itself and the opportunity to explore and study all it has to offer.

“More than anything, Brookgreen Gardens is the reason I came here,” Hammond said. “I heard about it seven or eight years ago and I’ve wanted to see it ever since.”

The first public sculpture garden in the United States, Brookgreen is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture in the country, with more than 1,200 works by 350 artists who worked from the early 19th century to the present.

“For a sculptor, it’s Valhalla,” said Robin Salmon, Brookgreen’s vice president for collections and curator of sculpture.

The competition, held over five days in Brookgreen’s Center for American Sculpture, brought 12 sculptors from around the nation to compete against themselves and the clock. Given a block of water-based clay, 28 hours and a live model, they were tasked with creating a 30- to 36-inch figure.

While the competition kept sculptors busy from early morning into the late afternoon, their evenings were spent roaming the gardens with Salmon.

“There’s so much to see, we knew they wouldn’t be happy with one tour, so we’ve been looking at different sections every day,” Salmon said.

In addition to the pieces on display throughout the gardens, the competitors were also guided through Brookgreen’s Offner Sculpture Learning and Research Center, a storage facility that allows the display of works that would normally be concealed in a warehouse.

Alfred Paredes of Pomona, Calif., who placed second in the competition and picked up a $1,500 prize, said Brookgreen is something every sculptor should experience.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I’m out there looking at works I’ve only seen in books before. As a sculptor, you travel to Europe to see the masters’ works up close, but you come here to see the great works in American sculpture.” Hammond, who lives in American Fork, Utah, said he had high expectations for Brookgreen, and it surpassed all of them.

“I knew the quality would be good,” he said “but I didn’t think there would be that much of it. All the artists I’ve enjoyed for years and years are in one place.”

Salmon kept the tours informal and was delighted by the sculptors’ enthusiasm and the flood of questions they had every night.

“It’s a nice interchange,” she said. “It’s always really fun when you have a group that lives and breathes sculpture like this one does.”

Brookgreen, the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, the National Sculpture Society and the New York Academy of Art were co-sponsors of the competition, open to emerging sculptors between the ages of 18 and 39.

“It’s very prestigious in the sculpting community,” Paredes said. He has applied to the competition for more than a decade. He finally made it as an alternate this year, and was added to the roster when someone dropped out.

“I’ve been trying to get in so long, I’ve actually seen the age limit change,” he said.

Even before he walked away with a prize, Paredes said the competition was worth all the effort and rejection he had to go through. “To be part of it is something really special,” he said.

He described the competition as a contest of endurance, as well as skill, because the sculptors are on their feet for hours at a time working against the clock.

They got started at 9 a.m. every morning, working steadily until lunchtime. After an hour break, they went back to work for another three hours, except on Friday. All sculptures had to be finished at noon. Judging began at 1:30 p.m.

“This is my first time in this kind of a contest and I’ve never had to complete a sculpture so quickly,” said Alicia Ponzio, a New Jersey native who teaches at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. “It’s helped me learn to prioritize.”

She said it was also a challenge sharing a model with 11 other people. She’s used to having a model to herself and “having a lot of time to think and make adjustments. With this, you have to be very decisive.”

As they worked, the sculptors seemed lost in their own world, oblivious to the competitors working around them. Ponzio was pensive as she added clay to the curve of a hip.

Hammond was just as intent, but bopped around to music from his iPod as he used a thin tool to add definition to the long line of a leg and the slight bend of a knee. He said he likes to listen to “anything from ABBA to Metallica” while he works.

“I’ll definitely dance if it’s ABBA or The Killers,” he said.

Sculptors said they tried not to think too much about what their competitors were doing or how their own pieces would measure up. Their goal, they said, was doing the best work they were capable of and not outdoing another sculptor.

“I’m more going up against myself than somebody else,” said Julia Levitina of Philadelphia. “When you’re doing something like this, it’s just you and the clay.”

Levitina placed third in the competition and took home a $750 prize.

The pieces were judged on structure and anatomical accuracy, but also on the sculptor’s analytical observation of the human figure and ability to convey that through proportion, stance and continuity of line.

Admitting they were being “picky,” judges critiqued one piece, saying the length of the little toe was not right. Another figure had too much detail to the hair — it detracted attention from the face.

A sculpture where the breasts were fuller and higher than those on other pieces was criticized for a lack of realism.

Judges looked specifically for an effort by the sculptor to add interest to the back of the piece with the use of contours and shadows.

The location of the competition rotates among sponsors, so Brookgreen is looking forward to acting as host again in three years. But the Salmon will also be keeping an eye on this year’s contestants as their careers develop.

“It’s been a thrill to have them here and see their emerging talent,” Salmon said. “Who knows what they’ll go on to do. Some of their work may even end up here at Brookgreen some day.”

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