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The next generation: Two bags of clay, 21 hours and one nude model

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Brookgreen Gardens will forever be a special place for Michael Hall of Provo, Utah.

He came here last week as a participant in a national sculpture competition and discovered three works done by his great-uncle, the late Avard Fairbanks, on display in the gardens. The sculptures are titled “Rain,” “Nebula” and “Shell Boy.”

“I had no idea they were here,” Hall said after he was named winner of the Charlotte Geffken first prize of $5,000 in the National Sculpture Society competition. “It just made the experience that much more meaningful to have that connection so far away from home. I used to go to his studio as a young boy. He’d let me carve on his marble statues.”

Robin Salmon, vice president of art and historical collections and curator of sculpture at Brookgreen, announced the winners Friday afternoon at the Carroll Campbell Center of American Sculpture where the 11 contestants had spent an intense three days. The sculpting time had been reduced this year from four days to three — a strict 21 hours. The sculptors began with a 30-inch wire armature of the figure and two bags of modeling clay with the goal of producing a precise rendering of a nude female that showed their mastery of the human figure.

The model was a full-figured woman in her early 20s. She was standing with her right hand behind her back and her left hanging loosely at her side, fingers dangling. Her weight was on her left leg with her right knee slightly bent. Her hair was gathered in back of her head.

Emily Bedard of Staten Island, N.Y., who won the Edward Fenno Hoffman Prize of $350, said she tried to portray the model in classical proportion even though she was barely 5 feet tall. And she was pleased to see a model with curves rather than a stick figure. “I did a competition of 40 hours with a woman very narrow in a straight pose,” she said. “It was hard.”

Bedard actually prefers sculpting male figures. “Men are kind of easier,” she said. “You can exaggerate the anatomy, and it still looks masculine, but with a female figure, if you exaggerate the anatomy too much it starts to look a little manly. It’s very difficult to be subtle.”

While hair and eyes are challenging to sculpt, Bedard said she has learned to set aside one whole day for feet and hands. “If you are still working out major proportions on the last day, you are going to rush their feet,” she said. “In the past I’ve had judges tell me you need to spend more time on the feet.”

Like some of the other contestants, Bedard is a painter turned sculptor. A graduate of Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, this was the third time she has been selected by the National Sculpture Society for competition — other locations are Old Lyme, Conn., and New York City.

Prize winners, in addition to Hall and Bedard, included: Anna Lee-Hoelzle of Cottage Grove, Oregon, the Roger T. Williams Prize of $1,500; Zoe Suenson-Taylor of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Walter and Michael Lantz Prize of $750; and Lucian Goff of Essex, Conn., the Gloria Medal.

The remaining competitors included: Julia Ambrose of Milford, Conn., Kevin Chambers of Atlanta, Kellie Pereira of Branford, Conn., Alex Rane of Bronx, N.Y., LaQuincey Reed of Oklahoma City and Katrina Wolfe of Seattle.

The competitors are among an elite group of artists who travel in the same circles. “I know all of them,” Bedard said. “I either went to school with them or competed with them in the past. You learn so much from the energy of the group. At my first couple of competitions I was often looking at other people’s work, but that kind of psyches you out.

“You have to learn to work on your own piece. When you start to look at what someone else is doing you see, oh, they have this special spot and I’m going to do that too. Then you are off track and making your piece look more like their piece.”

Hall, the grand prize winner, said last week’s competition was a learning experience for him. “My method was a lot different from everyone here,” he said. “I studied painting and drawing, but as a sculptor I’m self-taught. It was interesting to see all the people who studied at the different schools, some of the techniques. It’s been a wonderful experience all in all, even if I hadn’t won anything.”

What separated the contestants, according to judge Jill Burkee, was the level of realism. “It was very important that all of them follow the criteria,” she said. “First, capture the portrait of the model. You aren’t using the model for just the anatomy and to do your own personal expression but to capture the character. That’s what actually brought us to the conclusion we reached.”

Burke and the other judges, Giancarlo Biagi and Alex Palkovich, looked for a sculpture that captured true youth and the essence of the age of the model. “It was very hard to find anyone who captured true youth and the fullness of the form,” Burkee said. “The first prize was somewhat of a portrait, but we didn’t think the portrait was truly captured in the face. It was important that the modeler was not putting himself into the piece. One put in so much of himself it took him out of the competition because it was not a portrait of the figure.”

Still, she said it was very difficult to select a winner and to be critical.

Bob Jewell, CEO of Brookgreen Gardens, said hosting the competition is an investment in the future of sculpting. “It shows our support for fine arts and up-and-coming artists,” he said. “In many ways it increases their commitment to the world they are in. We don’t get a direct benefit, but it’s worthwhile as long as we can afford to do it.”

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