A look at the life of masters of clay, bronze, and the larger-than-life creations of three Kentucky sculptors
Sculptors love to speak in metaphor, and what they articulate touches on topics from the origins of life—itself a metaphor for the genesis of artistic creativity—to the traumas of death, and from historical figures to historical moments.
Sam McKinney’s contextual Flow of Life is a metaphor for the process of conception— the “love attraction” of male and female that gives birth to a child and the artistic impulses of the sculptor who brings the form to life.
Ed Hamilton’s Amistad Memorial, completed in 1992 for the City of New Haven, Connecticut, relates in bronze the three phases of the Amistad Incident: the kidnapping of Joseph Cinque from his homeland of Africa; his courtroom trial in the United States; and his victorious return to Africa.
Matt Langford’s Abraham Lincoln, captured as a young man and recently dedicated at its new home at the Mary Ann Mongan Library in Covington, narrates parallel stories—one of the man who would be president and one of the opportunities beheld within a library, just on the other side of the threshold.
Born in 1951 in Lexington, Sam McKinney credits a childhood spent in the forests and streams and along the raw, rocky outcroppings of southeastern Kentucky, specifically the coal-mining town of Fleming-Neon, for sparking his artistic inclinations. For the future sculptor, nature’s playground provided an opportunity to explore the “prime divine” in all its wonder and beauty.
“I was awakened to the creative artistic spark in myself, and the spark became a flame when I discovered fossils and felt what I have later realized were power spots (places believed to have high energy within the earth) at these huge, ancient rock formations perched on the mountaintops that had been sculpted by time.”
McKinney already loved to draw and had a natural gift for portraiture. Later, in college and then travel to Italy, what McKinney learned about nature’s sculpturing was supplemented by study of the great masters—Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova, and Rodin—he considers his strongest influences.
“To me, the human figure is the epitome of beauty in form, proportion, countenance, psychology, intelligence, and expression, and these artists captured all these qualities in their work. They set the hallmarks of sculptural possibilities for future generations to strive to achieve and expound upon.”
McKinney’s breakthrough piece—the first sculpture for which he received state-wide attention—is a life-size portrait of Congressman Carl D. Perkins for the city of Hindman, which has been residing at the courthouse for 27 years. His favorite sculpture is the 1,800-pound Adam’s First Breath, which he calls his first masterpiece.
“With this piece, I achieved my vision, the moment of becoming, in every way, and to accomplish that combining two different mediums—bronze and granite—was an almost impossible feat.
“I sometimes compare Adam’s First Breath to a huge piece of jewelry, stone embraced by metal.”
The sculpture is located in Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, in Hamilton, Ohio.
Another significant piece is McKinney’s Flow of Life, commissioned by King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland in 2000 for its Extended Health Care expansion project. The piece will be relocated in 2005-2006 to the KDMC Sculpture Park. The concept of the commission was to portray and celebrate the family unit while illustrating the Center’s commitment to treating the whole family.
Says McKinney: “This is a celebration of family and the archetype in the rhythm of life’s flow from parent to child and the endless cycle of procreation. Water is the life-giver and sustainer, so it is a metaphor for the parents, and its flowing qualities is a visual metaphor of the movement or evolving of a family’s lineage, a flow of gene pool.
“It also is a statement of the medical center of their total treatment and care of the family. And it creates an environment of refuge and contemplation for the employees, patients, and their loved ones.”
Waxing metaphorical, McKinney says he sees his work fitting into this analogy in that the inspiration or love that “manifests a ‘child’ or a work of art is an expression, celebration, and perpetuation of being.”
Currently, McKinney is working on an extended project for King’s Daughters Medical Center, which may involve several sculptures, including a Sculpture Park.
“The most recent one, due in the spring of 2005, is a 23-foot-high by 18-foot-wide stainless steel and bronze fountain entitled Rhythms. It is a double helix with the life span of male and female on each ribbon.”
He is also working on a 14-foot-high by 7-foot-wide suspended stainless steel and acrylic piece called Healing Hands, due in the spring of 2006, that will be located in the foyer of the Heart and Vascular Center at KDMC.
“Being an artist was not a conscious choice, it is instinctual, a propensity, an ‘affliction’ as one of my greatest teachers, Gerry Hoover, said. I was blessed that I had early fostering and educational opportunities to become the gift, which then became a career.”
Hamilton’s Historic Moments
For Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton, “affliction” hit the first day he walked into a sculpting studio while attending Art Center School at the University of Louisville in 1965.
“I was in a four-year program and you couldn’t take sculpture until the second year. The day I walked into that sculpting studio was the day I had the vapors.
“I looked around, smelled the wax and plaster, and I was blown away.”
Hamilton was born in 1947 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised in Louisville. For the future creator of York (William Clark’s slave and an important member of the Corps of Discovery), walking into that studio as a college sophomore was a life-changing experience that opened up a whole new world.
“The funny thing about being creative—if one can take a lump of clay or a pot of paint and make something look like something—well, I just took it all for granted that this was something everyone could do. But everyone couldn’t do it.”
Hamilton’s first major public piece was of Booker T. Washington for the Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1983. It was a breakthrough he attributes to a chance meeting (and second life-changing experience) 10 years earlier with now deceased sculptor Barney Bright at his studio in Louisville.
Hamilton recalls: “Just as I had the vapors at art school, I nearly fainted when I walked through his threshold. We talked art and life for the rest of the day. He said he saw a piece on limestone block in front of the art school, and it was a life-scale, very rough direct plaster Adam (based on Rodin’s work). He said he thought that student had potential. I said, ‘Barney, that was my piece!’”
Bright needed help on a new commission and he made the young apprentice an offer; Hamilton studied and worked with Bright for five or six years and “all the rest,” he says with a chuckle, “is history.”
He opened his first studio, was awarded the Booker T. Washington commission, and was contacted by the City of Detroit to sculpt a memorial to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber, cast in bronze, stands more than 12 feet tall in the lobby of the Cobo Hall and Arena in downtown Detroit.
Next came the Amistad job, a commission Hamilton says he “lucked out on.” He learned about the project while on vacation in 1990—just one week before the deadline to submit a proposal. Hamilton cut his vacation short, put a package together, sent it off, and was eventually one of five chosen to compete for the commission. His piece is a three-sided bas-relief monument entitled Amistad Memorial.
Hamilton’s next commission, the one he considers his real breakthrough because it generated so much buzz nationally and internationally, was the Spirit of Freedom: African-American Civil War Memorial that was installed in 1998 in Washington, D.C. Chosen from a field of four nationally known sculptors, Hamilton’s piece is an 8-foot by 9-foot-tall bronze monument that memorializes the 285,000-plus colored soldiers and sailors and their 7,000 white officers of the Civil War.
Also in 1998, the sculptor unveiled a life-size statue of Whitney M. Young Jr. on the campus of Frankfort’s Kentucky State University.
Hamilton is currently working on three commissions: a monument to the 29th Colored Infantry with its 1,000-plus soldiers who fought in the Civil War; a tribute piece to the unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad for Kentucky’s new Center for African American Heritage, due to open in 2005; and a sculpture for the University of Louisville’s Freedom Park.
Each sculpture defines a moment in time and each is close to Hamilton’s heart.
“They’re like children. I have a son and a daughter, but I can’t tell you which one I like the best. It’s the same with the sculptures. They come from me, they come from my life. They come from my hands and my heart.”
Langford’s Lincoln Analogy
Providence is what Union sculptor Matt Langford credits for his commission of a life-size bronze rendering of Abraham Lincoln that was recently unveiled at the Mary Ann Mongan Library in Covington.
“I turned 40 right after 9/11. I was in a funk, unhappy with the type of work I was doing, and felt called to do the kind of fine art I wanted to do. I told my wife that as soon as I got a break, I was going to do a large piece as my first bronze.
“I have an affinity for Lincoln; I’m no scholar, but I have read quite a bit about him and have adopted some of his philosophies into my life.”
Born in 1961 in the Cincinnati suburb of Mariemont, Ohio, Langford has lived in a 170-year-old log cabin in Union for the past six years. He considers it a place of inspiration and meditation.
“I’m not a country boy, but I have a strong appreciation for Kentucky landscape.”
For the sculptor who has worked steadily for the past 15 years on a small scale, the Lincoln statue represents his first large outdoor commission.
“I hate to sound like a rookie because I’ve been at this so long in varying forms.”
It was Langford’s wife, Allison, who suggested he sculpt Lincoln as a young man, and the sculptor was quick to agree that this was the right direction for a piece that would, in his mind, mark the gateway between North and South.
“The library is a nice match in terms of location and theme.”
Langford regards the piece as a metaphor for Lincoln’s rise to greatness. For the base of the statue, he chose a phrase from Lincoln’s writings to be engraved on a plaque that captures not only the essence of the 16th president, but also alludes to the impact a library can have on an individual’s potential: “I shall prepare myself. Someday my chance will come.”
Capturing Lincoln’s youthful visage was a challenge the sculptor embraced with enthusiasm. He chose simple clothing for his figure and, with a little imagination and a lot of research, was able to sculpt facial features that lived up to Lincoln’s youthful nickname.
“Lincoln was called the backwoods Adonis in his youth. He had an unusual countenance that people took notice of, but he aged early.”
The statue is the first of the City of Covington’s Art of Discovery awards, a partnership with Baker-Hunt Foundation, the Behringer-Crawford Museum, and the Carnegie Arts Center, to celebrate artists and the arts.
Up next for the sculptor is a “larger than life” bronze of General Leonard Covington (a commission awarded through a competition) “if funding comes through,” and a life-size piece that will be installed in a yet undisclosed location in Kentucky.
KENTUCKY SCULPTORS CONTACT INFO
Ed Hamilton Studio
543 S. Shelby Street
Louisville, KY 40202
9848 Sullivan Road
Union, KY 41091
994 Gilliam Cemetery Road
Elliottville, KY 40317
Other Kentucky Sculptors
University of Kentucky
207 Fine Arts Building
Lexington, KY 40506
Bibbs is an associate professor/Art Studio, head of sculpture and director of graduate studies at the University of Kentucky. Bibbs has noted public artwork to his credit, mostly regional, and six new commissions to be created. Typical of Bibbs’ style, which is abstract expression using direct metal fabrication techniques, these will be large stainless steel outdoor fabrications for installations around Kentucky, the largest of which is a 25-foot by 14-foot work entitled “Now get!” for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet building in Frankfort.
2104 Sheridan Place
Owensboro, KY 42301
A college professor and the director of many stone carving workshops, Kolok is a sculptor working primarily in stone and wood whose commissions include churches, a health park, and, most recently, two pieces for the Owensboro Sculpture Park. Kolok’s work ranges from intimate sculptures for the home or office to garden sculptures, from abstract stone or wood to large outdoor pieces suited for sculpture parks.
610 West Third Street
Lexington, KY 40508
(859) 225-3014 (Erika Strecker)
(859) 455-9934 (Tony Higdon)
The married couple of Strecker and Higdon sculpt separately and also collaborate on a number of projects. Recently relocated to a 7,000-square-foot building, they will have a sculpture garden and showroom. The couple are currently working on a 43-foot-tall piece of stainless steel sculpture entitled Nexus for the state of Kentucky that will be installed in front of the new Kentucky Transportation Cabinet building in Frankfort in 2005.
HC 67, Box 1
Aaron, KY 42602
Papineau, originally from Michigan, has lived in Kentucky for 25 years. A recent winner of the North American Sculpture Competition, Papineau tackles a variety of topics in his work: homeless families, historical figures, addiction, stallions, and other topics.