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Alison Sarr pays tribute to cooks with her imagery on the back of found skillets. (Photo by Ashley Teplin)

March 26, 2008

Shovels and skillets: Sculptor Alison Sarr at Copia

Aspiring apprentices, take note: “You have to have a tetanus shot to work in the Alison Sarr studio,” the award-winning sculptor told her audience during the latest Oxbow School Visiting Artist Lectures, at Copia on Monday, March 17.

Sarr works with barbed wire, rusty tin, and old metal skillets to create her often life-sized figures. One of her most prized tools is a chainsaw. Injuries are always a possibility.

“I’d like it to be a collaboration, but it ends up being a contest between me and my materials,” said Sarr, who also incorporates dirt and plant roots into many of her works.  So why, asked one young Oxbow School art student, was Sarr drawn to sculpture?  “I’m a very tactile person,” Sarr answered. “I understand my world through my hands.”

And through her hair: The biracial daughter of African-American artist Betye Sarr is light-skinned enough to “pass” as white, if she wanted to. Only her hair, springing exuberantly from her pale scalp, remains as a physical connection to her mother’s family and the black community.

“My hair was my treasure,” Sarr told the audience as she showed a slide of her piece “Taint” – “She ‘taint’ white and she ‘taint’ black,” the sculptor explained of the unsmiling head with its grey skin and bristling hair.

“Nappy Head Blues,” a bright-blue head with a stern face, is crowned with hair that is “almost like a diary,” Sarr explained, pointing out the many symbols embedded in its blue locks: “a mule shoe, a scrub brush, a little pig, a winged victory.”

The figure’s hair, Sarr said, represents “her hopes, her fears, her desires.”

In a work called “Coup,” Sarr takes the concept of hair-as-history even further: A life-sized female figure sits staring stoically forward, a knife in her hand, ready to cut the long braid that stretches from her head to enwrap a towering bundle of suitcases behind her.

The burdens of being female and the challenges of being black in America are recurrent themes in Sarr’s work – as they have been for her mother, whose assemblages like “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) often targeted social assumptions.

The younger Sarr’s “Bat Boyz,” a collection of found baseball bats, clustered in a corner with their hitting ends sculpted into male heads, comments on the Negro Leagues in baseball history. Her “Spade Series” – a group of found shovels with men’s portraits painted on the blades – commemorates what she called “the invisible population” of workers. “Every shovel has a name,” she said.

Similarly, Sarr’s “Skillet Studies” pays tribute to the nannies and cooks who care for other people’s families but are “basically invisible” themselves. In fact, you have to look closely at the skillets to see the faces of “Mona,” “Nesta,” and the others.

“I could only paint from 11 (a.m.) to 1 (p.m.) because I needed full sun to see them myself,” Sarr said.

Not all of Sarr’s works are directly related to the African-American experience, but nearly every one comes with a dash (or more) of social comment: “Asset Test,” for instance, is a series of cast buttocks inspired by her “ever-changing physique, and how women are often judged by their backsides.”

The winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and two from the National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Sarr is now putting the finishing touches on a heroic sculpture of Harriet Tubman, already installed on 122nd Street in Harlem.

“You take the A train,” said a smiling Sarr, who often evokes music in titling her works. The Tubman statue is called “Swing Low.” Some 11 feet tall, it took 5 years to create. Despite its 4,000 pounds of bronze, the figure is so filled with intention that it almost seems ready to stride off its plinth.

“I kind of made her like an unstoppable train,” Sarr said, referring to Tubman’s Underground Railroad. The figure’s skirt is covered with faces, representing freed slaves, as well as broken locks and chains and worn-out shoe soles. Behind it, Sarr created a “vapor trail” of roots.

There has been some controversy, Sarr said, because the figure is striding determinedly toward the South and slavery, not the North and presumed freedom. But, Sarr said, the real Tubman risked her life again and again as she kept returning to the slave states to keep the Underground Railroad running. “It’s a call to all of us to go back and look and see what we can do,” Sarr said.

The next Oxbow Visitng Artist Lecture is on Monday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m. with photographer Dawoud Bey, a professor of photography at Columbia College in Chicago who will remain in Napa for a ten-day teaching residency at the Oxbow School.

The lecture series concludes on Monday, April 14 with a talk by curator and art historian Larry Rinder, Dean of the College at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

The Oxbow School Visiting Artist Lecture Series is free to the public. For information, call (707) 255-6000.

Link : To view all photos from the lecture.

Posted by Pamela at March 26, 2008 10:01 AM| Share on Facebook | Art Education, Non-wine activities in Napa Valley, Oxbow School

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