What is Sculpture?

I just got an email that contained a beautiful letter from one of my Sculpture professors. He wrote it to two grade school kids to answer the question, What is Sculpture? With brilliance and humor Mr. Lester Van Winkle did what few humans can, explain the unexplainable…

VCU Department of
Sculpture and Extended Media
January 16, 2007

To: Mr. Chris and Mr. Henry:

I enjoyed reading your letter. I applaud the thoroughness of your research efforts. Trying to explain sculpture is sort of like trying to explain the taste of an apple. Sculpture is a discipline in art that has to do (most of the time) with the three-dimensional expression of ideas. Unlike all other art disciplines (like painting, design and crafts), sculpture has no material or format limitations. In other words, if you are a sculptor, you have at your disposal any existing material, from stainless steel to peanut butter. At the turn of the last century sculptors decided that space was also a material. Unlike painting which has rather fixed two-dimensional formats, either square/rectangular or shaped, sculpture has no prescribed format, genre, or profile. The silhouette of a sculpture can look like anything imaginable: automobiles in a line buried nose down in the earth, an orange curtain across a canyon, a room full of one meter long bronze bars, trees bent and grown in geometric configurations, a spiral jetty in the Salt Lake, an electric machine that tears itself apart, a person doing bench presses with a barbell made of two televisions sets which show him bench pressing the TV barbell. Of course there are traditional subjects that were most popular prior to l900. They are the figure, still life, and landscape. Sculptors are still mystified by these traditional modes of expression and continue to examine them.

The invention of the camera made it unnecessary for artists to concentrate on duplicating nature. They were free to examine the more abstract aspects of image invention. In the mid to late parts of the last century there was much debate concerning the merits of abstract art. Some artists think that all art is abstract, even photographs. They say the camera cannot see as the human eye sees. This notion of abstraction gives the artist great latitude in concocting images. Cartoons are great examples of abstracted figures. Muffler-men you see in front of auto repair shops are other examples of abstracted images. There are many more.

The industrial revolution changed the world for artists because it created surplus items, scrap materials, and throw-aways. Artists naturally began to use “found objects” as parts of their sculptures. The world wars and space program have provided sculptors with new processes like welding and explosion forming, and materials like aluminum, titanium and composites like resin impregnated wood. So you see that sculptors respond to social/technological change almost automatically.

Now sculptors are greatly intrigued with the technological revolution. The interfacing of electronic technology with mechanical systems has made robotics a new and exciting area that sculptors are investigating. Image scanners and instant prototyping machines are sculptors’ tools as well as the personal computer and video camera.

No one can predict what tomorrow’s sculpture will look like. All we know is that it will not look like what we see today, it will be mysterious, and we will have a difficult time understanding it. Most folks want art to be easy to read and have great entertainment value. This is not the intention of most sculptors. Most sculptors want to make you think about what you see, to figure things out, to fill in the blank, to solve the riddle, to examine your feelings, etc. So you must pay attention to the sculptures that maybe you don’t like, the ones that challenge your ability to accept them. The world of sculpture is a wonderful and very complex universe.

You fellows may want to share this letter with your teacher who may be of some help with decoding the technical terms. I hope I have been of some assistance and have helped extend your understanding of the field of sculpture. I do admire intellectual curiosity more than almost anything. You two young men are top of the line.

Good Luck,

Lester Van Winkle, Professor Emeritus
Department of Sculpture and Extended Media
School of the Arts
Virginia Commonwealth University

Lester helped me belive in myself. I was in such awe of him and his ability.

One day he reminded me that I had gotten an A from another professor not because it was given to me but because it earned it. The world needs more people in the world like this man.

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