Interview with a Sculptor: Poetry, Sculpture, and Life as an Artist

 

Sitting in bed wearing my pajamas, I mentally prepared myself for an interview with a professional sculptor with over twenty years of experience—a man whose work can be found in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Beijing International Sculpture Park, Harvard Yard, and various other esteemed locations around the globe. Shrouded in a fuzzy blanket with fingers poised at the keyboard, I waited for the clock to strike four. Just as I was about to hit dial, Murray Dewart beat me to it. As I picked up the phone, I could only hope that my voice conveyed more professional legitimacy than my outfit did.

For the next thirty three minutes, we would discuss the relationship between sculpture and poetry; how the delicate balance between inspiration and determination is struck; the story behind the hands that scribble and sculpt the masterpieces of tomorrow; the sting of criticism and the pure, liberated joy that comes with seeing one’s life’s work through.

My fingers raced to transcribe the forthcoming flood of wisdom as he walked me through his understanding of what it means to be an artist. It seemed that nearly every line was sprinkled with timeless advice pulled from his memory like a silk thread. As I listened, rapt with wonder, I thought to myself how rare an opportunity this was. To speak with a person whose reputation has withstood the trials of time, in light of the ever-present pressure to remain static, is an awe inspiring experience.

To every artist both budding and long-since-bloomed, I can tell you this: if you take Mr. Dewart’s advice to heart, you just might emerge a more authentic version of the mighty artist you’ve been all along.

You may be wondering how we at CambridgeEditors got in contact with Mr. Dewart in the first place. Having recently edited an anthology of poems (called Poems About Sculpture, available for purchase here), published by Random House with a foreword by the poet Robert Pinsky, Dewart was looking for a platform for publicity with a wide reach. Enter our Daniel McMurtry, a specialist in formatting and layout, among other editorial talents—the result was a Wikipedia page on Dewart’s life and career as a sculptor. Now, when his name is searched on Google, that page appears as one of the first results.

POEMS ABOUT SCULPTURE cover

Then cometh I, the humble intern graced with the opportunity to interview this fascinating man.

When asked how the process of creating the book began, Dewart spoke of Pinsky as if they were old friends. 

“Here’s what happened. Robert Pinsky, whom I’ve seen around town for many years, wrote a beautiful poem in the New Yorker about a George Segal sculpture. So I wrote him a note congratulating him. And then the next day I thought—wait a minute—we should do a book! Poems about sculpture! So I wrote him [again], and he wrote me back and said, ‘Great idea—you do it!’” He told me, chuckling. “Robert is a great ambassador. He has a wonderful courtly generosity, and is an evangelist for poetry.”

Though one would not normally consider sculpture and poetry as going hand in hand, Dewart proves the contrary.

“I have thought long and deeply about poetry in the course of making sculpture,” he explains. “The poems that are in my bones have guided me.”

The first person to awaken Dewart’s love for poetry, he told me, was his mentor and cousin Julie Randall.

“She was a great American poet, not well known. In my early days, I carved Odysseus and Penelope—lovers. As you carve these big narrative panels, you’d say, ‘Forever wilt thou love that she be fair,’ which is [from] Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ The conversation between poetry and sculpture is the enduring sense of longevity [that] sculptures, from antiquity, have been exciting [in] the imagination. We find these old Greek carvings of lovers on a marble plinth, or a gravestone, or an urn. Poets look at these and are inspired to write enduring poetry. [They] are haunted by the enduring quality of sculpture. They want their own works to do the same thing. You see it in Shakespeare.” He continues, speaking from Shakespeare’s perspective, “I’m gonna write this love poem and it’s gonna sit there like a bronze monument. It’s gonna be that good.”

Then comes the delicious irony. A few weeks before this interview took place, our own Dr. Weiner and her son, Silas, went to hear Pinsky speak at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. Deeply moved by the experience and completely unaware of the connection, Silas wrote a post in reflection. Dewart’s reaction further emphasized his appreciation for poetry.

“I loved reading about the Grolier [Poetry Book Shop]. I lived across the street as a Harvard undergrad. It’s a wonderful place where they believe in poetry. When I said the world [would] try to talk you out of being an artist, [the solution is to] find these places—clusters of believers. You have to stay in close proximity to other sculptors, other poets, to survive. We are in conversation with [those] who are long dead—as artists, we maintain conversations with the past.”

According to Dewart, the power of an artist’s work is not measured by its physical beauty. There is something more powerful. When asked what he aims for his work to inspire, he explained what that something is.

“I’m not aiming outward. I’m aiming inward. We don’t try to make beautiful sculptures, [we] try to make them true. If they’re true, in all likelihood they’ll be beautiful, but the point is, as you assess the proportions, the materials, the joints, the finish, and how the scale of the piece works, there’s some inner template you’re trying to stay true to. We want to communicate, of course, but what we learn is that when you follow that [truth], that’s what works best. You have your inner Geiger counter, an inner thing that gives you clarity and focus. [Like] Schjeldahl, a critic at The New Yorker said, the proof of any work’s lasting value is its comprehensive emotional necessity. A person had to make this. It awakens and satisfies in the viewer a corresponding need. By following that emotional need, we convey the power of making something that had to be made—[that] needed to be made. That’s what we like to find in the great works of art.”

When asked how his passion for his sculpting began, Dewart thought immediately of his hands.

“I always loved making things, always loved building with my hands. When you see sculptors, the first thing you notice is their hands. Sir Tony Carol, one of the great 20th century sculptors—[he was] short and wiry, but [he had] intensely veined hands. You see that in sculptors; it’s part of our physiology. I knew at an early age that my imagination was my strong suit. In middle school, they gave us a blank sheet of paper every Thursday afternoon and said, “Do whatever you want,” without any specific assignment. And it was a dream come true. I used that [when] writing stories. In high school I was a writer, a storyteller. Then it became visual. In college, my last year at Harvard, I walked into a sculpture course and I knew that’s what I was gonna do. I haven’t looked back.”

Speaking directly to those just beginning their lives as artists, he was chalk full of poignant advice. As the conversation went on, I began to realize that this was the heart of what he was trying to say; the culmination of his life’s work had lead him to these conclusions. Rarely is advice ever this justified from the person giving it.

“You better be deeply prepared for a long struggle,” he warned, “because the world does its level best to talk us out of being artists. Artists are a colorful and self-destructive group. It is with good reason that your parents tried to talk you out of it. I was no exception. When [my father and grandfather] heard that I was throwing in my lot with the ramshackle world of artists, they could not hide their disappointment. When you go against your [family] on a major career decision, you own that decision. Kokoschka said this: if you last as an artist, you will live to see your reputation die three times. Recently I shared that with Frank Stella at a party in New York. I asked him where he was on that, and he said he’d, ‘I’ve lost count.’”

Even an artist as down to Earth as Dewart inevitably experiences criticism. This is something Dewart realized as he himself saw the wearing down, and eventual resurgence, of his reputation.

“Years ago I was a carver. [I carved] very complicated narrative panels with all kinds of figures. And I came to the end of that. The inherent crisis of being an artist is the need to reinvent yourself, year after year, show after show, decade after decade. You can’t just say, there’s Dewart being Dewart making those same damn things. You’ve got to keep pushing it, and that’s the fun part—What am I gonna do next? When you’ve been doing it a long time you have experience. So you know there’s a new sculpture around the corner, just waiting for you to dream it up.”

When asked whether success has ever affected his approach to the creative process, a resounding “NO!” yelped through the receiver. The driving force behind his inspiration had remained the same, even after all these years. Jubilance, he said, is the best word to describe how he feels.

“I feel an immense satisfaction to have endured as an artist. When you’ve pulled something off that everyone tried to talk you out of, you feel a certain sense of accomplishment and pride.” As he continued, he spoke animatedly, memories sparking excitement in his voice.

“I feel exactly how I felt years and years ago [when thinking] of my next sculpture. That hasn’t changed. I still feel a wonderful excitement. It’s such a pleasure to dream things up, have the experience and skill to pull it off, and exhaust yourself in the process. So what gets you running to the studio door at five in the morning is the excitement of a new piece. That’s its own reward—the pleasure of doing it.”

“I also feel exhausted,” he remarked, chuckling.

His advice for young artists is very simple.

“Be ready for the long haul,” he told me soberly. Pausing and drawing in a breath with the weight of forty-five years of artistic wisdom, he urged solemnly, “Be ready for holding fast to your vision.”

 

MWD in studio 2015

Murray Dewart with one of his sculptures

Upcoming Appearances:

September 28th at 7pm at the Harvard Book Store

October 16th at 2pm in Lenox at The Mount (home of Edith Wharton)

Every first Friday of the month at the Boston Sculptors Gallery at 486 Harrison Ave, Boston, MA 02118

 

 

Margeaux Sippell, Intern

 

 

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