Artists Next Door: Sculpture as Storytelling

A self portrait by Susan Clinard.

By Hank Hoffman

If there is such a thing as love at first sight, might there also be love at first touch?

Susan Clinard took a sculpture class in college and can still recall, according to the bio on her website, “the immediate sensory connection she made” with the clay. But it wasn’t just sculpture that enraptured Clinard. That first course she took was figure sculpture and she felt a direct, immediate connection to sculpting the human form. While her work has changed over the years, the figure – and the human emotions it evokes – remains a core artistic concern.

Clinard has worked in clay, wood, and stone, sculpted for cast-bronze statues, and created line-based, graceful works with wire. Teaching sculpture, including at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Connecticut, has been intrinsic to her identity as an artist. Twenty years on, the materiality of the substances she works with continues to play a large role in her work.

“Starting out with clay being so easy to maneuver, you feel free. You can take away. You can add,” says Clinard in an interview in her studio adjoining the Eli Whitney Barn; Clinard is artist-in-residence at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop.

When she began to work with stone about five years later, there was another sensory connection. With stone- and wood-carving, she is limited to removal only.

“It’s far more labor-intensive, so the kind of sculpture that comes out of wood and stone is very different for me,” she says.

What was it about sculpture in particular that attracted her? Clinard notes that she has “always been a very tactile person. Even as a child, I was the one making mud pies at playtime.”

Sculpture touched an innate sensibility in her.

According to Clinard, “It’s the form that motivates me and inspires me. My work is more or less monochromatic in its earthy tones. The shadows are the colors.”

In the past seven years, Clinard has been increasingly attracted to working with mixed media, oftentimes combining sculpted figurative elements with evocative pieces of found wood or branches. For Clinard, finding random objects, from wood to a ball of cement to coiled-up wire, evokes an “emotional relation – I can see pretty clearly what I want it to be and how it fits into my work.”

Artists Chris Joy and Zachary Keeting interviewed Clinard for their online Gorky’s Granddaughter video blog. In the interview, she likens deconstructed piano keys to fingers, an example of how Clinard views the world through a sculptural prism. This ability to see figurative associations in found objects helped propel the evolution her work.

“Like Henry Moore, who I love – he would collect bone fragments and wood and stones in his studio for their natural organic beauty – I had collected several pieces of driftwood and had fragments of little heads I had broken off my ceramic sculptures,” Clinard says.

Remembering a cacophony of objects on a large studio table, Clinard recalls the moment in 1998 of her breakthrough, “seeing one piece of wood, so rhythmical – it looked like a human torso – and I remember sliding over a head and added some other object and I remember laughing out loud because it was so beautiful and also a bit whimsical.”

Susan Clinard’s “A Days Work,” mixed media, 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist.


With her first mixed-media work, Cross, she began by assembling several pieces of wood notable for their lyrical grace to create a gesture. Clinard sculpted the hands, feet, and face in clay and added them after they were fired, attaching them with epoxy.

“People relate to it because it’s not that difficult to walk through the forest or beach and see this beautiful piece of wood and say, ‘That looks gorgeous, it reminds me of this, this, or that.’ It’s not a great leap of imagination,” says Clinard. “But to bring an emotional quality to it with face and hands, a story to it, that’s what people really enjoy with these pieces.”

Her works evolve “organically,” she says. She doesn’t draw ahead of building her sculptures.

“Consciously or unconsciously, when I grab certain materials,” explains Clinard, “I do think there is an intuitive sense of what works best with a particular subject matter.”

Clinard has sculpted statues for casting in bronze but hardly works in that media these days. She says she thinks of bronze “as one of the more formal materials of fine figurative, classic sculpture and I’ve been pulling away from that for a number of years.” The accessible materials of clay and found objects fit more with the themes she expresses in her work.

“At the root of it is telling humans’ stories. There is a narrative you can find – a thread that connects most of my work – which talks about human struggle,” Clinard says.

These struggles range from the travails and courage of refugees like those she has met through IRIS – Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a resettlement agency in New Haven – to her personal, interior struggles.

“I like to talk about things that are not necessarily comfortable for people,” she says.

Clinard graduated from the University of Michigan in 1995 with a degree in cultural anthropology as well as sculpture. A social worker for three years in Chicago after college, she was a caseworker for foster children. Her deep feeling for struggling communities of people informs much of her work.

“I’ve known so many people on the cusp of life, surviving day to day. I find those people to be my prophets. When I hear testimonies of refugees – how they got here and what they endured – and when I hear what my goddaughter lives through in the ghetto of Chicago from day to day and they still have the ability to laugh and love and nurture other people, to me that’s the greatest human strength,” declares Clinard.

She wants her work to connect with people on that level.

“I’ve always wanted to be someone who fights for people’s human rights,” Clinard says. But not being a street demonstrator by nature nor a polemicist, “I’m fighting in my own way by offering the visual image. I do feel like art changes people in ways other things don’t. It impacts us in an unspoken way we carry with us.”

Clinard describes her recent focus on box assemblages as “a big leap” for her. It is the first time she has used found objects – outside of forest branches or driftwood – in her work in a narrative way. In the discarded cranks, gears, and metal objects she has scavenged in the Eli Whitney Barn – with the approval of Eli Whitney Museum Director Bill Brown – Clinard finds both a direct emotional connection and resonant aesthetic qualities. Using the objects in her work is a way of “touching part of history” and “trying to relate the story of a farmer.”

Clinard’s box assemblage A Day’s Work synthesizes her use of found objects and figurative sculpture capabilities. It incorporates both objects found in the barn as well as Clinard’s carvings. A sculpted woman’s hand holds a large ladle in a central compartment, representative of the daily struggle to gather and prepare food. In a top compartment, the carved, intertwined figures of the farmer and his wife sleep, exhausted. Other symbolic elements in the work include gears, representing the daily grind, and interlocking wood corners, symbolic of “how everything has to fit together, work together to make it function,” according to Clinard.

“It gives someone the sense of the amount of labor and struggle it took to maintain a livelihood during that time,” she says.

The incorporation of narrative and conceptual elements into her work, Clinard says, was a natural evolution prompted in part by her move from Chicago to New Haven in 2007. (Her husband took an assistant professorship at Yale University.)

“I was going through some difficult periods in my studio when I first moved here wondering how to make a living in New Haven as opposed to Chicago where I had my gallery base set up, my students set up for over a decade,” explains Clinard.

“It was the best thing that could happen to me. It was forcing me to experiment with new materials and new things,” she says.

Why, I ask Clinard, was such a challenge the “best thing” that could happen to her?

“The fact that I was so uncomfortable and uneasy and unsure of myself and what was going to happen. It’s not a fun place to be in but I think it is crucial for creative people to keep on the edge of discomfort, constantly pushing (themselves).”

Besides the strain of having to start fresh in new surroundings, Clinard says she benefited by being exposed to new ideas. Shortly after moving to the area she visited an exhibit of thesis sculpture work by Yale students in the master’s program.

“I saw minimal conceptual work, which hit me really hard because it was so unlike my work. It opened me up to a new world. Why does this exist, who does this work and what does it serve?” recalls Clinard. “I have as much disdain for highly figurative work that’s done without skill or meaning as I do for the total opposite end of conceptual work, which just seems empty to me. There is a huge middle there that I adore.”

Clinard is in the second year of her three-year artist residency at the Eli Whitney where she teaches and participates in other educational functions. Eli Whitney Museum Director Bill Brown, Clinard says, sees a value in having young people exposed to a working artist. She is a good choice for the role. Figurative work is immediately accessible to young people. But Clinard’s sculpture, with its knotty themes and incorporation of diverse materials, also affords wide latitude for interpretation and discussion.

“When kids walk through – in fact, I have a big group after lunch – we just talk about, ‘Hey, like I’m a normal person. I work really hard but this is something you can put on your radar,’” She tells me. “If you have a natural calling to something, you can do it.”

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