Sculptor plumbs the depths of feeling to convey human drama
Published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on February 9, 2007
New Bedford sculptor Stacy Latt Savage's life-sized figures are the embodiment of emotion. She poses and places the human form in ways that express what it feels like to be alive and aware. But she does not shy away from exploring the difficult emotions that frustrate, confuse and frighten us, and that we'd sometimes rather just sweep under the rug. Her desire to use sculpture to articulate the range of human feeling was validated one day in graduate school, when she asked her fellow student and future husband, painter Shane Savage-Rumbaugh, "Can I make art about emotions?" He replied, "What else is there?" In the confidence and clarity of his response, Ms. Savage knew she had found her direction as an artist.
Ms. Savage, 38, grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. The only girl in a neighborhood of boys, she and her friends built elaborate snow forts during the long winter months. She loved elementary school art projects that involved constructing large forms, especially an assignment in fifth grade to make a large-scale dinosaur skeleton. Her most contented childhood time was spent with her brother, 13 years older, who rebuilt a Camaro in the family's garage when she was 5. Her brother would let her hold wrenches for him and explain what he was doing to each part of the car. The garage was her favorite place to be, and she would endlessly clean and rearrange the space.
Ms. Savage attended Wells, a women's college near Ithaca, N.Y., with a strong liberal arts program. She immersed herself in a range of subjects that explored many aspects of the human experience — philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history and architecture. These studies were complemented by studio classes in figure drawing and painting. She found "the life-changing experience I needed" during a semester spent in Italy. She discovered an immediate affinity for the native Italians who embraced their emotions, and who lived "a natural life with human rhythms." Surrounded by a culture that "bleeds art," she applied herself with new sense of dedication to her drawings and paintings of the figure.
She took her first sculpture course the following summer during an internship at Christie's auction house in New York City, when she enrolled at the renowned Art Students League. She was the only woman in the class; the other students were older, working as plumbers and electricians during the day and taking art courses at night. In this atmosphere of camaraderie and creativity, reminiscent of the time she spent with her brother working on his car, she learned basic sculpting techniques and found her love of working in three dimensions.
After graduating from Wells with a degree in art history, Ms. Savage moved to New York City with her best friend from college who was a poet. She worked during the day for an advertising firm and continued to take evening classes at the Art Students League. At first, she and her friend enjoyed the fast pace of city life, taking in as many museums and performances as they could. But after a year they realized they would "become like everybody else" if they didn't concentrate on their own art. So they moved from their Manhattan apartment to "the middle of nowhere," a small house in Ithaca with a wood-burning stove and no neighbors for miles. They signed up for courses at Cornell University, and Ms. Savage worked as an assistant to one of the sculpture professors there. This relationship revealed to Ms. Savage what the life of a dedicated studio artist could be like. She observed her professor and thought, "I want your life."
This experience gave Ms. Savage the courage to commit herself fully to art, and she enrolled in Cornell's graduate school, where the sculpture program emphasized organic form. The department chairman's term "invented anatomy" guided Ms. Savage to the format that interested her most: figures that combined realistic imagery with abstracted shape. At Cornell, she met Mr. Savage-Rumbaugh, a painting student, on their first day of graduate seminar. The two began spending hours together at the university's spacious art library, poring over volumes of art history and artists' writings — Michaelangelo's drawings, Van Gogh's letters and Delacroix's journals. Theirs was both a love of art and a love for each other; Ms. Savage and Mr. Savage-Rumbaugh married on the day they received their master's degrees from Cornell.
Soon after graduation, Ms. Savage was hired to teach a course at UMass Dartmouth, and she and her husband moved to New Bedford. The city's affordable living conditions allowed the couple to fashion a lifestyle together that was a continuation of the commitment and discovery of their graduate school years. Their time was devoted to studio work while they were both teaching part time.
After 10 years of this focused way of life, Ms. Savage was hired as an assistant professor at UMD and Mr. Savage-Rumbaugh an assistant professor at Stonehill College in Easton. These permanent positions strengthened their decision to be a part of the SouthCoast arts community, and they bought a house in New Bedford and rented studio space at Cove Street. Two years ago, their daughter Martha was born, and the joy of parenthood has enhanced their lives as artists.
Ms. Savage says that her inspiration often comes at unexpected moments. The flash of an idea for a pose or gesture is likely to come when she's standing in line at the grocery store or driving down the highway. Back in the studio, sometimes working from a live model, she expands these ideas in drawings or in small prototypes of clay, wood or cardboard. She makes many of these studies and selects the one that seems to call out to her. Then the complex and lengthy process of bringing the figure to life begins.
The artist builds a full-sized armature of steel pipe, then surrounds it with foam held on with wire. Finally a coating of clay covers the form. These three layers can be compared to the skeleton (pipe), musculature (foam) and skin (clay). When this stage is satisfactory, Ms. Savage makes a mold by covering the form with a layer of plaster and then brushing on a thin coat of rubber. To create the final piece, she pours Hydrocal (a very hard plaster) into the mold and removes the finished form. The process involves such painstaking care and technical skill that many artists send their work out to professional mold-makers. But Ms. Savage prefers the experience of seeing the whole project through from start to finish.
Ms. Savage's work is currently on exhibit in "Humanly Possible: Four Figurative Artists" at the New Bedford Art Museum. Her five pieces in the show display a range of emotion, each stemming directly from experiences in her life. "Waiting," for example, was inspired by her struggle to remain patient during agonizing times of waiting in hospital situations for her loved ones: When her mother was undergoing surgery for cancer, and when her daughter was in a neonatal intensive care unit.
The figure in "Waiting" holds her face in an expression of forced calm, but an underlying tension is revealed in her arms and hands, which reach forward and clutch at the air. She seems to be trying to grasp the future and pull it toward her in an effort to end the excruciating wait. The realistic part of the body stops across her chest, and the lower portion consists of a series of short rusted rods, arranged in a crossing formation that suggests a seated position. The frustration in the figure's arm and hand muscles are echoed in the compressed tension of the jagged metal strips that make up her legs and feet.
At first glance, Ms. Savage's sculptures bring to mind those times of heightened emotion that threaten to overwhelm us with their intensity — alienation, fear, despair. But upon closer reflection, her figures remind us that it is often these trying times that bring us the greatest insights of empathy and understanding.
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