Truth and Goodness Will Follow: A Conversation with Andrew Wilson Smith, Sculptor

Matthew Alderman

Andrew Wilson Smith is one of the most talented and inventive of the rising generation of classical sculptors. He has studied in Florence and apprenticed under luminaries such as Anthony Visco, Miklos Simon, and Scotsman Alexander Stoddart. His work can be seen in locations from California to Switzerland, and he has undertaken numerous commissions for churches, academic institutions, and private clients. He has worked in stone, wood, and bronze. Most notable are a series of eight over-life-sized marble busts depicting the great poets of history created for the California State University campus at Stanislaus. His most unique commission must be a bust of musician Johnny Cash inspired by classical depictions of Orpheus, created while he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. He currently lives on the grounds of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma where he is engaged in carving a pair of Romanesque capitals depicting the Annunciation and other biblical narratives for the complex’s new monastic church. Smith has taught art and art history at St. Gregory’s Academy and Wyoming Catholic College.

Matthew Alderman: What distinguishes traditional art and sculpture from contemporary art and design?

Andrew Wilson Smith: In my mind the idea of tradition incorporates the concept of a contract in which our ancestors, ourselves, and our descendants are obliged to keep one another’s interests in mind as we manipulate our surroundings.

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A good example of this contract is found in a stonemasons’ tradition, in which the current generation of masons starts the process of preparing lime-mortar for their sons’ use twenty years in the future, and at the same time make use of the mortar prepared by their own fathers. This understanding of tradition can be applied to all aspects of life, but I can think of at least a few examples of its application in my own life and career as a sculptor. I have had several opportunities over the years to learn artistic technique from masters who gained very little for their pains. The artists who did this for me had received similar gifts in their youth, and I am thus obliged to pass along what I have learned and thereby continue the chain into the future.

Another example will help us distinguish this kind of approach to tradition from the ideas current in the world of contemporary art and design. Modern art movements are disdainful of monuments, and especially a monument to the achievements of an individual. Three things breed this repulsion: the individual being represented is old, dead, and it’s not me! The modernist program is essentially motivated by contemporary culture’s fixation with the new, a dread of mortality, and rampant egotism. When we are confronted with monuments designed along a modernist aesthetic such as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., or a colossal sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr., that was proposed but not executed, we are usually left feeling distant and dejected. This happens because we have no way to interpret and internalize the supposedly profound conceptual ideas of the artists who made them.

A traditional approach to sculpture, on the other hand, has allowed me the opportunity to make monuments in honor of several great men and women. The individuals we chose to portray are the ones who will continue to exert an influence long after they are dead. If great figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., can still influence our understanding of justice and freedom, they deserve to be represented in our public forum by works of art that speak clearly to their achievements and the aspects of their vision that have not yet been fulfilled.

MA: What is your design philosophy?

AWS: I try to follow the Vitruvian maxim of utilizing both rule and invention. If the style that I am working within has a clear-cut canon for depicting a particular event, I will try to integrate that tradition in my work. But as artists we are constantly called upon to invent solutions for unique problems. If I am commissioned to sculpt Homer, I will show him with his traditional attributes. But if I am asked to make a statue of someone for whom there is no existing tradition of symbolism, I have the responsibility to formulate these attributes. When I made a statue of John Steinbeck for a university in California, for instance, I was able to base his facial features on photographs, but given the lack of an established tradition for depicting the man, I chose three attributes: the first, a crown of laurel signifying his literary achievements as a Nobel Laureate; the second and third, two wheat stalks and a sheep skull alluding to the biblical references and themes of agriculture and animal husbandry present throughout Steinbeck’s novels.

The two capitals that I am currently carving for Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek are another good example of combining tradition with invention. I was asked to depict the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in relief on two Romanesque-style capitals. The medieval tradition expanded the iconography of the Annunciation to include the expulsion of Adam and Eve and Isaiah’s prophesy of the birth of Christ. Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Annunciation at San Marco in Florence depicts the expulsion from Eden taking place in the far background of the picture, with a bust of Isaiah sculpted into the wall above the colonnade.

In my capitals, this rich existing tradition provided me with enough pictorial material to cover half of the surface provided. With four extra feet to fill, I decided to include the dream of St. Joseph, where an angel tells him to accept his virgin spouse’s pregnancy, as well as a depiction of the Visitation, a truly mystical event in which Christ is first recognized in utero by his cousin John. I was also able to include the Nativity, the fulfillment of Gabriel’s words to Mary, and God’s creation of Adam and Eve. This elicits comparisons of Christ as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve.

MA: Do you see a connection philosophically and theologically between traditional sculpture and the teachings of the Catholic Church? What role does the Church have in fostering art, and what is the role of the artist?

AWS: This is an interesting question because Christians have from time to time had mixed feelings about representational sculpture. Questions arise such as: is it an idol? Should we depict God’s creation at all? What’s with all the naked people? Many Protestant denominations have abandoned all forms of representational art. Mosaic Law forbids most literal kinds of artistic representation. The Greek Orthodox Church maintains an ancient and somewhat quaint compromise, accepting low relief sculpture, but shunning any kind of three-dimensional statuary as idolatrous.

The Catholic perspective is that “The Word became flesh.” But how do we depict the flesh? The Church has never adopted a particular style of art. In her wisdom, she has worked with artists as a patron, challenging them to create works of art that speak to the universal truths of the faith, and with the individual values and tastes of every era.

MA: You have produced a number of sculptures for Catholic churches and institutions, such as the column capitals for Clear Creek Abbey and architectural ornaments for St. Theresa School in Sugar Land, Texas. How do you incorporate and communicate the Faith in such works?

AWS: As Catholics we have four main resources to draw from when we contemplate God. These are Nature, Knowledge, Morality, and History. Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190 – c. 1264), a monk renowned for his encyclopedic work, Speculum Maius, called these the “four mirrors.” We can use our understanding of each of these fields to obtain a reflected view of God. The mirror of nature includes all creation, as well as the laws that govern reality. Catholics believe that men and women are created for the natural world and the natural world for us. Therefore we should try to embrace the truths that we can surmise from God’s creation. If this seems too obvious, just think of the ancient Gnostics who taught that matter is the creation of Satan.

The mirror of knowledge includes the artist’s craft as well as the studies of the liberal arts that are necessary to express meaningful ideas. As an artist I directly engage with the mirror of nature every time I sculpt a face or a plant. If every time I do that, the viewer sees a reflection of God, I will have succeeded in communicating one aspect of the faith. Another engagement with nature that artists participate in is a direct relationship with the materials of their craft. A certain humanities professor used to tell his students that “rocks are hard, water is wet, and fire burns.” If any of his students ever challenged his assertion, he would pull out a cigarette lighter and ask him to hold still. The drama of man’s fall is linked to the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, and it is with the knowledge of agriculture that Adam lived by the sweat of his brow.

The mirror of history as it pertains to sacred art is essentially the story of man’s fall, and redemption, and the saints and villains along the way. History is the primary source for the subjects of sacred art. When we are familiar with salvation history we can use particular events, combinations of events, or juxtapositions of events to communicate theological ideas. History is also linked to the mirror of morality. Any artist attempting to make ecclesiastical art should have a basic understanding of doctrine and should work to make clear and true theological statements in each composition.

MA: Much of your work draws on the classical world, its history and mythology. Do you see a connection between this ancient secular heritage of the west and its ancient Christian patrimony? What connections do you see between your sacred and your secular works in terms of style and philosophy?

AWS: First of all, the classical world was anything but secular. The early Christians adopted the language of Roman religious art and used it to describe the truths of their own worship. Our medieval antecedents used one language in both religious and governmental contexts, drawing on pictorial elements from both classical and biblical sources. Think of the Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was continuing a medieval tradition that recognized pagan oracles who foretold Christ’s coming as instruments of God’s providence.

From the Renaissance onward, artists and architects secularized the symbols of Greek and Roman religion to communicate the values of worldly institutions. This is not in and of itself a bad thing; we have always believed in the separation of church and state, but sacred art does lose something if it abandons perfectly good symbols just because they are rooted in classical history and not the Bible. The gap now turns into a chasm as activists in this country try to eliminate all vestiges of religious vocabulary from governmental institutions.

When I was commissioned to make a set of relief sculptures representing the seven virtues for a Catholic school in Texas, I drew on medieval tradition. About half the symbols had roots in classical history, and the other half were inspired by biblical events. Prudence is represented by a snake coiled around a looking glass. The mirror refers to Socrates’ famous adage “Know thyself” and the snake refers to our Lord’s advice to be “as meek as doves and prudent as vipers.” Both religious and secular institutions need art to communicate distinct messages. If I were to receive two commissions for statues of Moses, one for a church, and another for a courthouse, I would not use the same model for both. One statue would emphasize Moses’ role as a forerunner of Christ, the deliverer of God’s people. The courthouse statue would focus on Moses as a lawgiver and arbiter of justice, in the tradition of men such as Solon and Hammurabi.

MA: Much of your work is designed to be incorporated into the fabric of buildings and is not merely stand-alone gallery work. What role can art have in daily life? Have the twenty and twenty-first centuries lost some of this?

AWS: Creating a work of art that will be permanently incorporated into a public place is an honor and a great responsibility. Public sculpture needs to nourish and edify its audience for generations. When designing architectural elements an artist must think in terms of what the architecture is trying to express. The portal of Clear Creek Abbey church is designed to signify an important transition as the faithful leave the world behind and enter into a sacred place dedicated to God and his saints. Therefore the sculpture in the portal should help bring the hearts of the faithful closer to heavenly things and prepare them for a period of silence, contrition, contemplation, and adoration.

The sculptor must also recognize the structural realities of the architecture he is adorning. Think of the famous Caryatids from the porch of the Erechtheum at Athens. There, figures of marble matrons stand in place of Ionic columns. Vitruvius tells us the women of Caryae, a Greek state that had sided with barbarian invaders in wartime, had been humiliated by being forced to retain their matronly robes after being sold into slavery. These figures, burdened with the weight of the structure, call to mind this cautionary tale. Likewise, Gothic architecture decorates columns with statues of saints, but the saint’s image projects from the column, and does not carry a load. This draws out a different message: the saints are the pillars of the Church, and their yoke is easy and their burden light.

MA: While steeped in tradition, your work nonetheless breathes life and imagination. How does an artist imbue his work with a legitimate originality without reducing it to mere novelty or self-indulgence?

AWS: First of all, like Homer, an artist must invoke the muses. I’m not referring to the passé notion of some woman that inspires an artist to create, but an actual spiritual force. Imagination comes from some place outside ourselves. We must acknowledge that spirit if we want to tap the source of creativity. Secondly, I rely on a lot of self-editing. I have ten or twelve bad ideas for every good one. I weed out most of these in the drawing or model stage of a composition, but I still waste a fair bit of work on some aspect of a sculpture that I eventually decide to eliminate or replace with something better. It’s also important to develop trusting relationships with other artists with whom you can freely criticize work and bat ideas back and forth.

MA: From the opposite direction, how does a traditional artist keep his ideas and approach fresh? How does he bring the benefits of his subjective experience to communicating objective ideas of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?

AWS: I never seek to make something that could easily be mistaken for an antique sculpture of a specific period. Nor is it my goal to work in the manner of this or that titan of art.

Instead, I seek to find my own voice within the context of Western art and philosophy, and contribute to it. The great thing about Truth, Beauty, and Goodness is that they are transcendental. We all experience and know these phenomena on a daily basis. If we focus our attention on Beauty, Truth and Goodness will follow.

MA: What artists have particularly influenced you? What inspired you to become an artist?

AWS: I have had the benefit of working with some of the finest artists and architects in the traditional sphere alive today. Each has imparted to me techniques and philosophies that have helped to form how I work and think. My greatest influence and inspiration, however, are my own parents. [When I was] a child, my folks always made sure that I had a fresh sketchbook, if not new shoes, and helped me to further my training and education. The shoe thing isn’t an indictment of my parents: a friend of mine says that you can always spot the sculptors at a party by the drops of plaster on their dress shoes.

MA: How has your career choice/vocation shaped your life?

AWS: Judged as a career choice and by purely materialistic criteria, the whole art thing isn’t shaping out so well. You should see the car I drive. But as a vocation, it’s not so bad. I love my work, and at least I don’t have to be a Benedictine monk and eat potatoes every night.

MA: What advice would you have for our readers who might be interested in pursuing a vocation in the fine arts?

AWS: Young artists should pursue an education in the liberal arts as well as technical training in drawing, painting, and sculpture. We have more than a few fine Catholic liberal arts colleges and university programs in this country. Finding training in technique is more difficult. There are several art academies in the United States and Europe that focus on training artists in traditional methods and techniques. These schools are good in general, but tend to focus exclusively on form. They fail to foster the conceptualization of artistic ideas. This can result in superb technicians without anything to say. The best experience is gained by working in the studio of a master artist. The apprentice is usually working on the master’s own work and therefore will learn to do things correctly or be thrown back out on the street, albeit without having to repay student loans. Another benefit is a constant flow of conversation by which a young artist can learn the deeper motivations that guide artistic decisions.

I would like to put in a special plug for two institutions. One is Wyoming Catholic College, a new liberal arts school that provides an especially balanced approach to the liberal arts by the inclusion of a focus on art history and an excellent program in sacred music. The other is a new effort underway in Alberta, Canada. Living Water College of the Arts is forming a three-year program including a liberal arts core and studio training in the fine and performing arts. The college is currently offering six-week summer workshops.

Andrew Wilson Smith is currently carving two limestone capitals for the Romanesque columns that will flank the main door into the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation at Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery under construction in Eastern Oklahoma. Mr. Smith has apprenticed under Anthony Visco, Miklos Simon, and Alexander Stoddart. He is a lecturer on art history at Wyoming Catholic College. Visit www.andrewwilsonsmith.com to view more of his work.