Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview with Sculptor Karen Delaney @ Terrain Restaurant

Even though we were both late for our lunch reservation at Terrain, we happened to arrive within a minute of each other. I was late because I was in search the second “B” in bring your own bottle; it was a Friday. How could one ease into the weekend with out a little celebration. My interviewee, artist Karen Delaney, on the other hand was running behind schedule because her itinerary was jam packed yet she was very well prepared because she had called ahead and made the reservation and remembered to get a bottle of wine before leaving the house. This bit of an introduction should give a little insight on the go forth, get stuff done personality of Karen. Karen is a boundless ball of energy. Her presence and determination show in her biceps. Her confidence in herself and laissez-faire attitude come across in her words. She was concerned that the interview wasn't interesting enough yet comfortable enough to tell me how much she weighs. (Now I know as a husband and male, you never ask a woman what she weighs or her age.)

Karen is a local sculptor of Chester County and the director of Chester County Art Association, but her resume reads like an old Soviet map. She studied and taught in Austria and placed large public sculptures in both Poland and Hungary. Her sculptures are architecturally inspired towers, arcs, curves and angles that hold their own space. There is not one good side to these edifices; they are all good sides. The 18 gauge steel bends to join another piece and this encounter is held and captured by molten metal. The heat from the torch dapples the edges with shades of blue and green forming tiger striped patterns along the steel’s surface. Sometimes a sphere balanced cautiously rests on a facet of the sculpture giving the sculpture a softer side, a human touch. The sphere becomes a focal point, the tension, it is the heart of the piece. But, I'm just a painter smitten by the creativity and command of space Karen possesses. Instead of me going on and on. Let's let Karen answer the questions and the wine be the truth.


How did you get started making art?
I always liked decorating when I was a kid. I spent time after school working on art. My art teacher, Mr. Miller, at Ben Franklin Elementary contacted my parents and said, “You know she has interest and talent in art.” So, I always liked the art and always was building. My dad was a very hands on guy so whenever there was a house project, I was there doing it with him. So the construction part and the building part of the art that I do comes from that.

Did you receive any formal art training?
I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, undergraduate, and got my BFA. I worked with James Nestor who is a pretty significant sculptor in the United States and then I was supposed to go on to Rice University in Houston to get my architecture degree because I thought that was the most sensible thing to do. But I had put in an application to Radford University in Virginia and was contacted by them and was offered a teaching fellowship. I knew I didn’t want to put sculpture on the back burner; I wanted to continue to do my sculpture. So they payed me and I taught. So for the better part of that graduate education, I was able to teach undergraduates and then I had great studio space. After that I went on to graduate studies and I got my MFA.

Can you describe your work in general for the readers?
It’s predominately made of steel and architecturally influenced with a deliberate quirkiness or awkwardness to it.

What part of the art making process do you enjoy most?
The correspondence with the piece as it’s developed. My favorite part is having that conversation with the piece and noting when the best time to make decisions is. For example, when I am working on a tabletop piece, I’ll pull it in from the studio and onto my kitchen island. Then I’ll make dinner, talk to my kids or just view it as I’m walking down the stairs and I will have a gut instinct on what the piece needs. I love that point when it becomes very clear as to what it needs or if it’s not working. Then you make a change and then it speaks to you again and so on. That whole process, I thoroughly enjoy.

When did you learn to weld?
It was at The Pennsylvania Governors School For the Arts and I was 17 years old. It was a program that I wish still existed. It was a summer arts program that lasted a month; it was a scholarship thing. You had to be accepted into it and it was for the visual arts, vocal, dance, music and theater, so it was all of the arts. So, I was with hundreds of other really creative people and it was a charge to be with those other people. They broke the visual arts into groups so some would paint, some would do printmaking and some would do sculpture. So they demoed sculpture first with welding. I made a torso with scrap metal and I was hooked.

How do you do choose your subject matter?
Well I work with 18 gauge sheet metal, sometimes 16 gauge, because it is less rigid and less masculine. Steel tends to have a more masculine connotation but the way I work it, it tends to be more feminine and very soft because it’s thin metal and much more organic and reacts to heat more so it’s more fluid looking.

You use a lot of spheres in your work, why? About two years ago, I stumbled upon spheres as being interesting objects. I thought they were interesting and I actually started with wool balls. I was more fascinated by how contrasting the wool balls were with the metal. I like the play between materials but my viewers were really interested in spheres. No one could tell me why they liked them but they got a lot of reaction and so I thought there is something to this. They just became the body of my work. I don’t know if it will always be the case but they are kind of a symbol for certain things in my life.

How do you see your work impacting the viewer?
Well, working as a sculptor, you eliminate a lot of viewers. There are plenty of people who can’t respond to or do not want to respond to three dimensional work. So because of this, I feel like I narrow my audience. However, when people do connect with my sculpture, it’s usually when people see many of my works together in one space. I always get the comment that it transports them to a place. It’s like they can visualize themselves being three inches taller and walking around it, which I think is a great accomplishment because often times I’ll look at a piece and it’s sizeless. It’s like when you photograph a sculpture, it usually looks bigger than it is and when that happens I think it’s really successful. Some people say it takes them to a different place, it changes their size or it’s like being in a little village. I also get comments that my sculpture is interesting from all angles. My sculpture should be exhibited in the round because really there is no side that is necessarily more important than the others.

“How do you decide when an artwork is done?"
Sometimes, I goof that up and I do have a pile of “clinkers.” That’s exactly what I call them. They are basically scraps that are ready to be sculpture, which is good because there is a history and that makes them richer. Sometimes I overwork things. I try not to and I’m not the type to have someone in the background approving it. When I’m in full mojo, I work very smoothly but sometimes I overwork them and then I just have to be patient and sit with them for a while.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
My husband, John has been the biggest influence in my life and James Nestor has been the biggest influence in my art.

What inspires you?
I’m going to say, other people’s work. I love it when I see something new and it affects me. It can be a local artist or someone I see in a museum.

Do you have any habits or morning routines you do before going to the studio?
I always have to have something to drink. It could be coffee or it could be Smartwater. I also have to have rock music. It could be Metallica or just some really loud rock band. It just jumpstarts me.

What are you eating right now?
I am eating turkey and some kale with some goat cheese, which I love.

What is your favorite food? I am a big fish eater.
My natural inclination is to eat things that are healthy.

What does home mean to you?
Having comfort

Your proudest moment?
It has yet to come.

What was your father right about?
Honesty is always the best policy.

Money is OK, but it isn’t what life is about. What is it about?
It’s about satisfaction.

Where did you grow up?
Indiana, PA, it’s 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.

What is the last book you read?
I’m in the middle of Just Kids. It’s a book about Robert Maplethorpe and Patty Smith.

Something that is important on your nightstand?
My lipbalm

Your best birthday?
Camping with my family for my fortieth birthday.

Big Break: I think it was going to Hungary. I have a 13 foot sculpture standing on the Danube, permanently.
Album: It was Bachman Turner Overdrive, Taking Care of Business.
Piece of art you sold: I was a masters student and it was a very organic tabletop sculpture that was made of steel and plaster.
Strangest Possession: My father made me stilts when I was 8 years old and they are painted bright blue and they are about 2 ½ feet off the ground.

I paused the art talk along with our dialogue on the local art scene to discuss the culinary
activities we were about to take part in. We sat in the old greenhouse of Jacob Styer this greenhouse once supplied cut flowers to travelers coming and going to Philadelphia. It now houses the farm to table restaurant at the ultra creative, upscale, outdoor accessory store, that is called Terrain. The best way to describe Terrain is what you would have if you had Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Milton Glasser and Bob Villa cleaned up the Sanford and Sons Place. It has everything that you could have probably made but didn't and they did, so you buy it, bring it home and post it on Pinterest like you did. Terrain has that NYC feel but has the comfort of Chester County and it starts with their menu. The menu reads like a grocery list. Karen decided to enjoy the rosemary honey mustard turkey breast, raw kale, brussels, dried fruit, mixed nuts, goat cheese, apple topped with a honey vinaigrette. I had the grass feed hanger salad with arugula, grilled zucchini and garlic chips…you get the idea. It was just as scrumptious as it sounds. If the portions were only as big as the descriptions, we would have been stuffed. Luckily there was room left for dessert. There was a brief conversation that maybe we should share but the dessert options were some things that I’d never make nor see again. We decided to each get one, then share so we could widen our horizons of culinary delight. In the meantime I continued to probe.

Like all good meals and insightful conversations, it must come to an end at some point. I signaled to the waitress for our check so we could finish up a day’s work. Karen was off to manage her other career as a full-time mom of three. Don't be fooled into thinking she is June Cleaver. She has been seen rocking out with her kids at concerts, cheering for them at hockey games and spending weekends camping with the family. This woman of steel doesn't rest because there is too much to do and too much to worry about. She is able to make small and tall sculpture with passion and conviction.

Don’t forget to see Karen’s answers to the speed questions along with some of her athletic ability.

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