Life Boats: Boats About Life, 1978–80. Wood and mixed media, installation view.

No Time for Second: A Conversation with Patricia A. Renick

Patricia A. Renick, the International Sculpture Center’s 2003 Outstanding Sculpture Educator Award recipient, was born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1932 and taught at the University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Architecture and Art for 31 years. As a sculptor, Renick’s strength lies in her ability to fuse, into a single form, expressive meanings that can be discerned at different levels of artistic and conceptual depth. Her work is sensuous, seductive, superbly crafted, and informed by metaphoric thinking. Like many talented women of her generation, Renick was encouraged to become an art teacher. The prospect of becoming a “real” artist did not unfold until she was 40. She completed an MFA in printmaking while also taking sculpture courses at Ohio State University. Her thesis show (1969) included etchings and silk screens of faces printed on silk, then laminated over mask-like forms and incorporated into wonderfully weird figurative sculpture.

Renick’s career can be traced in three decade-long intervals. Beginning with her first solo show in 1970, she exhibited in numerous invitationals, including a breakthrough exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Before the end of the decade, she was awarded two other solo museum exhibitions. For each, she created what have become “signature” works, monumental in scale and biomechanical in character. In the 1980s, Renick concentrated on two personal series of works, Life Boats and the more intimate and quasi-autobiographical 2068 Series. She also initiated and directed the landmark National Sculpture Conference: Works by Women (1987), which brought together 1,200 participants (Sculpture September/November 1987). Since the 1990s, and continuing to the present, Renick has created abstract works that appeal to the eye and trigger subtle kinesthetic responses.

30-Module Sphere, 1998. Stainless steel, 11 x 8 x 8 ft.

Laura H. Chapman: Your MFA show was witty, but it also had an underbelly of concern about human relationships and values in American society. How did these directions emerge in your work?

Patricia A. Renick: I’ve often had two parallel lines of creative work. One is playful and humorous, especially in drawing and sometimes in sculpture. At the same time, I’ve had enough experience to recognize issues in my own life and in the larger world. My work moves in both directions, and sometimes the two come together in unexpected ways. My serious side is concerned with relationships: the past and the present, inner feelings and outer appearances, and the thin line between having control and being controlled. Perhaps because I came to art relatively late in life, and cherish the freedoms it offers, I’m most frightened by power in the hands of people who seem to thrive on tearing the wings off dreams.

LHC: Have you felt that kind of destructive arrogance?

PAR: Yes, more than once. But over the years, I’ve learned to take it as a challenge. When someone says, “You can’t do that,” I’m inclined to say, “Oh yes I can.” You risk failing, but you also expand your horizons of possibility. Sometimes you’re successful, against the odds. Here’s an example. I wanted to get an MFA in sculpture, but when I sought admission to the program, I was told: “Complete an undergraduate degree in sculpture, then we might consider you.” That arbitrary judgment stunned me, and the chair of printmaking said: “Do your MFA with me and create as much sculpture as you want.” It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I didn’t have to worry about what sculpture is supposed to be.

LHC: How did you prepare for your solo show at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1974?

PAR: I had done a maquette that combined a Volkswagen and a Stegosaurus. Overall, the body forms are similar. At about the same time, there was talk of a major gasoline shortage. The maquette allowed me to connect the possible obsolescence of automobiles (from lack of fuel) with extinction (dinosaurs and their fossil remains as fuel sources).

LHC: You decided to take an unpaid leave from the university and put all your efforts into one work. That was pretty risky. Did you ever question the wisdom in doing that?

PAR: Not really. Once I decided what I wanted to do, there wasn’t time to have second thoughts. I didn’t have a studio, so I improvised under a tent attached to the garage at my house. I named the project Stegowagenvolkssaurus. In a literal translation, it is “shingle-covered-car-people’s-lizard.”

I started in the spring of 1973. I knew the organic parts of the dinosaur would be in fiberglass. I wanted the car to be a real VW. I managed to get a lot of donations: a gutted VW from a dealer, Styrofoam, and automotive modeling clay. I had to heat the clay to 135 degrees (Fahrenheit). I did this in my kitchen. I moved several thousand pounds of clay, in roasting pans, from the kitchen to the tent. I improvised with tools such as kitchen graters, until some unexpected help came from an experienced automotive modeler.

LHC: How did that happen?

PAR: A specialist from Chavant clay, Ron Martin, learned of the project. He was so curious he flew in from Detroit. He brought all of his handmade tools. He spent two days teaching me tricks of the trade, how to plan release lines for the molds, and the like. By late fall, I had to rent heaters to work under the tent. My luck was holding up, but the tent wasn’t. I finished the clay work and brought in professionals to help with the molds. By the time the molds were cleaned, it was snowing, so I moved the project to a donated fabrication shop. Meanwhile, museum staff discovered that no entrance was large enough for the sculpture. I had to re-engineer the nearly completed work. It was fully installed about one hour before the show opened.

Triceracopter, 1976. Fiberglass and salvaged OH-6A Cayuse helicopter, 13 x 10 x 30 ft.

LHC: Stego was shown on a low platform, with new chrome parts on the car, silvered windows, an automotive finish, and a plaque like you might see in a natural history museum.

PAR: I wanted viewers to enter a space that resonated as a natural history museum. I wanted them to feel as if they were seeing an unknown but plausible species. The platform and plaque identifying the species as Stegowagenvolkssaurus were part of the concept. The presentation implied that other variations of the creature might have evolved from some ancestral prototype. The dark gray room added an aura of mystery, surprise, and discovery. The music was synthetic, more like a barely audible soundscape, with very muted honks from car horns and plaintive roars of large animals, as if heard from a great distance in time.

LHC: Stego was a hit with the public and with critics. Images of it have been reproduced worldwide. It became a signature piece. What happened to it?

PAR: It was shown again, in 1975, at the “Sculpture for a New Era” exhibition, sponsored by Works of Art in Public Places and the National Endowment for the Arts. Following that show in Chicago, it was left disassembled for several weeks in the lobby of a federal building. People didn’t know what it was, jumped on parts, and who knows what else. It was really damaged. Only the threat of a lawsuit returned the work, along with a check for damages. The parts are still in storage, but in serious disrepair. I doubt it will ever be resurrected.

LHC: Between 1974 and 1976, you created a second monumental sculpture, Triceracopter.

PAR: I had an idea for a sculpture bearing on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Although I didn’t have a commission or promise of a show, I thought the idea might be timely for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. I did not see the work as a celebration, but as a cautionary tale, an expression of hope for the end of war. War is a dichotomy. It seduces the dream-self through heroic fantasy while threatening the physical self with extinction. Second, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do another large work. I didn’t want to be one of those rocking chair people on the front porch of the future, saddened by what might have been. I had a check for damages from the earlier work and decided to go ahead with the project.

LHC: Triceracopter has a really menacing presence. It is momentarily frozen, passive, but looks like a formidable killing machine. What is the iconography?

PAR: I was drawn to the triceratops as a form—the horns, huge head, and massive rill. Also, it had a highly developed defense system. It was one of the last dinosaurs to become extinct. The helicopter also has a special history. It is a U.S. Army OH-6A Cayuse. In the Vietnam War, the Cayuse often served as a weapon of attack, drawing enemy fire at night. The tracers were like bait, providing jet fighters with a target to hit. I wanted people to sense the combined force of biological and technological weaponry. The visual metaphor may be strange, but it seemed to resonate with people on both sides of the ideological struggles about that war. It took over a year to get the project going, but people were willing to help. The Army shipped the helicopter cross-country. It was damaged, so I had to reconstruct the airframe in fiberglass. I got some missing parts from the National Guard. I found a loft where the owner only charged me for utilities.

LHC: Studio space matters. How did you end up in the wonderful studio you have now?

PAR: For about 12 years, I managed to keep the studio where I created Triceracopter. When that building was sold, the new owner asked for impossible rent. At about the same time, several other artists were looking for space. In 1987, three of us, all women, pooled our resources. We bought a building with adjacent lots for parking. Each of us has a floor. Since I work in sculpture, I got the first floor. Later, I broke through a wall, added double doors, a deck, and created an enclosed landscaped area. I use it as a sculpture garden and social space. My MFA seminar students met here, and all classes had an end-of year potluck including artists from the community.

Self-Portrait, 1977. Fiberglass, wood chair, and plastic maquette, 5 x 2.5 x 2.5 ft.

LHC: Your work shifted during the 1980s. Why?

PAR: I knew there was more out there for me. I loved the intensity and physicality of work on a large scale. I had proven to myself that I was capable of doing that. But sometimes I felt like a Don Quixote: going into battle, armed with bent lances, perched precariously on wooden stilts, twirling hoola hoops, whistling “Impossible Dream.” In the 1980s, my work became more personal. I worked with boats. They’re aesthetically compelling forms that allowed me to explore more subtle metaphors. The first series I called Life Boats. They are boats about life and voyages during a life span. Procedurally, it’s easy to start making boats by creating a centerline, building out the ribs, adding the sides, and playing with closed or open forms. When the boats are suspended from the ceiling with monofilament line, they appear to be free-floating, levitating. The rib-like structures and hulls create beautiful shadows on the floor. They allude to parent/child relationships, freedom and restraint, innocence and loss of innocence. For example, I created one boat in white pine. The form, material, and new oarlocks suggest it is virginal, untried. Another, near it, is no virgin. The boat form is covered with black leather. It has a deck of black rubber with a black mink shape, vagina-like, in the middle. I stretched garters from the prow to the stern. Here’s another example. A large mother boat cradles a smaller child boat inside. The small boat is held in place, as if in a womb. Springs gently restrain it, but give it some freedom of movement. In a variant, the small boat is caged within the large boat by metal meshing. And it rests on spikes that prevent movement. The stern of the boat is solid wood, with a hinged door inserted in it, but the door has a padlock on it.

LHC: In two of the boats, the deck is replaced with a prone human figure. A self-portrait, similar to a death mask appears in another. What is this imagery about?

PAR: The two boats you’re talking about were very personal, but they also put me in a position to undertake the most important work I’ve done so far. Both works helped me get started on the 2068 Series—eight boats including a nude female form, somewhat androgynous, uniformly gray, and made from fiberglass. It’s the same figure in each boat. Most appear to be strapped into the boat.

LHC: What does “2068” refer to?

PAR: The works capture various “states of being” I experienced while I was in a hospital in the late 1950s. 2068 was my hospital case number. The episode began when I was misdiagnosed, unnecessarily hospitalized, and given shock treatments. I had been taking a common drug for weight loss. My regular physician gave me an unlimited prescription for dextroamphetamine sulfate, later to be known as “speed.” I went bonkers, with symptoms that resembled schizophrenia. The whole episode ended 13 months later. With proper diagnosis and treatment, I could have recovered in six weeks, and shock treatments were totally unnecessary. But, I was in a posh private hospital, owned by the doctors. They managed to keep me there, in a state of psychological dependency on them.

The boat is relevant to the location of the hospital, near a river. At the same time, I wanted to obstruct any literal representation of the experience. The figures have life-like detail and scale, but an unreal appearance. They have a certain brittleness of edge and details from the body cast, but with a polished sheen, unlike skin. The deck is just wide and just long enough to support the figure with the head in the prow and feet near the stern. The faces are like death masks, without expression, eyes closed. Only a few elements have some basis in fact—the electro-shock machine, medical mask, and air wing (tube for air).

2068 Series, 1981–85. Fiberglass and mixed media, installation view.

LHC: Is the series a narrative?

PAR: There is a narrative. It comes from serial relationships among the eight forms. These allude to states of mind and sensations of not being in control of who you are. If you were fully conscious, you’d know what was happening. Your identity would be intact. In order to suggest different states of mind or identities, I created subtle shifts in the body language of the figures. I also varied other details like the position of the straps, the presence or absence of chambers. And each figure is animated in some way, either from external or internal forces, as if yielding to or resisting them. When you see them in an installation, they’re suspended in space, arranged in a semi-circle and lighted. As a single unit, the boats and their shadows resemble a ghostly flotilla. They seem to be drawn together by an unseen current.

The works are not therapeutic in any conventional sense. I created them many years after the experience. At the same time, trauma has a way of altering your perception of your self. And, when your art is informed by personal experience, it has some potential for communicating what it means to be human. All of us have experiences that we’d like to deny or hide. That’s nearly universal. I would not want to endure what I went through again, but it is part of my life, and I don’t want to erase it. I am a different person than I might have been without that experience.

LHC: Are the 2068 Series and Susan’s related?

PAR: In Susan’s, I re-developed the face in the 2068 Series, but it is now a stand-alone work on a pedestal. There are 12 differently oriented portraits of the same person in a single bust-like form. I wanted it to be a serene presence, as if the mind were in repose but gathering unseen impressions from multiple vantage points, like a dream.

LHC: People who attended the national conference for women sculptors that you organized are still talking about it.

PAR: The title, “National Sculpture Conference: Works by Women,” drew lots of people. I thought the time was right for women sculptors to come together and overcome their sense of isolation. It was time to demonstrate that there were many of us working in significant ways. I wanted the conference to focus on excellence, so the art wasn’t overwhelmed by politics. It took time to plan. It’s not everyday that you expect 500 people to show up and you have about 1,200 instead. Fortunately, there were lots of volunteers. I worked it out so we could have 23 concurrent exhibitions. We didn’t have money to pay speakers, but we did get some support for other expenses from the Ohio Arts Council, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the university.

LHC: Who came and why?

PAR: We had sculptors from almost every state and several foreign countries. There were 75 lectures and panel presentations. In the opening session, we honored Louise Bourgeois, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Catlett, Clyde Connell, Dorothy Dehner, Claire Falkenstein, Sue Fuller, Louise Nevelson, and Claire Zeisler. Of these, only Nevelson and Bourgeois were not present. A student greeted the honorees at the airport, wearing a top hat, presenting roses and champagne. We gave them citations, silver medals (commissioned), and devoted major sessions to their work. In addition to the panel sessions by sculptors, we had continuous slide shows, as well as lectures and panels with art historians, critics, museum and gallery directors. Technical experts were available—on materials and techniques, legal issues, health hazards, commissions. We set up a “networking” room, so people with similar interests could find each other, dine together, and list their names in directories for post-conference exchange. We ended the conference with a session from The Guerrilla Girls. They offered statistics on the entry of women into mainstream shows. The statistics were dismal, but things have improved. We didn’t need a follow-up conference.

LHC: What about the ’90s?

PAR: After the boat series and conference, I was ready for a change of pace and direction. I created a number of small works in metal, some with flat planes covered with witty drawings. On others, I integrated colorful collage-like elements. I made these from acrylic paint, dried on plastic, then released and segmented. These were laminated onto painted metal. I was also drawn to the elegance of geometric and curvilinear forms, exploring these in sculptures, drawings, prints, and paintings with vibrant colors. You could say I was re-inventing what I wanted to do.

LHC: Are you saying that formalism now has a definite place in your work?

PAR: Yes, and it’s always been there in some degree. As an undergraduate, I was trained in the Bauhaus tradition and developed a taste or affinity for the geometric—whether serene or playful. I’m not dogmatic about that kind of aesthetic, but it feels right at this time of my life. I can work at things without angst. I enjoy the puzzles in a process where you have to make the most from just a few, very distinct visual elements: line, shape, space, form, sometimes color.

LHC: Do you approach this work with a mathematical mind?

PAR: No. Everything is intuitive. I have two ways of working. When I develop maquettes, I use index cards. I think of the cards as flat sheets of metal that can be bent into forms and combined in different ways. I also have a fairly large stock of steel and stainless steel—rods, sheets, circles, and triangles. These are for welded pieces. I work with steel directly. I establish one plane and then envision how others can be developed from it. It’s manageable and mentally intriguing. That’s important because I’m getting a bit arthritic and don’t have as much strength as I used to. I have a welder and dear friend, James Clark, who is helping me.

LHC: What happens to the maquettes?

PAR: I rely on a professional fabricator. So far, the major work is 30-Module Sphere, in stainless steel. Cincinnati officials invited me to create a work for a new traffic island only one block from my studio. I agreed to do it, but it turned out that there was no money. The city officials were embarrassed, but they put me in touch with a potential patron. With his help and donations from several businesses, I did get the work fabricated. It was shown at Pier Walk, then returned and installed in Cincinnati. It was a win-win, except for the fact that I received no commission.

LHC: Your studio is filled with sculptures, some of them placed with paintings. Are you planning a show?

PAR: Some of this work will be offered in a silent auction, a benefit in October for students and young sculptors. I created the stainless Ribbon Series several years ago. I had just bought a metal roll and tried it out with eccentric shapes. Many are spiral-like. I painted the visible interiors with gradations of luscious automotive paint. The geometric paintings echo those colors, but are subdued. I see the sculptures and paintings as ensembles, displayed together. So far, there are 13 works in the new Vertical Series. A few have flower-like motifs, but most are geometric. They make wonderful shadows—duplicate themselves when they’re placed near a wall. Only a few are symmetrical. I like the balancing acts in asymmetry—deciding on intervals, placements, and so on.

LHC: Over the years, you taught every fine arts student at the university and mentored many artists. You have served on the boards of arts institutions. I hear people refer to you as “Mother Art.” Are these activities relevant to your work in sculpture?

PAR: Longevity gives you perspective. I care deeply about teaching. At the same time, these people-centered activities are not the same as creating. When you’re being creative, you’re in that zone where you don’t know what time of day it is. With people, I have enough credibility as a sculptor to speak on behalf of other artists. I do that, and I learn a lot. I’m energized by dialogue with students, other artists, people who want to learn more.

LHC: What’s ahead, beyond this body of work?

PAR: I’ve been awarded a commission for a monumental sculpture at Proctor and Gamble’s New Millennium Research and Development Center. It will be at the outside entrance, and in stainless steel. I am sure that my best work is still ahead of me.

Laura H. Chapman is a consultant and writer on art education based in Cincinnati, Ohio.