Vital Order: A Conversation with Wendy Ross

Wendy Ross received her master’s from the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently based in the Washington, DC metro area. One of her day jobs on her way to being a full-time sculptor was a position with the National Park Service, conceiving a master plan for a regional art park, an experience that contributed to skills she now regularly employs as a sought-after public sculptor. With an enviable group of commissions to her name, including a horizontal hundred-foot work facing Boston Harbor (on the Grand Staircase of the Boston World Trade Center) to be completed in the fall of 2002, Ross is hitting her stride after 25 years of dedicated studio practice.

Bloom, 2001. Welded, powder-coated steel, 6 x 17 x 17 ft.

Ross has exhibited in institutions and public settings as far-flung and disparate as the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, New York, The Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and Saipan in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. Ross’s solo exhibition, “A Garden of Unearthly Delights,” is on view at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts, through July 7, 2002. Her design for a commemorative sculpture of founding father George Mason, on the National Mall in Washington, was described by J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art, as one of the best pieces of public sculpture he had reviewed in his 30 years as chairman of the Fine Arts Commission.

Volvox, 2001. Welded and coiled steel, 60 x 60 x 60 in.

Roger Boyce: I’ve just returned from “A Garden of Unearthly Delights.” The exhibition’s accompanying text directs us to the biological/cellular origins of your geometric works. However, without curator Nick Capasso’s highly readable and persuasive text I might have thought that the work referred to the linear “virtual volumes” of early Modernists such as Naum Gabo. Like Gabo, you seem invested in allowing space to permeate and ultimately define your work. The verticality of Andraecium III and Radianthus suggests Tatlin’s totemic Monument to the Third International. Do these associations indicate that you feel part of a Constructivist lineage, or do you think of your work solely in terms of organic metaphors?

Wendy Ross: There may be, at first glance, a Constructivist sensibility in the work. Those similarities may derive from a common interest in geometry, structural systems, and the use of spatial and linear elements. Although there is no conscious association, if I were to choose between the hard-core didacticism of Tatlin and the more embracing vision of Gabo, I’d go with the latter, because I try to balance the objective with the subjective and not exclude the possibility of emotion. However, my dialogue is with natural phenomena, not with the polemics of political or utopian doctrine. My focus is on principles of growth—the rhythms, patterns, and tensions that arise from the vital order of living things. There is a dialogic sense of form and space derived not from the formal but from the animate world. Although I use line as a unifying element, there is a mediation between the mathematical and the organic. And, unlike Tatlin and his proponents, my subjectivism is not supplanted by engineered efficiency.

Radiolaria, 2000. Stainless steel, 9 x 21 x 9 ft.

RB: Your steel works also strongly suggest anatomical scaffolding, skeletons or fossils.

WR: Some works, particularly Radiolaria, may appear skeletal, but they aren’t simply anatomical representations. My forms are not so much “disembodied” as they are embodied constructs that derive from nature, yet they establish their own internal integrity, energy, and life. Titles such as RadiolariaVolvox, and Radianthus are merely suggestive, not definitive. Although the titles suggest correspondence, the works are meant to be enigmatic and unsettling. Lurking on the edges of the familiar, the forms are not really of this earth, but they could theoretically exist. I don’t conceive of forms as mere relics of organic creatures but rather as active participants in a biomechanical universe where lines and curves of energy are defining elements. For example, Bloom is not a static exhumed fossil but an ongoing efflorescence, a contained sphere of linear “energy events.”

Viewers may find art historical associations in my practice, but my underlying motivations and goals differ from those of my predecessors—my chief concerns are not strictly the formal aspects of volume and space. I am part of a sculptural lineage, but I employ aspects of that lineage to different ends. I attempt to alter historical style and make it my own. Like Gabo, I began with a multiplicity of perspectives but have been able to precipitate my vision into a series of complex yet coherent constructions.

To address your earlier point, Andraecium III does have a heroic aspect. And, as its title (derived from the Greek root for the male part of a flower) suggests, there is a totemic reference. It can be seen as a tightly coiled spire of bound and unbound energy—but the upward movement owes as much to an emerging canna as to a metaphysical moment.

Radianthus, 2001. Welded and powder-coated steel, 13 x 7 x 7 ft.

RB: The work in “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is often vulvate or phallic. Sculptors as different as Louise Bourgeois and Rona Pondick have also employed gender-specific forms—although your pieces are undeniably cooler in tone and execution than theirs, I wonder how the “gender” of your pieces affects public and critical response?

WR: I am not consciously “gendering” the work, although some reactions suggest that. The work is meant to engage the viewer at many levels. I’m fascinated by the dynamic between work, maker, and viewer as “remaker.” Response to my work has been diverse, ranging from the sexual to the sublime. One viewer expressed a desire to “penetrate” the spheres. A critic found elements in one work reminiscent of teeming sperm, and in another, of Madonna’s cantilevered chest.

Conceptually, I’m exploring the broad field of “energy states.” The nature of my work seems to invite gender overlay, although I don’t try to provoke or avoid it. Energy released in any form is likely to be perceived as masculine, and energy contained as feminine. My hope is that perception doesn’t end there, that the viewer takes a closer look. At DeCordova, I watched a little girl’s interaction with Volvox and Radianthus. She ran over and touched each work, setting off audible vibrations in the coiled elements; then, she would shriek with pleasure, run to her mother, and start over again. Her unadulterated delight was refreshing.

The concept for “Unearthly Garden” is to portray a symbolic universe inhabited by forms transiting from one state of energy into another. Forces of expansion and contraction permeate both the smaller and larger constituents of this universe. Densely compacted forms such as CircinusApical, and Bud, constructed from welded “dots” of steel, represent energy as a point, seed, center, or axis around which all revolves and ultimately returns. More diffused linear forms, such as BivulvaRadiolaria, and Millefiore, embody a quality of energy that describes a straight or curved continuum, a projection, flow, or moving point leaving its trace. Split pod and Bloom exist somewhere between the two and embrace both.

(On wall) Millefiore, 1998–99, welded steel, 60 x 60 x 60 in; (on floor) Volvox, 1998–99, welded steel, 15 x 48 x 48 in.

RB: You’re also an accomplished practitioner of highly realistic commemorative public portraiture, a practice you’ve maintained even as you move forward with your more “avant-garde” work. In the late ’80s through the early ’90s you explored an expressionistic figural vein that had much in common with the pierced anatomic forms of Lipchitz and Moore, executed in traditional bronze. Shortly thereafter you began to employ more contemporary materials (paper, wax, wood, rope, and burlap), the nature of the materials partly determining the sculpture’s final form. Your room-sized installations, with their shaggy, organic hanging specters, recall Petah Coyne’s chandeliers. Before moving on to your current welded steel sculptures you constructed massive architectonic towers and spires made of wood, hawser rope, and thatch—works that are indisputably your own. How do you balance these different practices?

WR: If there is a single force that drives my work, it’s the desire to understand the nature of energy intuitively, philosophically, and symbolically. What fascinates me is how a few hidden patterns in nature produce a diversity of form. Although I’ve explored various paths of expression and a variety of materials, this underlying desire has guided the development of my work over the past two decades. With regard to juggling two lines of work—one steeped in biology, the other in biography—the differences are only “skin deep.” Simply stated, both reveal states of energy.

Andraecium, 1995. Polypropylene rope and wood, 156 x 48 x 48 in.

Unlike many of my contemporaries who express energy in ephemeral ways, my work has always been object-based. When I was still in school, I saw an exhibition of works by Paul Klee and was mesmerized by his organic imagery and evocative line. I read Werner Haftmann’s Mind and Work of Paul Klee and was fascinated by Klee’s observational links of dissimilar things and the rapturous way he described his discoveries. I found Klee’s aesthetic akin to the German romantic writer, Hermann Hesse, who described his great joy at “the thousand of relationships, correspondences, analogies, and echoes that speak to us eternally from things great and small.” Klee, however, seemed more detached than romantic—he saw “an entire tree in a single leaf rather than a Heaven in a wildflower.” In much the same way, I distill experience and translate that distillation into a single object. Thirty years later, I still feel a kinship with Klee’s naturalist sensibility, although I’m operating within a geometrician’s workshop.

The earlier figurative works do have a formal affinity with the works of Lipchitz and Moore, but they’re drawn from biological events in my garden. Created between 1984 and 1990, they examine the growth, energy, and dualism of split plant forms—a phenomenon that occurs in species known as the dicotyledon, where split parts “mirror” each other during growth. The figures were abstracted by elongating and incorporating plant and insect-like qualities. It’s interesting that you chose the word “pierced” for this body of work, because in pieces such as Sentinel I intentionally modeled one “face” of the split head to suggest a “piercing” eye. The figurative forms dictated my choice of materials. Stylistic elongation required working directly in wax, rather than clay, to accommodate the attenuated linear fabrication.

Andraecium III, 1998. Welded and woven steel, 25 x 7 x 7 ft..

I periodically change materials to overcome physical limitations—new materials often open unanticipated creative avenues. From 1991 to ’94, I explored growth and entropy in living systems, but without any perceptible figuration. While I had earlier merged the botanical with the animal world, these works shifted toward the mechanical. I worked with burlap, paper, straw, rope, and string. Whereas before I had used wax as a midwife to casting in epoxy or bronze, now I incorporated it directly. Darker aspects of nature, which had been latent in the earlier works, emerged, sometimes with wall and ceiling elements.

For my Rootbound installation, I wanted to construct an underworld teeming with energy. Over 2,000 feet of large-diameter rope was suspended from a ceiling grid in a dark brown room—the rope was twisted, knotted, and split into fibrous skeins that traveled across a floor of pungent mulch, cascaded along the walls, and hung in sinuously sculpted shapes and folds throughout the space. Stiffened red burlap forms lurked within, and a large inverted cone encrusted with deep volcanic, pigmented wax was hung in the center of the space to root the seemingly chaotic explosion of energy.

As I suggested earlier, creative directions are not always consciously chosen. My husband and I made several trips to Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Indonesia. Spirit House, which you describe as an architectonic tower, draws inspiration from the devotional structures I saw in places like Sulewasi. I designed the 25-foot structure to convey bound and unbound energy—hawser rope was wrapped tightly around a vertical shaft culminating in exuberant release. The construction appears both ancient and modern: beyond, yet subject to space and time. Because the original site for the work was once a center of agrarian life, I decided to cap the structure with a thatched roof. I was able to locate a master thatcher from England, and he worked with me on site, fabricating the roof with indigenous Virginia rye straw. Spirit House turned out to be a curious mixture—an aboriginal structure crowned with a roof from the Cotswolds.

Spirit House, 1994. 2,000 ft. of polypropylene rope, thatched rye straw, wood, and tubing, 20 x 5 x 5 ft.

I’m often asked why I didn’t continue using impermanent materials. My response is simply that my exploration led me to a medium that more completely sustains my vision—steel. In 1994 I took a welding course to refine my skills. The sense that I had found a material and direction that were authentically “my own” has been reinforced by the critical interest in the work that followed. Technical limitations no longer stand in the way—scale, durability, and strength are all available with steel. I’m also able to engineer a monumental work as modular, so that it can be transported piecemeal and seamlessly assembled on site. I also find steel an ideal material for the depiction of energy. I can compress it to a dense point, as in the “Quantum Dot” series, or convey expanding energy as contoured or curvilinear, as in the “Spatial Linescape” series. A solid, opaque substrate is no longer necessary to support space.

Throughout this period I’ve remained grounded in the object and in nature. Although the work has become somewhat unearthly, it’s still part of a garden. In “Unearthly Garden,” as in earlier installations, the objects function as a group. The coolness of the steel changes the emotional tone of the work, but something else happens as well. Individual works take on a life of their own within a fictive phyla, outside the realm of what we recognize as the natural world. Volvox’s spiraling coils are centripetal and centrifugal at once: they spring inward and outward simultaneously. The skeletal skein of Radianthus absorbs and is absorbed by the surrounding environment to the extent that it disappears and reappears—depending on ambient light (often appearing as spun glass).

I don’t view my approach to portraiture as inherently foreign to my other work. While a dual practice may be uncommon, I feel that it has helped to hone my perceptual skills, loosened up the joints of my psyche, and grounded my development in two distinct yet related communities. In creating a portrait, I am committed to capturing and conveying the energy that characterizes a particular individual. Portraiture is an abstraction of an entire life—a “biography” that can be condensed into a single gesture or attitude.

Rootbound, 1995. Hawser rope, burlap, mulch, cast foam, moss, and digitized sounds, 108 x 240 x 240 in.

I’m particularly pleased with my design for a full-figure commemorative sculpture of George Mason, for what may be the last memorial on the National Mall in Washington. Much like a musician who practices scales and variations before performing, portraiture requires specific skills which must be regularly and methodically practiced. Although I enjoy the challenges of public portraiture, I have accepted very few portrait commissions, because they take a serious commitment of time (time borrowed from my other work) and research.

RB: How has it been to compete as a woman in the field of sculpture, which is thought of as dominated by men?

WR: It’s been interesting, especially competitions for works of monumental scale or involving complex engineering. Linking volumes of space with coiled or woven matrixes of lines, arcs, curves, and points of steel defies the “heavy metal” male notion of structural strength. An apprentice once called my work “chick art.” He soon learned that patience, concentration, and a gentle touch with the welding torch can effectively create monumental sculpture. I am presently executing a 100-foot steel sculpture for the Boston waterfront. So long as the majority of curators, critics, gallery owners, and commissioning groups are male, my job is to convince them that these works by W.M. Ross are by Wendy not William.

Roger Boyce is a writer living in Massachusetts.