Sculptor Richard MacDonald forges art from life.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Richard MacDonald’s studio feels poised to burst into movement. It’s a garden of kinetic potential, an expectant place of tightly wound muscle, a forest of half-formed and fully-formed bodies caught on the cusp of a leap, a pirouette. A crowd of beings somehow snatched from the flow of time a breath before some astonishing flourish of athleticism.
A larger-than-life, brooding Rudolph Nureyev looms in the corner surrounded by disembodied torsos, trunks, blindfolded anatomy. Beautiful female forms spread out like founts of curve and muscle. The master juggler Viktor Kee cavorts through unseen fields. A skeleton stands at attention like a sentry. MacDonald’s studio is a monument to the beauty of the human body and the spirit that drives it. And it’s an ever-changing testament to the genius of its maker.
Richard MacDonald, striking at 58, stands beneath two thick lengths of scarlet fabric that pour from the 16-foot ceiling. His model, a former Cirque du Soleil performer with the body of an Olympic gymnast, waits for instruction. Stripped to his waist, the Russian acrobat stands amid the labyrinth of sculpture like some classical hero.
In a studio conspicuous for its bare white walls, MacDonald works only from live models. Never from photographs. Like his idol, Rodin, he puts great stake on memory and models. He has the ability, as he puts it, to “split-second capture an image or a moment in memory.”
Donning a helmet that is part jeweler’s glass and part welder’s visor, MacDonald plucks a knife from a nearby stand full of hammers, clamps, chisels, pliers and cups filled with various other scraping and cutting and scoring utensils, then turns to a small clay study depicting his model splayed out in midair and says, “OK Sasha, go on up.”
The acrobat wraps one length of the blood-red chiffon around each arm and then, in defiance of gravity, effortlessly pulls himself toward the ceiling. With an impossibly graceful economy of movement, he winds the chiffon around his back and unfolds one leg in a practiced movement.
MacDonald glances up at him and then back at his small-scale study. “The gravity makes you really skinny in the middle,” he says. “Let’s see it upside down.”
The acrobat fluidly inverts himself, hanging midair like a diver, his muscled back a biomechanical masterpiece. He has a remarkable ability to remain perfectly still. MacDonald begins to move around his sculpture. Making subtle inflections, he repeatedly glances up at his subject and back at the clay. He focuses intently as he works, periodically snatching a pair of calipers from the stand and double-checking his scale. He crouches, swoops and withdraws, squints, peers and studies, all the while manipulating the material in tiny, fluid movements.
It is a graceful and classic dance, but there is some subtle violence to the way he works. In his black jeans, with his wide-legged stance and Puckish look, he’s like James Dean sculpting clay with a switchblade. He’s got a little of the rebel, a little of the rock star to him.
Richard MacDonald is the most collected figurative sculptor at work in the world today. Working out of his state-of-the-art 25,000-square-foot Ryan Ranch studio, he has achieved tremendous financial success. He owns numerous mansions, fancy cars, a chain of successful galleries…he plays with the idea of buying into a private jet to shuttle him down to Los Angeles. He calls many celebrities friends, and rubs shoulders with historical icons like Muhammad Ali, Tony Bennett and Luciano Pavarotti.
Yet he’s still very much a local boy. Having grown up near Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz before moving out to the “country” in the Rio Del Mar area in the 1950s, MacDonald does not project pretension or affectation. Highly intelligent, he addresses the world with the same relaxed intensity that he addresses his work. In conversation, he seems hyper-conscious of whomever he engages, of their emotions and their states of being. He is studying them physically and psychologically. The rare conversation with MacDonald that remains unadulterated by work can be refreshing and wide-ranging in topic.
But when he is working, which is most of the time, he flutters between worlds like someone walking through a strobe light. He is present and gone. He will disappear through a door while you are speaking to him to go check a patina. Or he will suddenly stop mid-sentence to focus on a sculpture or adjust a model.
The man is consumed by his work, which is not surprising. It takes more than luck and talent to transform an aimless, suicidal juvenile delinquent into a successful artist.
“Every bit of life,” MacDonald says, running his hand across cold bronze. “Everything you run into during the brief time you’re here, impacts your ability to be sensitive. Especially when you realized just how fragile life is.”
MacDonald was 15 years old when his 14-year-old brother was killed on their way to school in Watsonville. “We were basically twins,” he says. “Our parents used to make us look like twins. Same clothes and cowboy hats.”
The loss of his brother sent him a self-destructive tailspin that crash-landed him in trouble with the law, MacDonald says. He believes matters were complicated by his parents, who, he says, were incapable of dealing with their traumatized son.
“They were two children in their own right who didn’t have a lot of time for their children,” MacDonald says. “There was a lot of anger in our household. I mean my father was very sensitive, very creative, a great dancer, but he just wasn’t available. He was an angry man.”
He says that his uncle, Chuck Ax, took a personal interest in keeping the boy out of jail and getting him on the right track.
“My uncle lived on the East Coast so I didn’t see him much often. My mom called him and told him how much trouble I was getting in. That I was writing suicide notes. She set it up,” MacDonald says. “Told him, ‘You gotta get a hold of this kid now or he’ll be in deep trouble.’”
When MacDonald graduated from high school, a feat in itself, his mother made arrangements for Richard to visit his uncle in Florida. At the time, Chuck Ax was one of the top graphic designers in the country and the teenager was intrigued by what appeared to be an exciting, creative and financially rewarding life. So when his uncle brought him to a “hole-in-the-wall” art institute in Miami and Richard found himself surrounded by men and women feverishly drawing a nude model, he decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.
“It was a strange scene for me. I had done some drawing. I wasn’t a complete novice. I’d had some good teachers in high school, but the nude model, the people, the focus, it was new to me,” MacDonald laughs. “My uncle said, ‘Sit down and see if you like drawing. I’ll be back a little bit later.’ Basically he never showed back up.”
Ax enrolled Richard at the school and then signed himself up to teach there in order to keep an eye on the wild child. Soon it was apparent to everyone that the boy had some talent.
“I lived in his house and he adopted me as his son basically,” MacDonald says. “I was there for almost a year and he pretty much guided me all the way. Gave me a lot of good advice.”
So in the late 60s, when his uncle told Richard to go join the Coast Guard because the government was going to begin drafting for the Vietnam War soon, he did. MacDonald wound up in a special forces branch of the Coast Guard. He says it was a good detail that kept him out of the killing fields in Vietnam, but that the most significant event of his service occurred while MacDonald was in boot camp.
“I was in boot camp in New Jersey when I met this one guy who was an artist. I wasn’t drawing at the time, but this guy just influenced me for whatever reason and I pretty much decided right then and there I was going to be an artist.
“Of course, I didn’t think much about the ramifications of being an artist,” he laughs.
When MacDonald got back from the service, he returned to the art school in Miami. But before long, his uncle and his teachers were telling him that he had to go to the Art Center College of Design, a prestigious commercial art institute in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he says, the death of his brother and the correlating demise of his grade point average came back to haunt him.
When he applied the first time, they rejected him, saying he had a nice portfolio but his grades weren’t good enough. Undaunted, MacDonald enrolled at Los Angeles Community College and “worked my butt off just to get C’s because I was a little rusty.”
In the meantime, MacDonald had met a woman, gotten married, had a daughter, Michelle, and suddenly found himself burdened with the full responsibilities of fatherhood at the age of 20. Working days and nights, he says, he didn’t have enough to get by.
“It was a tremendously challenging time,” MacDonald says. “I was hovering between hope and despair.”
The following year, his work paid off and he was awarded a full scholarship to the Art Center.
“The discipline in that place was extraordinary,” MacDonald says. “If you make it through there you’re not going to have a problem competing in the world. When I walked out of that college I was prepared to compete as a professional.”
Despite his reputation for being a little on the wild side, MacDonald says, he had always been industrious. He’d worked from an early age, making money by mowing lawns or caddying or selling golf balls, and had always clearly seen that he wanted more from his life than what his parents had. He wanted to live a different way. So, faced with the responsibilities of feeding his young family, Richard brought them back to the East Coast upon graduation and, despite some job offers, decided he could be more successful and have more freedom doing freelance graphic design.
“I realized that if I wasn’t hired I couldn’t be fired,” MacDonald says.
His aunt made some straps for his portfolio and he began canvassing Miami by foot, picking up freelance jobs here and there and building relationships with different agencies and design centers. By the time he was 25, MacDonald had bought his first house. To this day, he has never filed a W-2 form with the IRS.
Over the next few years, MacDonald, like his uncle before him, ascended to the upper echelon of the commercial graphic design world. He moved to Atlanta and was doing some “really good work” for corporations like AT&T, IBM, the NFL, Coca-Cola and publishing houses like Bantam and Harper. But he was not happy.
“I didn’t feel commercial,” MacDonald says. “I was just painting and solving problems. I enjoyed the work, but it is what it is. In the end it’s a function. It became a means to an end.”
MacDonald attended a workshop in Connecticut featuring the world’s top commercial illustrators, and there decided he needed to do something else.
“I wanted to go up there and see what it was like at the top and immediately I realized that this was not what I wanted in my life. I did not want to become like these people. I wanted more,” MacDonald says. “I wanted my work to last longer than the turn of a page.”
Bolstered by this glimpse into a commercial future, MacDonald returned to Atlanta and started maneuvering to understand the fine arts industry. Inspired by the sudden change in public perception of work by classic “commercial” illustrators like Norman Rockwell, MacDonald opened the American Illustrator’s Gallery in a small empty jewelry store next to Neiman Marcus in midtown Atlanta’s Colony Square.
It was an instant success. Selling only “fine illustration,” MacDonald created a new market for artists like Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassat, and, of course, Richard MacDonald. When Neiman Marcus decided to move out of the 4,000-square-foot space next door, the American Illustrator’s Gallery moved in.
In the late ‘70s, while his gallery was booming, MacDonald quietly began sculpting. Inspired by an article about an illustrator named Bruce Wolf, MacDonald began experimenting with three-dimensional models of his illustration subjects, figuring it would give him a more comprehensive understanding of their forms.
In 1977, Budweiser commissioned him to do some portraits of their iconic Clydesdale horses. But when the company’s representative saw MacDonald’s clay study, he requested a limited edition of the sculpture. Just like that, MacDonald abandoned the page for the pedestal.
Inspired by this success, MacDonald decided he was going to work in bronze. He took a night class at a local adult school and learned the basics. Despite knowing nothing about waxing or bronzing, he completed his first sculpture, a figurative work depicting his girlfriend, and then went about casting the mold in the dirt floor of his Atlanta home’s basement.
He dug a hole six feet deep and eight feet in diameter, put the mold of his sculpture in the hole, and then scraped the earth up around it with the back end of the shovel. Despite numerous warnings that the bronze was tremendously volatile, MacDonald and some friends carefully poured a couple hundred pounds of molten metal into the hole and stepped back.
“It was an adventure,” MacDonald says. “I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t question if it could be done. I just did it. And quite frankly, it’s amazing I didn’t burn my house down.”
When the bronze had set, they pulled the whole thing out with a jeep and started hammering the plaster off the still-warm metal “with great enthusiasm.” Alas, when the sculpture had been freed of its casing, they found that the chest cavity had slipped a quarter of an inch and the sculpture had no eyes and no nose. Undaunted, MacDonald asked a friend to weld globs of bronze onto the eyes and nose and then spent 500 hours chiseling and hammering and sanding the piece back into a semblance of the shape he had originally visualized.
“I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but my first three sculptures looked like hood ornaments,” MacDonald laughs. “But I kept at it. I kept sculpting and learning in the dirt floor of this house in Atlanta. I learned how to do patinas. Most sculptors don’t know how to do patinas. Few sculptors can draw and paint.”
When the sculpture was finished, he proudly displayed it in his gallery. When a well-heeled “interior designer” came into the gallery, fell in love with the piece and bought it for $10,000, MacDonald was thrilled. Especially when he found out that the incognito buyer was actually His Royal Highness Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Determined to succeed, MacDonald took the prince’s money and invested it in a limited edition run, creating 20 more sculptures from that first mold and fine-tuning the “lost wax” technique he would come to master. The Eronson Gallery in Atlanta began selling MacDonald’s work and before long he began to develop a reputation as a serious sculptor.
Then in the early ’80s MacDonald experienced a shift.
“It was time for me to go. I was missing California,” he says. So when he won his first sculptural commission—a nine-foot figure of Christ for St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta—it gave him the confidence to make a living as a sculptor. He dissolved his gallery, packed everything up and headed west, sure that his new life as a sculptor was going to be just as successful as his life as an illustrator and gallery owner had been.
It took a little while for things to fall apart.
“Some guy once told me, ‘Bronze is just something you bump into when you’re backing up to look at a painting,’” MacDonald says. “I decided I was going to create work that moved and inspired people. I wanted my bronzes to embody the human condition, whatever that might be—fear, dance, joy, sorrow. All the sorts of things that we’re impacted by. Blind faith.”
Moving back to the West Coast, MacDonald set up shop in Santa Barbara. Before long, he began to suspect he couldn’t make a living there. Strapped for money, he entered a national contest to design and build a monument in Texas. MacDonald went a step further and created plans for a monument, a plaza and its lighting scheme. His proposal beat out 180 international competitors, and he suddenly found himself with a reputation as an up and coming monument builder. And he suddenly had time and resources to relocate to a more financially viable area of California.
In February of 1999, MacDonald found himself in Placerville, in the Sierra foothills. While his reputation was still growing (the State of Alaska had commissioned a statue of William H. Seward), MacDonald was also finding time to create his own work.
He started bringing athletes, mimes and other performers to model in his rural studio. He was already growing unsatisfied with creating anonymous monuments. (“Do you know the name of the guy who created the Statue of Liberty?” MacDonald asks. “No one does.”) To keep in touch with the fine art which drove him to sculpt in the first place, he split his time between commercial jobs and his own visions.
“I wanted my art to play a part in reminding people of their humanity,” he says. “No matter how advanced you get you’re still going to breathe and bleed and breed. So I look for essential characters in my models. I look for their functionality. Their abilities, their personal skill and intelligence. Their physicality.”
Yet while creating the Seward piece and expanding on long-held artistic philosophies, MacDonald’s business and art met disaster.
“I went out for dinner and when I came back my studio was ablaze. All the rubbers and molds were burning. I’d done some rescue work in the Coast Guard so I went in there crawling on the ground,” MacDonald says.
When he saw the wax sculpture of “Diana on Horse and Cheetahs,” a piece he’d been working on for years, melting before his eyes. He grabbed a high pressure hose and vainly tried to battle back the flames.
“It was no use. The whole building was on fire,” he says. “I remember watching Seward melt before my eyes. It wiped me out. Killed my dog. Destroyed everything I had. All the art, all my molds, everything.”
Then, two weeks after the fire, the state of Alaska sued MacDonald for breach of contract.
“I’d never had a job. I’m sitting there on the steps of my house, the studio is burnt down. I couldn’t figure out what to do, couldn’t get my bearings. For about a month I was a stump on that step. It was pretty devastating,” MacDonald says. “I could see that I was losing it.”
Wiped out, MacDonald found himself paralyzed and teetering on the edge of an old abyss. But instead of falling back into old habits, MacDonald regrouped and developed a radical recovery plan.
“I was not going to go get a job at the supermarket. That wasn’t going to work for me,” he says. “So I wrote down on this piece of paper that for me to get back on my feet, 10 galleries needed to sell 10 sculptures a year.”
It was an insanely ambitious plan and, of course, MacDonald didn’t have the capital to restart. So he came up with a new principle. The gallery would simply have to buy the sculpture outright. To achieve this, he began selling his work for half-price.
“I made it so they saw the quality in it. And it worked. People started buying them. And I got a reputation,” he says.
In six years, he had almost seven galleries worldwide and no one on the planet was outselling him in figurative work.
“I’m just pretty good at understanding the marketplace,” he says.
Yet with great financial rewards come the inevitable critics. Many still consider MacDonald a commercial artist and disparage his decision to create “limited edition” sculptures which run over 100. To this day MacDonald’s work is not considered museum quality by some.
“I’m not personally offended if people think that,” he says. “There’s a stigma to limited editions, yet it’s nothing new. In the 1800s Rodin and Degas and many famous people created multiple works from the same mold. They didn’t call them limited editions; they just said, ‘Here, you want one? I’ll make you one.’ No one has any idea how many hundreds were made.”
“I can’t live my life based on what other people say,” he continues. “Artists do and critics follow. I’m not going to be controlled by what people say. I’m not going to be controlled by the monetary value of something to decide what to create.”
Back in MacDonald’s expansive studio, the work speaks for