The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting 300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans, featuring original artwork commissioned by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune with Where Y’Art gallery. Today: sculptor Lin Emery.
The icon: Lin Emery.
The legacy: There’s no overlooking Lin Emery’s legacy. Her large, gleaming metal sculptures adorn public spaces, private collections and museums throughout New Orleans, the product of a career that started when, as a 23-year-old, she wandered into the studio of Parisian sculptor Ossip Zadkine and on a whim inquired about lessons. He took her on, and her career as a sculptor had begun. Although many of Emery’s pieces are made of metal, they appear light enough to move with the wind. Indeed, many are designed to do just that, as well as through water power, magnetic power and electric motors, making her distinctive sense of graceful artistry a truly kinetic part of the New Orleans landscape.
The artist: Alexandra Kilburn.
The quote: “Sculpture is living, it’s vital, it’s changeable. Even when you walk around it, it can be something different. Drawing is a reflection and coordinating eye and hand, but sculpture is your mind and an idea.” — Lin Emery, in “Lin Emery” by Philip F. Palmedo
• She was born in New York in 1926. Her parents disagreed over her first name, Philip F. Palmedo wrote in “Lin Emery.” The name on her birth certificate was Leonor, which was the name of her father’s first wife; her mother changed that to Lenore. Emery herself preferred something less formal, Palmedo wrote, so she changed it to Lin as soon as she could do so legally.
• When Emery was a child, she took boxing lessons with Edward Albee. There’s a picture of them, with gloves, in Palmedo’s book.
• She is left-handed, a fact that played a role in her decision to become a sculptor. “I had been born left-handed and had been whipped out of using the left hand. Clay was the first time I could use my left hand for everything,” she told The Times-Picayune in a 2016 interview.
• She first came to New Orleans in 1943 to visit a former governess. The city’s laid-back pace appealed to her, along with the fact that it was a place where sculpture was an acceptable thing for women to do, and she eventually decided to move to the city for good.
• Around 1950, she applied for welding classes at a local community college but was turned down. The reason? It had no women’s restrooms. She ended up taking lessons in metalwork and welding at The Sculpture Center in New York.
• Emery attended the Goodman School of Drama and worked for The Chicago Sun-Times.
• She and the painter James Lamantia were honored in 1958 with an exhibition in Havana. She left on New Year’s Eve, just as Fidel Castro and his followers were entering the city, Palmedo wrote.
• One of her most conspicuous creations is “Wave,” a 12-foot-tall aluminum sculpture that stood for 25 years in the center of the reflecting pool in the traffic circle in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art. It was replaced in 2013 by Roy Lichtenstein’s “Five Brushstrokes,” a 20-foot-tall aluminum piece. “Wave” was moved into the Cascade Garden Pool in the museum’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
• She worked with the architect Charles Moore on water designs for the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
• Although she is best known for her kinetic metalwork, she has also created angels, pietas and stations of the cross for local churches.
• Emery received the Mayor’s Award for Achievement in the Arts in 1989.
• Throughout her career, Emery has created sculptures that move gently in the wind, but for a 2015 exhibit she created motorized sculptures. One was a mechanical mantis looming over small silver men; the other was a dancing robot with a long scarf that reminded Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash of the scarf that strangled Isadora Duncan when it became caught in the spokes of her car in 1927.
By John Pope, contributing writer
Source: The Times-Picayune archives; “Lin Emery,” by Phillip F. Palmedo; staff research