Grace, Form and Motion — The Sculptures of Lin Emery
by John R. Kemp, LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS
Lin Emery’s graceful kinetic work is to sculpture what ballet is to dance, a spiritual song to music or a warm breeze to a summer day. Her delicately balanced monumental polished aluminum creations sway and dance silently in currents of wind much like a sweet fragrance moving silently through a memory. Her work is about grace, form and motion with an unsaid spiritual connection between the artist, metal and nature.
Emery is an internationally acclaimed sculptor who creates her aluminum compositions in the most sympathetic place – New Orleans. Though severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, this city by the Mississippi River is a perfect environment for Emery and her work. “I love the natural movement of the trees on the levees, the river and anything in nature,” she says. New Orleans is a surrealistic place where the rhythms of nature and tolerance for individual expression are celebrated.
Back in the late 1950s and early 60s, people didn’t mind when she set up her studio and welding gear in her one-room French Quarter apartment. Today, her neighbors don’t seem to object to the loud hammering and grinding noises coming from her even larger uptown studio. “In New Orleans, I can do anything I please,” she says. “New York is so constricting. Also, there is an interaction here between other artists and musicians. There’s not that sense of competition here as in New York. I’ve been able to develop on my own, which I couldn’t do with the pressures of New York. I’ve had time to experiment and fail over and over again.”
Emery, a tall, thin elegant-looking and complex woman, acknowledges an understated spirituality in her work. “I have a very deep belief not in any practiced religion but in the search for unity and spiritual understanding,” she says. “I think most of my work is based on spirituality. I once called my pieces Angels, they’re now called Flight.”
Like her art, Emery’s life has been one of motion and a spiritual journey. Born in Larchmont, New York, much of her early life was divided between Larchmont and Florida and in the care of an Irish governess who helped tutor the young Emery. At 15 she entered Columbia University in New York, followed later by a string of other colleges in upstate New York, Mexico, Chicago and finally the Sorbonne in Paris in the late 1940s, all while studying languages and comparative religions.
Paris, however, changed her life. While at the Sorbonne, she lived across the street from the studio of the famed Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967). One day Emery wandered into his studio out of curiosity. Zadkine decided to take her on as a student “to show what he could do with a neophyte,” she says. She found that she not only liked sculpture but that she was good at it. She also found expression through her art.
In 1951, Emery returned to New Orleans, where she had briefly lived just after attending the University of Syracuse in New York. There she found considerable work sculpting life-sized religious figures for churches in the city and throughout the nation. In the changing art world of the 1950s, however, Emery’s interests turned away from her figurative “ecclesiastical” work. She became more interested in abstract designs created by the welded metal framework that she first constructs before adding the final outer and recognizable “skin” of the sculpted piece. “I was looking for an essence, an interior and searching for understanding,” she says about her early work.
Emery’s large studio, attached to her contemporary-styled home in a fashionable 19th-century uptown New Orleans neighborhood, looks like an industrial metal shop. It is filled with drill presses, band saws, metal lathes, polishing wheels, welding tanks, a large electric crane and scraps on the floor and pilled in a stack just outside the door. Her material of choice is polished marine aluminum. “This is a boat building city and it’s easy to get,” she says. “I can polish it to a mirror finish to reflect nature around it. Bronze could never be polished like that. Aluminum is light and I can carry it around myself.” Lined up on large studio tables are small organic-looking kinetic sculptures that she is preparing for upcoming shows and commissions. These she calls her “ideas” because they are often studies for much larger commissions that eventually may find their way to clients anywhere in the world.
And they have. Emery’s list of awards is extensive. In 1997, her 36-foot tall kinetic sculpture Honoo No Ki, or Dance of the Tree, which stands in front of the Osaka Dome in Osaka, Japan, received the Grand Prize for Public Sculpture. Her work often appears in major international exhibitions and collections, and her commissioned architectural creations grace major buildings worldwide, including the Middle East.
Space and Environment
Emery, represented by Arthur Roger Galleries in New Orleans and Kouros Gallery in New York and Connecticut, enjoys commissioned work. “I like working for a purpose and a space and an environment,” she says. Commissions, like most of her sculpture, begin in the studio with small studies made from paper to determine composition and balance. Once the design is completed, she then translates the paper model into a small metal sculpture to make ensure proper balance and motion. Once that is done, she and her assistants move on to the final monumental-sized work. If the piece is exceptionally large, until recently she completed the fabrication in an even larger studio located in a 1920s era movie house in another part of town. For some pieces, she has had to stand in the front row balcony to complete the work.
Unfortunately, the larger studio took over five feet of floodwater in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The dank and polluted water, which remained in the building and parts of the city for over a month, destroyed most of her equipment and some works in progress. She hopes to rebuild the studio but, like many, is uncertain when or even if that section of the city will ever be totally habitable again. “I’m in limbo like so many others,” she said shortly after the storm. A building across the street is collapsing and she’s propped up the old theater marquee. Though a few have returned, including a children’s dance studio across the street, she’s using the place primarily for storage. “The building is safe but not welcoming,” she says with obvious despair in her soft voice.
Emery’s post-Katrina sculpture reflects the angst she and so many other artists experienced during and after the storm. It was as if their music had been silenced as they searched for new expression. One polished aluminum piece she called Katrina relates to the “angry water” that destroyed so many lives in the city and region. “It looks angry,” she says. “I often use bright blue or red touches. This will have black.” She describes the piece as “much more violent” than her other work but then so was its inspiration. “The shapes are not soothing,” she continues. “All my work is organic but Katrina has harsh, sharp elements.”
Emery rode out Katrina in her Uptown New Orleans home. “I was terribly upset by Katrina,” she says, her eyes drifting across her art-filled living room to a serene patio nearby. “I was here watching everything flying around. It was quite marvelous actually. The following day was beautiful. I went out in my Suburban to see if there was damage to my studio. I met this wall of water.” She remained in the city for five days. “It was hot, no water and the sounds of helicopters flying overhead was a terrifying sound.” A nearby friend had gas in his car, so they made their way out of the city and drove first to Shreveport and then to New York. In borrowed space in the basement of the Arts Students League in New York, she began sketching and making cardboard patterns for her new work — Katrina. “It was the direct result of my horror of what happened,” she says. Emery returned to New Orleans in November 2005 and, with staff members still in town, immediately went to work on the metal sculpture.
Katrina consists of five kinetic elements delicately pivoted one on top of the other in a symbolic balance of life. The three lower pieces are triangular wedged-shaped aluminum wedges that represent the waves and water that destroyed New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Inside the waves are painted black to represent the death and despair that continues in the region. The two oblong mouth-like elements that extend above the waves represent the cries of people for help during and after the storm.
Emery made two versions of Katrina. One was shown in January 2007 at The Century Club in New York. The second was featured in March and April at the Fine Arts Center of Colorado Springs in “Katrina: Catastrophe and Catharsis,” a special exhibition featuring New Orleans artists and curated by Stephen Maklansky and John Bullard of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Katrina has influenced not only her work but something even deeper. The storm has left her disoriented and unsure if she will remain in New Orleans. She looked at Santa Fe, New Mexico, but didn’t like the ersatz adobe houses that all looked alike. “I was so glad to come back to New Orleans where everyone is different,” she says, revealing a decision still in process. “It was wonderful and crazy. I thought of Canada, but I don’t like the cold weather. I thought of France and New York, but they are beyond my reach. To some extent I feel trapped.”
Making a Statement
Emery is working on several other Katrina-related pieces for upcoming shows in New Orleans and New York that will be “reflections on the state of our losses and the despair of the city. They won’t be as much fun. I think my work will show more protest. Protest against what [President George W.] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney have done to our future, economically, international hatred for America, the ecological terror he has wrought and the takeover of our media.” She has done several sketches for a large installation piece that reflect her “feelings and protests” and involve “marvelous sounds” that aluminum can make. She hints at the possible imagery of this yet to-be-made protest. “Shapes will be gunning down would be protesters, no victims, here, in Darfur, Afghanistan and Iraq.” She is currently negotiating with possible venues to show this piece. This protest of current U.S. policies is much in line with earlier work she created to protest the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and another stinging war protest called After the Garden. “After people left the Garden of Eden,” she says, “they began killing each other.”
Emery has found her voice in sculpture, whether she is exacting a protest or exploring the subtleties of nature. Over the years, Emery, who loves ballet and music, has explored various ways to give an almost theatrical motion to her art through hidden magnets, water and wind. Today, her mostly wind-powered monumental environmental forms seem suspended between physics and alchemy, intellect and poetry. The elegance and grace in Emery”s work can distract the viewer from the underlying meticulous craftsmanship and mathematical exactness of her industrial-like fabrications. But then, that”s probably her intention.
“Sculpture,” she says, “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. In sculpture you’re solving problems and making shapes from nothing.” An art critic once described her work as “energies moving through nature.” Emery has found that essence and understanding in nature’s rhythms and in her busy studio in uptown New Orleans.
John Kemp is Associate Director at the Louisiana Endowment/or the Humanities.