New Directions In Sculpture

Photography by Shan Lee, BFA Photography
Words by 180 Magazine Editorial Team

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The Academy of Art University Fine Art: Sculpture program is located in San Francisco’s historic Cannery building, near Fisherman’s Wharf.  With scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and a teeming atmosphere of urban activity, the Cannery houses several spacious studios and multiple public galleries to showcase students’ work. True to the University’s mission, the Sculpture program strives to deliver to young artists a skills-based curriculum through the efforts of experienced, passionate faculty. Under new leadership, the faculty, consisting of working professionals, is committed to arming the students with the ability and knowledge to thrive not only in the gallery world but within industries that welcome sculptural applications. 

 Tom Durham working on  The Neolithic Pan  in a studio at The Cannery.

Tom Durham working on The Neolithic Pan in a studio at The Cannery.

Tom Durham, Director of Sculpture for the School of Fine Art describes himself as a “Renaissance surrealist”. Raised in a Navy family in South Carolina, Durham cites Salvador Dali, Dante, William Faulkner, Hellenic sculptors, and comic book characters as his early heroes. Starting with a hyper-realistic depiction of human form, he adds elements of metamorphosis to create figurative pieces that appear at once timeless and modern. Durham has taught at several art programs, but when his art practice began to require more time, he left academia to focus on being a full-time artist. “I think I left on a high note and this time feels the same. I am excited to return to students with all these years of experience to share.” Durham’s works are in the permanent collections of several prominent cultural institutions, such as the Palm Springs Art Museum, Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, SC, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA. He is an elected professional member of the National Sculpture Society and of the Portrait Society of America. 

We sat down with Tom to ask a few questions about his practice, influences, and outlook on the Sculpture Department.

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180: What inspires your work?

Tom Durham [TD]: Reading! I get excited visually but for ideas I turn to literature. I love going to exhibitions to see works of art up close. I also have a collection of 350 plus first edition art books. In this period, I am rereading some of my favorite authors: John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Mark Twain, early existentialist writers as well. I wanted to go back to my southern roots, so I reread William Faulkner, because he captured the Deep South like no other. I am working in the studio all the time, so literature takes me out of there, out of the country, out of my mind. 

180: What is the first sculpture you remember seeing up close?

TD: Michelangelo’s Pieta at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. I was a little kid and we went into the city to see the Italian pavilion. There is was, in a little blue-lit alcove. It was gorgeous, phenomenal, it was more than lifelike. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was a conveyor line of people just moving along but being little I hung onto the railing for a good 20 minutes. Finally, the guards shooed me away. I’ve seen it a few times since then and I still get struck by it every time.

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180: What other artists have influenced your work?

TD: I observe all the time. Stuart Williamson got me started on seeing portraiture as a means of expression beyond conveying likeness. Figurative sculptor Brian Booth Craig is a great contemporary artist. He will be visiting the University this spring and I am looking forward to sharing his work with the greater Academy community. Music is also important to the creative process. I played in a teenage rock band. I went to high school with Bob Belden who went on to become a Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist and producer. This lifelong relationship influenced my engagement with different types of music. That’s why I encourage students to bring their iPods as music affects the rhythm of work. For example, the sound of Stravinsky can be intolerable for some, but Rossini seems to help everyone work faster. 

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180: Is sculpture a political medium?

TD: Of course! Politics strongly influence how we feel and if you feel proud or repulsed or embarrassed by what is going on around you, it finds its way into the work. Both the aesthetic and the function can carry a message. I even used to submit photographs of my sculptures as op-ed pieces for the Op-Ed News and other outlets.  Politics always belong in the art, but not in the classroom. Students have the right they express whatever they have within themselves. However, we focus on the quality of the artwork itself, the skills, the techniques. Art is our common ground.

Durham considers the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to be the ultimate museum for sculpture. He also attends sculpting workshops at Pixar Studios. The way the artist himself embodies the link between the classics and the future is what made him the perfect candidate to reinvent the Sculpture program at the Academy. “Less art tech talk! No one falls in love with the jargon. We need students to discover the spirit of this work first,” says Durham on his task to bring the program into the 21st century where clay modeling, welding, ceramics, and the newly available 3D printing technology are increasingly being used for innovative interdisciplinary collaborative endeavors in landscape, interior design, and fashion. “Moving beyond the figure into construction of forms.” It is reassuring that this undertaking is in the hands of a winner of the prestigious Lorenzo il Magnifico Award from the Florence Biennale in Italy. Sometimes things come full circle. 

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180: What role does the department play in furthering student's careers? 

TD: We train students to be professional artists. In other words, for job placements within the creative industries. If you don’t do business, you don’t make a living. The old format of working with galleries and commissions has changed. On one hand, there are fewer of those, but then there are more options than ever. Beyond the art world, the booming television and gaming industries have a need for hands-on skills to build models and prototypes. You may still want to be an independent artist, but we want to prepare you to branch out. That’s why I am always challenging students to ask Why? Why? Why?  You must be able to talk about your work in a professional manner. Everything requires a good storyline. 

180: What advice for creative professionals have you found most helpful in your life?

TD: It’s not brain surgery or rocket science. You must keep a sense of humor about your work and have fun. But keep working through the so-called bad days. The more you work, the more good days you’ll have. I’ve been hard at it for forty years and I’m still waiting for signs of burnout.

180: How would you describe your relationship with students?

TD: My first art teaching job was at a maximum-security prison. It taught me that respect is earned, it’s not given. I show students what I can do, what is possible, and encourage them to explore further. I offer constructive criticism to try this or that and explain why it might work or doesn’t. Sometimes they come up with truly beautiful ideas that make me go wow. I live for the "damn, that’s good" moment. In the end, I am always inspired by the students and their progress as artists. 

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