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story.lead_photo.caption “To do something important, not only for yourself but for other people, should be what you’re doing in life.” - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

The Louisiana Purchase included the whole of present-day Arkansas within its 830,000 square miles. But Michael Warrick's territory is even bigger -- from Arkansas to China.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
“The best story is your story.”
SELF PORTRAIT

Michael Warrick

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 1, 1950, Ottawa, Ill.

MY PARENTS WANTED ME TO BE who I best could be. They didn’t dictate what I should be.

MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD TOY WAS my imagination, and that still holds true.

IF I HADN’T BECOME A SCULPTOR, I WOULD HAVE BEEN a builder of some kind — a builder of places — I think houses.

THE FIRST ART I SOLD WAS: I sold my first drawings to my dad for a quarter. He’d say, “I like that one. Do another.”

IN A GAME OF “SCISSORS, PAPER, ROCK,” I CHOOSE paper. It’s a fundamentally important tool for me. Second choice, I’d say stone because I love to carve in stone.

OF THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS, MY FAVORITE IS pride.

SOMETHING I TELL MY STUDENTS IS the more time you invest in something, the stronger your interest. If you’re just there to knock it out, then find something you’re passionate about and do that instead.

I WOULD OR WOULD NOT BE THE MAN TO RESTORE VENUS DE MILO’S ARMS: I would, because first of all, I’d want to research technically how to do it right, how to integrate [new arms] with the rest of her.

THE SCULPTURE OF MINE INSTALLED THE FARTHEST AWAY FROM LITTLE ROCK IS in China, on the other side of the world.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DECORATION AND A SCULPTURE IS the difference between a backdrop and life.

ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: determined

Warrick co-created the distinctive Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial monument, Straight Lines on a Round World, in front of the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. His sculpture Conversation is in one of Little Rock's sister cities, Changchun, China. His latest creation, Youth, will go to sister city Hanam, South Korea.

His title is professor of sculpture at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But human facets interest him at least as much as those in marble. Storyteller is a name that suits him -- and because he works with many of the same hard and heavy materials that go into building construction: He's a "a builder of ideas."

"For me, it's all about the idea," he says. "I've got to find an idea that excites me."

People see the finished work of bronze, steel, glass, granite. Its polished appearance is a testament to the sculptor's construction skills: cutting, grinding, sand-blasting. And sometimes, a whack with a hammer does the trick; other times, it's knowing how to pour gallons of white-hot liquid metal.

The part that doesn't show is the way things start on paper, the merest sketch. He could save a scrap like that for years. It might be a subconscious message, a gift, a mystery about to come clear.

"For me, the best tool is a pencil," Warrick says. "Sometimes, I wish it was just a pencil. But that's how I get started."

A pencil would be easier in so many ways. Pencil drawing might give a man a tussle with shading and three-point perspective. But it would not give him the big hands of a bricklayer.

His short-sleeve shirt is untucked, jeans faded and his desert boots look like 100 miles of hot sand. And behind those round glasses: the clear blue eyes of a poet. He deals in tonnage and rock certainties, and he talks about mockingbirds.

Birds have captured his recent thinking -- partly from his reading of Arkansas poet Maya Angelou's memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but also in a global sense. One thing people around the world have in common is birds, and so birds might help answer the question he keeps asking himself. What makes art universal?

"I'm always looking for new shapes and forms," Warrick says, "new ways to see things, to incorporate nature."

Looking where? Outside, gathering moss-covered sticks to help visualize a new piece. And inside, wondering how it would be possible for a facial sculpture to show not only a person's expression, but also the emotions behind the face.

"Very few sculptors are doing anything with the internal part," Warrick says. He's working on it.

At his home studio, he has given up any chance of parking a car in the garage. Power tools and whimsies cram the space, some with obvious use -- an arc welder -- some with the story-for-another-time purpose -- an abandoned hornets' nest. And bones, ladders, lights, vises, orange traffic cones, moving pads and pallets, wax feet that failed to hold shape, metal birds, blackened gloves.

And easy to miss, hanging on the wall over there -- a pair of big-nose-and-mustache funny glasses. But everything here is a tool of some kind. Bernini could find the means to chip marble as he did centuries ago, and Buck Rogers could marvel at the latest applications of digital imagery and 3-D printing.

The plastic Groucho Marx glasses "are a tool, also," Warrick says. They "assure that I'm not too serious about myself."

That said, he presents a no-joke resume of accomplishments: 150 solo and group exhibitions, his work represented in 29 private collections and 34 public venues from Arkansas to New York and Northern Ireland, and 27 years of teaching at UALR.

"The two biggest prizes in life," he says, "are finding yourself and helping others find their dream."

Warrick is from small-town Ottawa, Ill., the son of a telephone repairman who "didn't want to do the same thing every day," and a mother who "drew and painted a little." They rewarded their boy's creative impulse with after-school art lessons that started in fourth grade.

Art class and shop were his favorites in high school: two subjects that combine to produce a sculpture. Warrick's bachelor's degree in ceramics is from Illinois State University, his master's in ceramics and sculpture from Southern Illinois University.

People who look at sculpture as a decoration or a chunk of street decor aren't seeing sculpture at all, he says.

True art "triggers something in you," Warrick says. "It hits your soul."

CHISELED EXPRESSIONS

"Every block of stone has a sculpture inside it," the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo is supposed to have said. All the sculptor has to do is take away everything that isn't art. But the famous quote leaves out everything that isn't a quip.

Warrick has more than artistic matters to consider: Is the piece strong enough to withstand the elements? Light enough that it won't break the floor? Protected enough to resist vandals? Timeless enough to retain its meaning?

"I always hope that what I do will be respected," he says, "and understood to some extent."

Public art, especially, is prone to controversy, as when the statue of Fearless Girl struck her defiant pose in New York's financial district earlier this year. Fearless Girl faced down another artist's landmark symbol of the stock market, Charging Bull. The debate goes on: Wouldn't a picnic table be likelier to please everybody?

But Warrick sees people at least thinking about art and what it means, defining for themselves what art should be, and why a sculpture belongs where it is.

Straight Lines on a Round World, an 18-foot-tall, glass-faced compass dial with a five-foot surveyor's plumb bob, was a $190,000 commission from the Louisiana Purchase Survey Bicentennial Monument Committee.

The challenge: to sum up the biggest real-estate deal in the nation's history. President Thomas Jefferson bought the land from France in 1803, and the swampy wilderness had to be mapped out -- a job that fell to pioneering surveyors Joseph Brown and Prospect Robbins. The start of their task is designated by a watery marker in Louisiana Purchase State Park near Brinkley.

Warrick partnered with sculptor and UALR alumnus Aaron P. Hussey of Baton Rouge to produce the new monument that originally was to have depicted Robbins and Brown. In 10 years, the design evolved to represent the purchase more symbolically, including the base that represents the earth.

Says Hussey: "We move through working together in constant conversation and discussion."

"Michael Warrick is an intense, serious educator," he says, having also been a student of Warrick's, "devoted to teaching as much as he is devoted to his art. He truly cares that students are walking away from their college experience with knowledge and ability.

"As for something that stuck with me from Michael, I'd say, with humor, 'Be smarter than the materials,' or 'Let gravity be your friend.'"

Conversation is a monolithic stone head that rests with eyes closed, lips serene as if in meditation, in Changchun's International Sculpture Park. Installed as if partly buried, a giant rising from the ground, the head tops six feet tall. The visage might seem to ask what massive thoughts it holds, or what simple truths.

Warrick produced a smaller replica of the piece in China, Visionary, for the Bernice Garden in Little Rock. And still more versions -- beach ball-size, clay-on-Styrofoam models -- ruminate over his studio, and sometimes might as well be wearing funny glasses.

"That's a big head," Warrick says, "but you know artists."

NATURAL STATUE

Youth is among Warrick's most detailed and futuristic creations, cast of bronze and steel: a lithe young woman's legs and torso that appear to be made of entwined vines and leaves, with a sparrow that gleams high in the foliage. Essentially, she is made of Arkansas.

Warrick began with a rough sketch, one basis of a photo-real digital rendering by collaborator Brad Bourgoyne of Baton Rouge, leading to a series of progressively larger 3-D printed plastic models. (How Warrick and his team brought computer technology to the ancient art of lost-wax casting is the subject of Inside Art -- Sculpting Youth, a UALR film on YouTube.)

"We've really reached a point of critical mass where individual artists can afford to experiment with and use technology that was until very recently only in the hands of big companies," Bourgoyne says.

Bourgoyne's quick imagery "means Michael is able to provide feedback, allowing me to make changes to more accurately achieve his vision." Instead of laboring over an actual model," he says, "the artist is able to focus on the concept of the design."

The sculpture also draws from pieces that Warrick modeled after his and wife Judy Lohmar's now off-to-college children, Annika and Phillip. Annika's childhood drawing of a tree sparked another of Warrick's sculptures, Mockingbird Tree, at Chenal Parkway and Chenal Valley Drive in west Little Rock.

A $60,000 commission from the Sculpture at the River Market Commission, the stainless-steel creation depicts an abstracted tree with graceful loops in place of leaves.

Annika is a third-year creative writing student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, but she remembers exactly why she penciled loops in the branches: "I didn't know how to draw leaves."

Warrick saved the drawing as one of those odd wisps that, who knows? -- might turn out to be an idea.

"So that was my inspiration for Mockingbird Tree," he says.

ALL IN PROPORTION

Sculptors can define themselves by the size of things they produce, from intimate to monumental. Intimate fits in a living room, goes on a shelf. Monumental, a man couldn't lift it. And then -- monolith, batholith, a mountain.

Warrick is a 30-plus-year art educator whose career includes a three-year stint as assistant professor at South Dakota State University. The job gave him a chance to gaze up at the far-northern state's Mount Rushmore monument of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln blasted and hammered out of stone.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum and hundreds of workers labored over the rocky portraits for more than 10 years. But who else would attempt to carve a such a thing?

"I don't see why not," Warrick says. "He [Borglum] started when he was 60. I'm 66," small difference. The monument illustrates Warrick's standard of importance.

"To do something important," he says, "not only for yourself but for other people, should be what you're doing in life."

But pounding on a mountain is not the only way. Teaching is another.

"I've worked with hundreds of kids," Warrick says. In addition to teaching at UALR, he has been a visiting artist, artist-in-residence and lecturer at more than 100 institutions. He tells his students not only how to cast bronze, but also how to cast themselves.

"Don't forget to have a life," he says in class, and reminds himself.

"Then you can reflect on it and create from it. The best story is your story."

High Profile on 06/18/2017

Print Headline: Michael Robert Warrick

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