Sculptor Jeff Spaulding to Discuss Retaining a Childlike ‘Sense of Wondering’

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One half of Jeff Spaulding’s piece “Dark Flower” dates back to the Civil War and has been with Spaulding since 1968. The other half, however, is a bright orange plastic toy ball.

That sort of recombination of materials is typical in his work, Spaulding said. In the past, he used to scavenge for “freak-of-nature” wood in the forest to splice together, and now he turns to urban environments to find pieces for his art.

During his Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Hultquist Center, Spaulding, who teaches sculpture at American University, will discuss his artistic process and how he creates poetic relationships by putting different materials together. To make “Dark Flower,” for instance, Spaulding took an 80-pound, cast-iron, Civil War cannonball, and attached it to the orange ball in order to juxtapose ideas about innocence and destruction.

“As you grow up, you play with different balls and blast them out of different cannons instead of pitching them to your friend across the yard,” Spaulding said. “When does one’s childhood innocence get perverted or transformed into warfare pursuit? A kid playing a video game today can be a drone operator tomorrow. And when do those childhood pursuits, just in growing up and becoming an adult and becoming part of a society, start to lose [their] innocence?”

Spaulding said transitioning to man-made resources such as the toy ball, as opposed to natural materials, allowed him to glean more insight because they were so familiar to him. Furthermore, that shift toward urban environments was also a way for him to keep moving forward as an artist, Spaulding said.

“Sometimes something becomes too familiar and it becomes time then to change something, so you have to struggle a bit with it so there’s a possibility of discovery,” Spaulding said. “Seeing something I’ve never seen before — that’s one of the things that motivates me to do what I do. You have to move some things around so there’s the chance of getting away from the familiar to the unfamiliar.”

Even though his process has changed, Spaulding said he has always been interested in building and recombining things to create new meanings. His interest in artifacts and archaeology began early on, as he often found arrowheads where he lived by a lake, and his grandfather had a large artifact collection.

And since childhood, Spaulding said he used to whittle and carve things, as well as build forts and make weapons for pretend. Even now, he still interacts with the outside world in order to find things to build and play around with for his artwork.

“I still go out into the environment, I see the things I can collect, and sometimes I’ll totally make something, but based on something I’ve seen in the world or a combination of things,” Spaulding said. “Or [I take] something small, like the heel of a shoe, and then I remake it in other materials on a larger scale. There’s a sense of wondering about the artifact, what information might be contained or revealed in something.”

When he creates, Spaulding said, he has an overarching theme he wants to explore, such as politics, childhood or aggression, but the nature of the materials often lead into the specifics of the piece in the end. With “Dark Flower,” especially, even though he had the cannonball for a long time, Spaulding said it wasn’t until he paired it with the orange toy about 40 years later that the piece finally came together.

Many times, parts of a piece will sit in his studio for years until the right addition comes along to complement it, Spaulding said. He said those kinds of obstacles and challenges are part of what he said he wants to tackle in the lecture.

“Some of the questions that artists face [include], ‘What keeps you going?’ ” he said. “ ‘What do you do when you don’t have all the answers, and is that a threat or is that an opportunity?’ A lot of that depends on how you face it.”


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