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Beyond the pedestal: With William Osmundsen

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: June 23, 2015, 1:55 PM IST
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Finally the person I was looking for! A sculptor, who earns his bread from his craft and has travelled across countries with his art.

I always wanted to be one! Conceiving life out of the lifeless, and carving depth, emotions, expressions by cutting through the rough of a rock felt like a pursuit specially blessed by the divine! Probably, this unexplained bohemian romanticism in its format attracted me consistently towards the art, though circumstances pulled me towards a rather mundane Economics, which I loved and understood, but didn’t quite worship. However, a few years in Santiniketan fuelled my fantasies exponentially, compelling me to envision an artist who may have broken some rules…rules like those that kept me chained to Economics…and followed a path that may not have been approved but dreamt with an irreversible commitment and confidence! From observing endlessly the breath-taking works of Ram Kinkar Baij on the Kala Bhavan campus of Santiniketan, to the murals worked upon by students; the construction of “Kalo Bari” – the black house that hosted scholars; standing for hours supporting myself on a bicycle in front of Geetanjali theatre at Bolpur watching the sculptures on its body taking shape under able hands; and even peeping in through the tents to witness the construction of Durga idols of Kolkata and getting scolded by the makers… I had tried my best to understand the art and get closer to an imaginary artist!

And this imaginary artist happens to be the protagonist of my second book.

So when I met William Osmundsen from New York through social media, I knew that this was one professional I wanted to know more about. His profile said he began his career as a cartoonist with a local newspaper when he was still in high school and soon went on to Trinity University to study sculpture, portrait busts being his prime interest. He started working in bronze when he was a 'Sculptor in Residence' at Burrows Gallery in Englewood, NJ. It was there that Bill, as he prefers to be called by friends, began putting his work into bronze and produced theme sculptures titled 'Flight of the Terns' and the 'Eagles Flight'. On July 4th 1976, he took an eight day cruise with a parade of Tall Ships sailing up the Hudson River creating a huge nautical event; on return, the sketches he made, the photographs taken and documented evidences of the event serviced as the base for his much celebrated series 'Bronzes From The Sea’.

“Sculpting in bronze is very different from any other medium of sculpting,” says Osmundsen. “Creating a bronze structure is 'process' related and is more like creating a publication! The created model is lost in the process and the objective is to translate and hold the power of this creation throughout the positive and negative mold transfers, which go through 5 key evolutions. 1-The Original model; 2-The Mother mold; 3-The Wax pattern; 4-The Investment mold; 5-The Bronze cast. Along the way, during the process every evolution is destroyed or altered to save the 'Mother mold' and the 'Bronze cast'. You may return to the 'Mother mold' to reproduce a second but you must still go through steps, 3, 4, and of course 5.”

Well, I being a novice to understand this language, tried to dig deeper to research and understand what Bill meant.

The first step, or the original model, also called the pattern, is usually created in oil-based or water-based clay, or in other media like embedded wood, bones, etc. The original is a “positive” while the molds are a “negative”. A urethane or silicone rubber mold is applied to the pattern one coat at a time. After the pattern is completely encased in rubber, a shell is constructed called the ‘mother mold’. The mother mold keeps the rubber in correct shape once the pattern is removed. Microcrystalline wax, a petroleum-based wax, is melted and poured into the rubber mold, ensuring that the entire inside surface of the rubber is coated capturing all detail. This is repeated till the desired thickness is achieved to create a hollow casting. A hollow casting is required to mitigate excess weight and to avoid shrinkage as the bronze cools, so that the structure doesn’t get disfigured.

After the wax cools, it is gently removed from the mold and 'chased' to clean up seam lines from the mold or remove any air bubbles or other surface imperfections. Now, the wax is covered in a ceramic shell mold, called 'investing'. It is dipped into a liquid ceramic slip, called 'slurry', which sticks to the wax while the remainder drains back into the mixing tank.

Next, the ceramic shell molds encasing the wax are put in a kiln upside down. The kiln is quickly heated to a stipulated temperature, which melts the wax out leaving the mold hollow. The process strengthens the mold so it withstands the hydraulic pressure of the molten metal while being poured. After the molds cool, molten metal is poured into it. Once this cools off, the ceramic mold material is gently chipped off using a hammer and chisel. The remaining mold material left in the crevices is sand-blasted.

The finishing requires cutting off excess leftovers with appropriate tools. A patina, controlled oxidation of the metal, is applied using chemicals determined for the desired colour. Once the desired patina is achieved, the surface is heated with a torch and coated with carnauba wax. This gives the surface its visual depth and shine. The sculpture is now finished and ready to be installed or mounted to a pedestal.

Sculpting thus, being an extremely technical process, I am eager to understand the division of labour between technology and the artist! Does technology kill the skills and satisfaction of the artist considerably in this business? “No,” defends Bill, “When technology gets too much into the creative side, it tends to dictate the creative result. That is when the sculpture, I find, ends up looking rather mechanical. For my sculptures, and I have done the full process from the modeling, to the mother molds and so on till the full bronze casting in my studio. For my creative satisfaction and pursuits, I love doing portraits from life, bringing forth the personality of my subject. The female nude to draw, paint or sculpt; or the Sea – an endless subject matter. I am never tired working on these. Coming back to technology, I admit that there has been a growing dependence on the production side of the metal work and I welcome it”.

Given that Osmundsen works mostly on commissioned structures, I am driven to explore how much independence do artists have in expressing themselves and what the level of interference from the commissioning bodies is, usually! Since art is a visually engaging medium, it would be easier for anyone to pass an opinion or pop up a suggestion or get judgemental before time. So how do the sponsors conduct themselves? “Mostly I have had free creative reign because I have taken on the whole project. I did this with my ‘Bronzes from the Sea’ and most of its collections. My only limitation was my own financing which was rather limited and I had to keep a keen eye on sales to move forward on my collection. I bore a great deal of expense on the exhibits but was helped along the way with commissions by some of the sponsors. For example, Scandinavian Airlines presented my 'Flight of the Terns' to the retiring CEO and President of SAS. That paid for my trip to Norway for my exhibit and other routines. I received two New Hampshire Percent for Art Awards for the beautiful Weathervanes I created on top of two state buildings. For these, I had absolute creative freedom. Interference of any kind, however, can really get difficult for a creative person and work suffers therein. I did face such situations too! You don't see someone from the audience jumping into an orchestra pit or walking up the stage, but for some strange reason there are just a whole lot of backseat drivers when it comes to art. So whenever I start with a new project which seems to be very committee driven, I politely remind the Chairman that a Camel is a Horse built by a Committee!” Explains Bill.

William Osmundsen’s father had a painting background, though he wasn’t involved professionally. He had painted a wonderful portrait of Bill’s mother and little Bill used to remain fascinated by it as a toddler. On his 4th birthday Bill received an oil paint set. Father and son decided to work on a portrait of the mother together. Their joint enthusiasm resulted in a funny painting where the lady’s neck looked like a wine glass and she had to remind them that she didn't really have yellow hair! The father-son duo went on to paint pictures together; Bill’s foundation in art was sincerely crafted by his father, who was a great teacher, providing some new learning in each session. Osmundsen was 13, when he picked up his fancies for sculpture, specifically the Greeks. Every year he attempted to make a one foot high Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation). But every year his efforts to cast the work would lose out in the thinnest sections, fuelling his determination to successfully work on a bigger model next time.

Bill’s interest lies in modeling sculpture as much as it rests in the casting process. Little was commonly known or shared about the casting process when he was still a teen age boy. To sculpt an Aphrodite was a compelling subject for his age and that pursuit led him to the works of August Rodin. His father had received a book on Rodin as gift; the images in the book opened a whole new world for the budding artist. At 17 he had his first commercial art job as an editorial cartoonist for a Northern New Jersey Weekly that serviced about 23 towns. The job lasted until he left for Trinity University, San Antonio, Tx. after graduating from high school.

As a professional, Osmundsen has worked with many big names on the block. “In 1983 when I was doing my ‘America's Cup’ series I was introduced to the great monument sculptor, Felix de Weldon. We became good friends and over the years we made time to dine together and I even stayed at Beacon Rock, the Newport RI mansion where Felix lived in,” reminisces William Osmundsen pulling out some of his fondest memories. “Felix was a wonderfully gracious man. At our first meeting in Newport RI he drove to the place I had rented, to put on my exhibit, during the America's Cup races. I had moved my exhibit from the exhibition hall as the races were over but I set up a small display in my courtyard on Thames St. which was across from Stobart's Gallery. He loved my 'At the Helm' theme and said immediately, you are an innovator! He put an offer on the table to buy it. Frequently when we went out, I drove; but one of those evenings Felix wanted to take his Rolles. We were headed to a Chinese restaurant about a half a mile away. Well, Felix was lost, behind that large wheel. He was a rather small man, looked diminutive behind the wheel. He said, we are on our way to China, Bill, and kept that up with his humorous anecdotes, which he had many, until about an hour later we arrived, having been lost and riding in circles. Felix greeted the waiter in Cantonese; he had the knowledge of 17 languages. Now you must have the General Chang Chicken, he advised! A few times when I worked for Felix, he would always arrive at his Studio in time! It was a long walk or a short drive from the mansion but still on the 6 acre estate by Brenton Cove. He would like us to be in the studio at 7 AM and around 8 AM he would never fail to bring me Salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, which he would buy downtown on his early rounds. Salmon for the Norwegian, Felix would say with his lilting Austrian accent and we would take a breakfast brake”.

Learning immensely every day, from each new assignment and dedicated to accomplish an unexplored journey each time, Bill is constantly experimenting with his art in pursuit of a never ending goal which strives to stay relevant, keep working and being alive every moment! In the process, he picked up unrelenting discipline, responsibility and commitment towards the work he loves and represents. “I don’t have one moment of inspiration to name”, he adds, “But rather an evolution of a lifetime into Art. There are great moments when your vision comes together and you know you have arrived at the creative result you sought. While reading today I found this young boy, autistic, but a true math genius. He said he dwells in the 4th dimension; he doesn’t know what it really is but he knows it's there! When your creative efforts and your soul becomes one, it is like that; a trip into the 4th dimension”.

There is perhaps no bigger truth than this! We all are searching our own unique fourth dimension; we may not know the path that leads to it but we’re sure it’s there and it is meant for us. The perceptions and absorptions of an artist probably are more acute and alert than many others, which make him understand, express and articulate himself better. And that brings him closer to that fourth dimension compared to those who are circumstantially or otherwise, disconnected from art!
First Published: June 23, 2015, 11:59 AM IST
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