New Haven sculptor Susan Clinard could not let the Newtown tragedy pass “without moving my hands.” Twenty figurines later, she has added her contribution to the healing process.
The contribution is a new sculpture entitled “Twenty.”
Amid the rancorous gun-control debate and recriminations catalyzed by the mass killing at Sandy Hook, Clinard’s creation affords a moment of meditation and reflection, poignant in its simplicity, powerful in its capacity to help heal. For now, there are no gallery walls or spotlights drawing attention to this hopeful expression of love and humanity. “Twenty” is docked in Clinard’s studio among other creations formed by the hands and heart of this extraordinary sculptor, awaiting its call to set sail.
Clinard (pictured) is an artist-member of Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery and current artist-in-residence at the Eli Whitney Museum. The mother of two young boys and a prolific artist with works in museums, parks and collections across the country, Clinard introduced her new sculpture to friends via email last week.
She created it as a quiet tribute to the 20 murdered children.
The piece was not the result of a commission or made for a particular show. “Weeks after the unspeakable horror that visited Sandy Hook Elementary School, I could not let this settle in me without moving my hands. Without the words to express my thoughts to the world, I chose to just make what I felt had a healing quality to it,” wrote Clinard.
Six months prior to the creation of “Twenty,” Clinard worked a series of small clay sculptures—Talisman-like boat forms with individual passengers or couples, pieces she calls “meditative sketches.” They are small but weighty, meant to be held. The boats have no oars or sails. “They glide through life with purpose and strength,” said Clinard.
A flotilla of the boats consumed a stretch of counter in her studio, testament to what she describes as her recent obsession.
The soulfulness of these pieces does seem to have presaged the creation of “Twenty.” But “Twenty” required new materials and techniques, some experimentation, trial and error.
The 50-inch long sculpture is completely white and designed to be suspended. Twenty small figures nestle in a boat-like vessel of translucent paper applied over thin pliable lengths of wood ribbing that provide structure.
The paper was also molded over clay forms, which were removed after the paper and binder dried, a process similar to paper-mâché. The canoe-like form and the passengers it carries express all the wonder of children on an exciting field trip, a theme of passage through a portal of transformation and discovery.
Perhaps because the figures are not highly articulated, their visages, afloat in a ship of souls, evoke deep spirituality—a hallmark of Clinard’s sculptural work.
“I rendered the small figures with no detail in mind but I had all of the children’s names written down by my side,” she said. “For now, their journey continues, our journey continues.”
Over several decades, Clinard has honed a mature personal style across a variety of sculptural media. The passion that inhabits her art at times seems to echo the gravitas and spirit of 19th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who created iconic figurative sculptures like “The Thinker,” “Balzac” and “The Kiss.”
Often working with found objects and materials integrated with her hand-modeled forms, she achieves a powerful synthesis of form and content through the marriage of resonant components. Her sculptures easily suggest her own empathic, humanitarian streak, not unlike 20th century German print maker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, whose expressionistic work had few equals in portraying the human condition and plight of the suffering.
Like so many parents in the wake of the Newtown massacre, Clinard and her husband Thierry looked for words to explain to their youngest son what happens to people after they die: “We said, ‘We are a big ball of love and we enter the hearts and the beauty of this world. The love never dies.’”