Copper in the Arts

April 2008

The NSS: Preserving the Legacy of Sculpture

by Michael Cervin

sasha Lee Hutt, Sasha, bronze

Photograph courtesy of the NSS

In 1893, a New York-based group of sculptors, unhappy with the status quo, decided to form a society of artists who could share their vision of craft throughout the country and to "spread the knowledge of good sculpture. The result is the National Sculpture Society (NSS), the oldest association of its kind in the United States dedicated to promoting sculpture. For one hundred and fifteen years, the NSS has sought to broaden the artistic vision of sculpting by incorporating medallic work, cast work, public commissions, government issued endeavors and of course, private and corporate collections. Original founding members included designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, architect Richard Morris Hunt and sculptor and painter, Augustus St. Gaudens, best known for his graceful sculpture, Diana.

"The organization has grown a lot in the past 20 years and we're truly national now," says Gwen Pier, NSS Executive Director. "Our board has members from around the country so it's authentically representational of sculptors from across America."

Today, the NSS boasts more than 3,000 current members including a handful of international members. Many former members throughout the history of the Society have created much of the public art known around the world.

Members of the NSS were instrumental in pioneering private and public sculpture in the US. Victor David Brenner created the Lincoln penny in 1909, which was the very first coin in the U.S. to bear the likeness of a former president. Don Everhart designed and sculpted the California and Nevada State quarters for the United States Mint. Neil Estern, current president of the NSS, was responsible for creating the central figure of Franklin Roosevelt in the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C., as well as a second sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt. Nina Akamu created the National Japanese American War Memorial, dedicated in 2000, and most well known of all public art sculptors, Daniel Chester French, an early president of the NSS, who created the Lincoln Memorial.

"That is a magnificent monument," says Gwen Pier. "I have been there with European friends who know very little about American history who were really moved by it."

Sculptor Paul Moore is currently working on one of the largest public commission in U.S. history for the State of Oklahoma's centennial.

"There's a hunger for public art." Pier adds. "The fact that public art generates interest and conversation and gets people sparked up is a good thing."

Breakthrough Jim Rennert, Breakthrough, bronze and steel

Photograph courtesy of the NSS

Former president of the NSS, Stanley Bleifeld, based in Connecticut and Pietrasanta, Italy adds, "The good thing about the NSS is that it has frequent shows, and that is what a society of sculptors should do."

Bleifeld's work graces the private collections of Correta Scott King, former Justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall and the DuPont Family. Bleifeld is in a unique position in that he divides his time between America and Europe and sees differing styles at foundries on both continents.

"I use Polich Tallix in Rock Haven, NY. They are very technologically alert, really imaginative and attempt things they wouldn't do in Europe," he noted. Bleifeld sees American foundries as desiring to make the "perfect casting," rather than having an imperfect cast and having a finisher go back over it. And part of that logic is that casting bronze can be expensive, something the NSS understands. Though there is a more traditional approach to the NSS, they are constantly seeking different media. As part of that effort, the NSS gives educational scholarships to students every year, providing four $2,000 scholarships. Though, "we're working on increasing that," Pier added.

The Society's most popular exhibition is their 75th Annual Awards Exhibition, held at the NSS headquarters in midtown Manhattan. The juried show features 56 members who present their figurative works from over 200 artists who entered, and the medium is as diverse as the artists; bronze, wood, stainless steel, marble, cast glass and stoneware. Included in this impressive line up of sculptors is Marilyn Newmark, (a fellow and former director of the NSS) who has installations in Japan and the U.S., and Gary Yarrington, who has been in four of the Annual Awards Exhibitions. Yarrington's minimalist works are currently in private collections throughout the U.S., Mexico and England. Also showing will be Tuck Langland whose book From Clay To Bronze, offers practical tips and suggestions for sculptors everywhere.

wind Jane DeDecker, Wind, bronze

Photograph courtesy of the NSS

In May, the official reception will take place at NSS headquarters in the Park Avenue Atrium Building, distinguished by its soaring sky-lit atrium lobby. The exhibition itself is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through May 30 and is free to the public. After the New York showing, the exhibit moves to Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina from June 28 through August 24. Brookgreen Gardens is the first and foremost non-profit sculpture garden in the United States, having been established in 1931. It is also a National Historic Landmark.

The NSS also co-sponsors the National Sculpture Competition, an event for young sculptors which has two facets; the first, known as the Young Sculptors Award, is a juried competition from photo imagery sent to the NSS, and the second facet is called the Figure Modeling Contest which is the live modeling camp. Over a five-day stay in the area, sculptors have 28 hours to successfully create a life size sculpture. At the end of the week, the work is critiqued and awards and handed out in three categories

"I've had a lot of sculptors come back to us, ten, twenty years after they participated and tell us how they were encouraged and kept after their craft," Pier stated, as it is widely known that funding for the arts in public schools is in dire need of constant support. "That's where non-profits like the NSS step up to the plate and try and fill the void," Pier added.

They accept all media, but often, as Pier has seen over the years, younger sculptors who find casting in bronze too expensive will submit something in bonded bronze or another media.

"For outdoor public spaces, however," Pier added, "bronze is the most practical media because it lasts forever." Though the NSS has always held a focus on realists and figurative work, there is always room for other media. "There is a balance between traditional sculpture and found objects and abstract installations which is very popular." On a personal note, Pier enjoys mixed media sculptures. "They so often look like they were fun to make and that comes through in the work."

signing Russell Faxon, The Signing, bronze Photograph courtesy of the NSS

But are sculptors still relevant in today's eclectic artistic landscape? "Oh my gosh yes!" says Veryl Goodnight, who was recently invited to become a Fellow of the Society. "The NSS gives credibility to the public because it is so selective and difficult to get in." Goodnight, a sculptor herself for 38 years, has been a member of the NSS for nearly a decade. "It's also about peer recognition. There's nothing that qualifies people in any industry more so than peer recognition." And, Goodnight is well recognized in her own right; She too sees public commissions at an all time high.

"I have done a lot of commissions which is great, but I like to work without parameters," she laughed. Her last commission was for Blue Belle Creamery in Brenham, Texas for their 100th anniversary. The popular logo of a young girl leading a jersey cow became a life-sized tangible work of art that fans of Blue Belle can visit again and again. Goodnight had the rare privilege of having sister castings of her piece, "The Day the Wall Came Down," in reference to the Berlin Wall. Five horses, representing freedom, leap over a crumbling Cold War remnant, replete with graffiti that Goodnight copied from the original wall. One casting is located at the Allied Museum in Germany, and the sister piece, all seven tons of it, has been installed at the George Walker Bush Presidential Library at Texas A & M University. She was even awarded a special medal by the Central Intelligence Agency for that particular piece.

"It was a huge project, physically, emotionally and every which way," she says. "It took three years to sculpt and nine years to see it to fruition."

Though she uses multiple foundries, she uses Shidoni Foundry in Santa Fe for larger works. "American foundries are very competent," she added. Shidoni, like most foundries, uses Everdur for their bronze, a blend of 95% copper, 4% silicon and 1% manganese. It would seem Goodnight has achieved incredible success.

"The pinnacle of a career is being accepted by the NSS however," she reflected.

But the NSS is not just about tangible sculptures. The Society has also become a valuable repository for educational and research books. The NSS library, which is open to the public, contains letters, photographs, books, articles and one of a kind documents.

"We've inherited a lot of estates over the past 100 years," Pier said. "We have some books that are very difficult to find. There have been art historians who tell us they have gone to the New York Public Library or to Columbia University and they couldn't find the books we have here."

The Society has also been publishing their quarterly magazine, Sculpture Review for over 50 years and their Sculptors Bookshelf section on their Web site contains many books for purchase related to the discipline.

With sculpture and public commissions on the rise, the NSS seeks to place itself, as it has for over a hundred years, as a voice for sculptors everywhere.

"Generations long after we're gone will still be able to enjoy the work that speaks to our time. Just like we look at Greek and Roman pieces and it tells us something about history," Pier adds.


National Sculpture Society, 237 Park Ave., New York, NY, (212) 764-5645

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