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In the Studio: Amy Kann

by Allison Malafronte

Amy Kann—a Philadelphia-based sculptor who specializes in bas-relief—has been studying and practicing sculpture for more than 40 years. Her journey to professional artist began as a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh, where she sculpted clay figures in her basement after school and would ride the bus every Saturday morning to Carnegie Library to take out as many art books as she could carry home. After finishing high school early at the age of 15, she attended Moore College of Art & Design and eventually found her way to Philadelphia College of Art, where she trained with the sculptor Walter Erlebacher. Today Kann is the Vice President of the National Sculpture Society; has work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institute, British Museum, and McNay Art Museum, among others; and has completed numerous public and private commissions.

Amy Kann in her studio.Although Kann is best known for her bas-relief, a recent visit to her studio in Philadelphia revealed two other sculpture styles that developed during formative seasons of her life: her narrative figurative work of her early career and her most recent “Torso” series, a beautiful collection of abstract terra-cotta forms, inspired by the natural world and human spirit. Kann shares her current studio with her close friend and fellow sculptor Stephen Layne, both of whom—along with nearly 100 other artists—were evacuated from Spring Garden Street studios in the summer of 2015. Although unexpected and disruptive, the forced departure led Kann to discover recently opened studios in the James W. Queen Memorial church, a more than 100-year-old chapel located in the Grays Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia. “It was complete chaos when we all had to pack up our studios in a few days,” Kann remembered. “Many of us had been in that building for years or even decades, and the hallways were overflowing with piles of easels, artwork, and equipment tha people were just throwing away because we had to leave so quickly. As soon as I got the news, I jumped on Craig’s List and looked for another suitable place. I put together a list of about seven, and when Steve and I saw these studios, we immediately signed the lease.”

Kann’s new studio is located in this historic church.After four movers relocated both of their studios into the building—a two-day project, with thousands of pounds of marble and other sculpture media, shop tools, finished sculpture, and more requiring transport—Kann and Layne settled into their new creative home in the fall of 2015. The historic church where the studio is located is grand on both the inside and out, with Gothic-style architecture, large stained-glass windows, and three floors of studios now occupied by both artists and the designers of the Philadelphia Design Center. A double staircase leads up to Kann’s and Layne’s second-floor studio, an airy 1,000-square-foot space with 35-foot-high beamed ceilings. Kann described how she immediately loved the reverent atmosphere of the large, light-filled room and the romantic feeling of being in place with a long history. She admits that it doesn’t fully feel like home yet—after sculpting in the Spring Garden Street studio for more than 33 years, it will take some time to get acclimated—but she’s enjoying having what she describes as a lovely, inviting, and spacious place to create.

A view of the studio.

While Kann’s side of the studio is full of interesting equipment—such as a large drafting table with attached desk from the 1950s, a vice for cutting stone and marble, multiple storage drawers stocked with sculpting tools, and a large upright easel for sculpting bas-relief—she also has her finished work professionally displayed along the perimeter of the room, allowing visitors to see an impressive exhibition of her sculpture alongside her workspace. Not being as familiar with the methods of sculpture—especially bas-relief and the terra-cotta—I spent a lot of time analyzing the materials associated with her craft and asking questions about her approach. We talked about the three distinct genres of work that have comprised her career, the personal experiences that inspired and made those works necessary, and the process she employs for each style.  

Figurative Sculpture

From the time she was 12 years old, Kann knew that realistic, narrative, figurative sculpture was the style she most wanted to work in. And she sculpted in this manner from the time she graduated college until she was about 44. The artist developed this language independently until she studied with Erlebacher, whose strong emphasis on anatomy gave her the foundational tools necessary for traditional sculpture. The artist says that one of the most important skills she was taught was the ability to think critically, which allowed her to know which questions to ask herself as her progress evolved. Kann later attended evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to strengthen her drawings skills. Her teacher, Oliver Grimley, taught a slow, demanding process of drawing that Kann instantly responded to, one with constant looking and comparison and a strong focus on line. She later took drawings classes that allowed her to learn about tone.

One of the artist’s drawers full of tools.Kann uses a rasp to add detail to plaster.

Kann’s process for figurative sculpture begins with sketching out rough ideas on paper and then “sketching in clay” as a conversation and instruction to herself. She then creates an aluminum-wire armature, upon which she builds the form with oil- or water-based clay. When the clay sculpture is complete, she makes a plaster mold, and removes the structure from the mold when it has cured. The artist adds details to the plaster form by using rasps, files, and riflers. She then makes a rubber mold on top of that, casting it with a harder material called Forton, which is made of Hydro-Stone, fiberglass, and resin. To finish, she patinates the Forton so that it looks like metal. When she wants to cast her sculptures in bronze, she sends a plaster casting to the Stratton Foundry in Philadelphia.

Although Kann now only sculpts traditional, three-dimensional sculpture occasionally—usually for commissions—she remembers that the majority of the work she created of this nature was deeply personal and described trying experiences. She showed me several pieces from her late 30s—when she had returned to sculpting full-time after having two daughters—many of which showed a woman struggling with insecurity and invisibility. Kann was dealing with a difficult marriage and memories of a painful childhood, and she used her sculpture to work through those challenges. One of her later pieces, created at the end of the marriage, is titled Forgiveness and shows a woman deciding to forgive and accept herself, which ended up being one of Kann’s most important life lessons.  

Bas-Relief

Several of Kann’s sculpture, including Forgiveness.

Bas-relief—a low-level, three-dimensional form sculpted into a flat, two-and-a half-dimensional surface—is one of the styles of sculpture Kann enjoys most. She has been honing this art for 10 years, and has taught herself the skills necessary to create believable forms in a dual-dimensional format. A technically demanding and exacting process, Kann welcomes the challenge of bas-relief. “Determining the correct height of each level to create believable form changes is where the difficulty lies,” the artist explained. “You have to understand how to turn the edges so that the forms are accurate when you look at them from all angles. Some sculptors cheat in this area, but I spend as much time as necessary to make sure everything is correct. Creating bas-relief sculpture never gets easier, it’s very hard to do well. There are so many challenges inherent in the process, but that doesn’t frustrate me. I enjoy taking the time to find answers to the problems that arise. It’s a type of art that really asks something of me, that requires patience and precision, and I love that.”

 

Kann explained how she adds detail to bas-relief.An example of a bas-relief mold and resulting sculpture.

Her mold-making process for bas-relief is the same as that of her three-dimensional sculpture, except instead of creating two molds, she creates one. When the form is removed from the mold, she almost always patinates with color, using about 20 layers of thin acrylic paint. On occasion Kann creates bas-relief sculpture in marble for specific commissions and uses a deductive process that begins with cutting a piece of marble and chiseling away until she achieves the desired composition. The subjects of her noncommissioned bas-reliefs, often in silhouetted profiles, tend to be portraits of people she knows personally—such as her daughters or close friends and fellow artists—or symbolic narratives, such as her self-portrait showing a woman in the woods surrounded by trees.

Terra Cotta Torsos 

The type of sculpture Kann has been doing for the last 10 years, while also continuing her bas-relief, is a newly discovered form of expression that in many ways was always with her. The artist shared some of her childhood struggles and how they led her to develop a second language. “I was an unusual kid,” she said. “I was what they call an elective mute, I didn’t speak until was I was in second grade, except to my mother and my sister. I was overstimulated by everything: sounds, smells, colors—people would talk to me and it felt like such a bombardment. While I was dealing with that and drawing inward, there was this other mode of expression developing inside me. It was texture, pattern, color, lines—an abstract visual language of my own. I couldn’t communicate in the usual way, but I had this other form of ‘speaking’ that made sense to me.” After years of talking to others in an artistic language she thought they would understand—recognizable realism—Kann reached a point when her childhood language began to resurface.

Kann’s collection of terra-cotta torsos.Three terra-cotta torsos and one of the artist’s bas-reliefs.

At the age of 44—after a four-year relationship with a fellow artist that Kann describes as the love of her life and best friend—Kann went through a traumatic breakup that led to a prolonged period of sadness. She tried to continue making figurative sculpture, but she couldn’t seem to make anything come together correctly. Kann decided that she didn’t want to be unhappy and frustrated anymore—she wanted her art and life to be simpler, cleaner, more direct. The artist remembers at her lowest moments specific people that came into her life or conversations she had that took her by surprise. They felt to her like angels, signs that there was still kindness, beauty, and love in the world and that one day she would experience them again. Kann said the idea became almost a religion to her, and her belief in beauty, goodness, and angels started manifesting itself into a new form of art.

“All of those feelings and observations came together simultaneously, and I began sculpting these terra-cotta torsos,” she explains. “At first they were more realistic, female figures with hips, waists, and wings, but then they became more abstract and reminiscent of forms in nature, like trees. They also used to have color, but lately they have been white or light stone-colored. They represent so many things—positive life force, womanhood, the potential for goodness—but I realize not everyone can recognize or understand what they are. I am using a language that only I understand now. It’s my language, the one that developed when I was a child and didn’t speak. I can’t find the words to describe it, but when I am sculpting these torsos, when I am completely caught up in the process and creating the shapes and wrapping clay around the curve of a wing, I feel something and hear something. It’s like music. I’ve never felt more connected to my true self than when I’m working on these—it’s this whole other freeing world that I feel so grateful to have discovered.”

The artist explained the freeing process behind this abstract sculpture.The process for creating the torsos takes about two weeks from the clay model to encaustic patination to mounting on a handmade base. The artist begins by weaving pieces of water-based clay into desired shapes, and will sometimes stuff newspaper into the form as a substructure. Once she has a roughly sculpted torso, she uses wood tools while turning the forms to wrap the clay into whatever shapes or patterns she wants them to be. After the clay has dried for about six weeks she fires it in the kiln for 18 hours. The next day, once it has cooled, the artist mixes encaustic (made of beeswax and dammar crystals) in a skillet with oil paint at 200 degrees. Kann then applies the color with a brush and heat gun to the terracotta sculpture. She only fires until bisque [cooked, but porous so it will absorb the encaustic] and uses the heat gun to impregnate the wax into the terracotta. Kann explained that encaustic is not typically used on terracotta, but that she likes the patina it creates, an almost distressed-wood finish.

Kann discussed how regularly going between bas-relief and abstract terracotta sculpture in her studio practice creates a balance and satisfies both sides of her creative temperament: the need to be precise and technical in a painterly, narrative way and the desire to let form flow freely while exploring positive and uplifting emotions. Regardless of what she’s creating, the idea of adding beauty to the world is of upmost importance to her. “My beginnings and early life were not full of good or beautiful things,” Kann said. “And a lot of my early art was reflecting this. I am now at a different place in life—I am happier, and I see how goodness and light does reach into one’s life to pull them out of dark if they are open to it. When you begin to enter the last chapters of your life, you look back and see the story with a little more clarity and context. And you also realize that there is only a certain amount of time you have left. I want to be deliberate about what I’m doing with my life and art, and put something of beauty into the world every time I create. I recently wrote an artist’s statement that I don’t actually hate. I describe the power of beauty and how it has become my strongest and most comfortable language.”

The artist with her collection of abstract sculpture.“As I age, I see beauty as something that connects me more to the truth and essence of things. When I see it, I feel reassured that people can do great things and it fills me with optimism. I grew up in poverty and didn’t see much beauty. I didn’t see people do great things and rarely even good things. Kindness occasionally, which is one of my favorite forms of beauty. For me, trying to create beauty has been my religion. It causes me to believe in a higher power and our connection to it, to others in nature. It grounds me and makes my presence on earth have meaning. …”  ~ Amy Kann