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Jean Woodham

School of Arts and Sciences alumna

An Alabama native born in 1925, Jean Woodham established herself as a sculptor on the New York art scene almost immediately after graduating from Auburn University (then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute) in 1946. Working at first in stone, clay and wood in a figural style, she quickly discovered her life's passion: fabricating abstract forms in torched and welded metals. Woodham's circle of friends and colleagues from that early period include Alexander Calder, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, David Smith and other pioneers of American abstract sculpture with whom she exhibited. Since 1955, Woodham has maintained a studio and residence in Connecticut. She handcrafts every phase of her sculpture's production: designing, cutting, welding and finishing the rich surfaces of her steel, bronze and brass creations, from the smallest pieces to her numerous monumental-scale public commissions. As part of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art's 10th year anniversary focus on sculpture, "Full Circle: The Sculptures of Jean Woodham" is on display until Oct. 12 and includes 16 pieces of sculpture in bronze, brass, wood and steel.

1. Can you describe your method of sculpting?

I work in whatever medium (clay, marble, wood or metal) that will make the form I want to make at the moment. I prefer welding because I can make anything I want to. I realized the moment I first saw a welded piece - it was by David Smith - that welding would allow me to make a skinny form carry a heavy weight. It was the physics of what I could do with heated metal that inspired me.

To create a large piece such as "Monody" at Goodwin Hall, I first make sketches of the sculpture in the intended setting to figure out if the piece will be in the right proportion for the space. Then I use ¼-inch fiberboard to make a cartoon of the sculpture that can be taped to a wall or held up by scaffolding so I can check the proportion from a three-dimensional standpoint. Most sculptors make two or three graduated sizes of a piece before they tackle a large-scale sculpture. But I made a five-foot version of "Monody" and then went straight to making the 19¼-foot piece, which is installed in front of Goodwin Hall.

Today, fewer artists solve the problems of scale and proportion by making physical models. Those who have embraced technology use three-dimensional computer programs such as CAD to plan a large-scale sculpture.

2. From what sources do you draw inspiration?

Nature is a big source of inspiration. Actually, anything I see inspires me. I interpret things in the abstract, but I have been inspired by a pincushion, bridal bouquet, birds in flight, mound of rocks, evening sun and even a Venetian blind.

People also inspire me. "Monody" means a dirge sung by one voice. For me, that piece was a dirge for Jack Kennedy. Another piece, "Telic Form," was inspired by the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

A trip to Japan inspired me to make "Western Tori I." The idea of passing through a gateway to a garden or sacred place blended with my ideas about windows and doors and access to spaces. The sense of moving in and out, of looking in or out, intrigued me enough to create several related pieces about entries, exits and transitions.

3. How has art changed your life?

When I was in first grade, I talked too much. My teacher would send me to the cloakroom for "time out." I discovered a bunny in the cloakroom and some clay, so I continued to talk too much so I could return to the cloakroom and play with the rabbit and make things with the clay. One day my teacher told all the students to create something using the clay. I made a horse with a man and his hunting dog. My teacher was so impressed she said, "You could be a sculptor!" Her encouragement about my art changed the direction of my life. I've lived in New York City and Connecticut for almost 66 years - always in a community of artists.

In a way, art hasn't changed my life because since first grade it has always been a major part of me. Art has been a constant in my life - it's what grounds me - especially in times of great change.

4. "Spinoff" is one of the first works that visitors encounter at the museum; since opening in 2003, more than 300,000 people have passed by. What does that mean to you?

When I was an art student at Auburn in the 1940s, we didn't work in anything but clay. We went barefoot because it was so wet where we worked in the basement under Langdon Hall. So I'm thrilled for Auburn to have an art museum and I'm very proud to be a founding member. I'm honored that "Spinoff" is in such a prominent place at the entrance to the museum. I like for people to see my work and I like to know what they think about my sculpture. But the truth is, I'd make big pieces even if no one ever saw them. I make a piece big because that's the size it needs to be.

5. What advice would you give to students training at Auburn, either in art or another discipline?

Learn everything you can pertaining to your field and never stop being a student!

Be honest about what you want out of life. Is it money or the pleasure of creating art, composing music, doing cutting-edge medical research or figuring out how to feed the world? Creative caring people often stand on principle and make business decisions that undermine commercial success. But I think that's changing because of the Internet and social media. Now you can make the whole world aware of your work and if enough people are interested, then you are more likely to benefit financially. Today, the world really can beat a path to your door, lab or studio.

June 3, 2013