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Sculptor Adrian Arleo lives in the semi-rural outskirts of Missoula, Montana. It’s not quite a separate reality from the rest of the country, but it is distant enough from the major urban areas that the seasonal currents of Nature often have more influence on people than the current events of the News Hour. Arleo, who works in clay, sculpts primarily human figures—but very often they are people caught in a transformation or metamorphosis from part human to part animal: a seated lady whose foot becomes a cat; a standing man whose arms and hands have become deer’s legs and hooves.

Sometimes the metamorphosis is more subtle. Her nudes frequently display only brief patches of human-like skin surface—the rest of the subject’s outer covering is more reminiscent of bird’s feathers, or a honeycomb, or the outer shell of a bird’s nest, or tree bark, or the paper-onion-like layers of a wasps’ nest.

Arleo says there wasn’t one particular point in her life at which she decided to become a sculptor. Quite the opposite—working with clay is simply something she has always done. As a child, she recalls, she loved to make things out of clay. “I was naturally drawn to it at a very early age,” she says. “My mother is artistic and she was always encouraging. It was something I enjoyed and I felt I was good at.”

She is attracted to the process of working with clay—working in three dimensions and experimenting with various glazes. “Back in high school and college I did a little bit of bronze work,” she says, “and the material didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like the welding and I didn’t really enjoy the casting process. I enjoyed working with wax and making wax pieces, or oil clay pieces, but not the moldmaking, the filing, the patinas, and the rest.”

By the time she got to graduate school, Arleo’s sculptures were tending toward what could be described as anthropomorphized aquatic forms, she says. “But I felt like the more sea life abstraction was in there, the less clear I was as to what the pieces were about. So I became drawn more to doing narrative—not necessarily like a straightforward kind of story where you look at it and say, ‘Oh, I see what’s happening,’ but more like narrative in terms of there’s something going on with this figure. Maybe more of an internal experience than an external kind of story, but there’s something quietly happening.”

By giving more prominence to the human figure in her work, she says it gave the pieces a greater clarity and “…more of a way, for me at least, to have a sense of some sort of emotional, or psychological, or spiritual kind of experience.”

Nurturing, as a theme, occurs frequently in Arleo’s work, but she is quick to point out that it is by no means the overriding theme in what she wants to create. At the same time, she acknowledges that her personal environment and circumstances are naturally destined to be reflected in her art.

The theme became a strong element in her work when she first had children. “A lot of the influence for my work comes from what I see going on around me,” she says. “I live in a pretty rural setting here, and just in terms of this innate drive in all of nature to procreate, nurture, raise young—you can interpret that to be just instinct, for example, but also I think there is this innate need to nurture. I like playing with mixing the imagery and that vocabulary from the natural world into working it into the human figure as metaphor. I think of it like visual poetry.”

If she lived in a city, in a more urban environment, her work would most likely be influenced differently, and she is certainly aware of that. “But I chose to live here because of what life is like here,” she says. “Nurturing. Especially for raising my children, it’s a wonderful place and feels in a way unpolluted on many levels. In focusing on the nurturing and kind of the power of that need to reproduce—the power of life, almost—is to me very reassuring. When there’s all this awful stuff going on, there’s so much destruction. There’s also so much creation. I think I find some peace in that and want to bring that out.”

Arleo’s most recent collection of work features a series of figures that are covered in little hands. She has been working on the pieces for about a year. “The hands have the feeling of forming, or caressing, or supporting, or petting, or even creating the figure,” she says. “For example, I have a baby, an infant, covered in hands. There’s a greyhound dog that’s covered in hands. Then there is an older couple, that have hands that are kind of coming across their chest and then down one arm.”

Specifically referring to the infant, Arleo notes that she finds the result simultaneously very quiet and also very dynamic. “It’s active with these hands, which is to me suggestive of all that goes into nurturing somebody and not only just yourself but also the community,” she says. “But from some angles, it has a sort of bone-like feeling too. I wasn’t expecting that, but I find it really interesting—it gives it this other edge that I like. It’s more all encompassing. It kind of takes it to both ends of the spectrum of life, to me.”

Although Arleo lives in Montana, she is not represented in any galleries in that state. She has had showings of her work at a number of galleries around the country, but her primary showcase is at the Pacini Lubel Gallery in Seattle. She says she can produce about a dozen or so pieces a year, and they tend to retail between $2,500 and $8,000 each.