Issue Archives
Time for change
A change of scenery, a change of lifestyle, a change of medium—in a way that thumbnail summary of metal sculptor David Crawford’s life progress over the last 20 years also helps illuminate his current body of work-in-progress: a grouping of five life-size bronze clowns connected by the related themes of loss, times gone by, wistfulness, melancholy, and longing, combined with an underlying sense of hope and purpose.

David was born in Walla Walla, Wash. and earned his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from OSU in 1979. He was originally drawn to woodworking, and whenever he had time away from studies and assigned projects, he continued investigating wood forms.

In general, he kept his work mostly toward the functional end of the spectrum, like chairs and tables. “I always looked at sculpture as sort of a dream job when I started out as a furniture maker,” he says. As soon as he was able, he took the leap and became a full-time artist.
He also decided to move into bronze.

“I like wood, but I began to feel stuck in a pretty narrow finishing technique,” he says. “You have a few surface qualities in wood that seem really to utilize its natural qualities, but they are pretty limiting. You can’t work with color very well without losing some of the quality of the wood and you can’t work with textures to speak of without considering grain direction. It just began to be inhibiting.”

And then there was the episode on the freeway. “I had a vehicle fire when I was transporting some wood pieces to a show in Mendocino and burned up a couple of pieces,” he said.

So in 1982, David moved to Enterprise, Ore.—a small speck of a town way out on the eastern edge of the state. There was no Starbucks, but there was a world-class foundry nearby—Valley Bronze of Oregon in Joseph.

Unlike most bronze sculptors who do their initial modeling in clay, David chose to work in wax. It was a liberating change.

“You can let it cool then carve it, or heat it and smear it. You can heat it up with a torch causing it to run off. There are so many methods with wax. And yet it’s still plenty strong to work at any scale,” says David. “But I like the carve-ability of it in that it does fracture if you carve it at a certain temperature. At other temperatures it cuts more like butter. It’s really user-friendly as far as a sculpting medium, compared to clay.”

Rather than use sculpting wax, which he finds “too gummy and sticky,” David uses the burn-out wax from the foundry process. He feels it has a better workability. It is also less expensive, and when the goal is to make one-of-a-kind pieces rather than limited edition castings, cost of production is a significant factor.

“A mold is pretty expensive and you lose a little detail going from an original to a mold and then a product,” he says. “But if you start right with the burn-out wax then the whole process is quicker.”

For David, the ability to go from design to cast piece more quickly, combined with the freedom he feels working in wax, translates into a greater sense of spontaneity. His latest project, a grouping of five life-size clowns, depends heavily on the visual spontaneity David is able to work into the various surfaces to give them an even greater sense of permanence—of a specific moment frozen in time.

“The human form has always been a part of my artwork,” he says. “I’m doing these clowns from a personal interest I have in clowns themselves, and the emotions and sort of violation of social norms that are inherent with the clown. Working with humor as well as serious concepts in the images is interesting to me.”

According to David, the clowns—if they were to be considered as coming from any specific time at all—would be drawn from pre-1930s America. They are the more somber “august” style of clown with hobo-like attire, as opposed to the madcap or comical “crazy days” clown style.

“The first clown was in a way a response to what happened in the world of art and my personal world after the World Trade Center bombing,” says David. “I kind of went into—not necessarily a depression—but I saw the world that I had created for myself as an artist change. So that first clown in a way is me sitting there, watching the world around me and thinking—he’s looking out at a world that had left him behind.”

If the first clown depicts a sense of loss or melancholy of a world forever changed, the second clown in the series—standing with his head tilted slightly downward—represents a more positive set of emotions.

“I have a friend who modeled for the second clown for me,” explains David. “He is battling leukemia and he’s taken an amazing view of the world. A view that to me, is very interesting. He looks at everything as surmountable. He doesn’t let himself get down. In a way, he has a relationship to me similar to what that clown has to the first clown. I intend him to be looking at the seated clown, as I made him. I want a sense of empathy yet a ‘Come on, you can get over this,’ look in his face.”

The third clown, currently in progress, will be sitting on a very short stool. “He’s probably going to be examining the bottom of one of his shoes as a distraction, sort of, to pretend that he’s not exactly listening. But he will be listening to the scene around him.”

According to David, each of the five “actors” in the tableau will represent a different emotional response to a shared trigger event—a moment in time when a certain world view, one that was characterized by safety, familiarity, and constancy, was suddenly replaced by a radically different world view characterized by uncertainty, turmoil, and danger.

“I guess I’m wanting an intimacy to this group, I want each clown to be saying something intimate and different and yet I want them all to relate to one another,” he says.

One minor drawback to working in full scale is that it takes David about five months to complete a single sculpture, somewhat limiting his output.

“Any artist likes to make all their ideas—or at least a lot of their ideas—into something real,” he says. “When you end up being limited to two [sculptures] a year by your process, it’s a little frustrating, so I’m trying to find a little better, more spontaneous way of getting big pieces out. Yet I don’t want to give up the part of the process that has me putting them together because when I put them together I still interact with them and in fact I add and make pieces and when I’m done with it there’s quite a bit that wasn’t in the original wax that ends up on the piece.”

David already has his next life-sized installation sketched out—a group of musicians. All he needs now is the time and opportunity to begin work.

David’s work can been seen at the Valley Bronze Gallery in Astoria, Oregon.