Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sheep Sketches – or Lovely Little Gifts

Painters were in the house today, doing up the walls and sloping ceiling of my library; and I spent a casual morning in the kitchen, with a lovely little book that motivated me to try some sketching.
by Charlie Leck

Should you find today's blog a little too crazy, blame in on the paint fumes!

Henry Moore protested that he was not an abstract artist – “…and I have never tried to be.” The very accomplished and successful sculptor claimed: “…the basis of all my work is the human figure.”

“A sculpture of mine has to have a head and a body. It might seem to some people to be abstract, but I know which part is the head, which part is the arm, which part is a child.”

I choose this subject today – Henry Moore, sculptor – because someone gave my wife a precious, little gift this past weekend. One of her customers at the farmers market in Midtown Minneapolis, who is also now a friend, as so many of her customers have become, gave her a paperback copy of Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook.* It touched my wife, Anne, and she was extremely pleased by it. Friends had given it to this lady and, though she thought it was special, she thought Anne would appreciate it even more. So, it will get an honored place in our library

Henry Moore was a contemporary of my father’s. I wonder if my old man had ever heard of Moore. The sculptor was born in England within a month of my father’s birth in 1898 and he died in 1986, outliving the old man by more than a decade. Though, as in the above quotation, Moore claimed not to be an abstractionist, he certainly was. His works were large in size and were usually of the human figure – most of them suggestive of a woman’s body. Most of these works have hollow areas or are pierced in one way or another. They were either of marble or bronze.

Though he became extremely wealthy in the latter third of his life, Moore lived conservatively and prudently and most of his money was preserved and continues to fund the Henry Moore Foundation that supports educational projects and promotes the arts.

So, why a sheep sketch book? Moore explains it this way:

“My drawings of sheep began during the preparations in my studios for a big exhibition in Florence in 1972. The shippers and packers were all around, making such a disturbance that it was impossible to work, and I retired into a small studio which faces the field that I let to a local farmer for sheep grazing. I sat in this little studio making small plaster models or maquettes – I work differently now from the way I did as a young sculptor, and I now make maquettes in the round which I can imagine any size I like, but which I can hold in my hand and look at from any point of view.

“I have always liked sheep, and there is one big sculpture of mine that I call Sheep Piece because I placed it in a field and the sheep enjoyed it and the lambs played around it. Sheep are just the right size for the kind of landscape setting that I like for my sculptures: a horse or a cow would reduce the sense of monumentality. Perhaps the sheep belong also to the landscape of my boyhood in Yorkshire. If the farmer didn’t keep his sheep here, I would own some myself, just for the pleasure they give me.

“These sheep often wandered up close to the window of the little studio I was working in. I began to be fascinated by them, and to draw them. At first I saw them as rather shapeless balls of wood with a head and four legs. Then I began to realize that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had its individual character. If I tapped on the window the sheep would stop and look, with that sheepish stare of curiosity. They would stand like that for up to five minutes, and I could get them to hold the same pose for longer by just tapping again on the window. It wouldn’t last as long the second time, but altogether the sheep posed as well as a life model in an art school. Later I started to add setting, trying to make a pictorial arrangement. As I began to understand more about sheep, I could sometimes do further drawings in the evening from memory, or make a more finished drawing out of a rough sketch.

“The packing for Italy took about three weeks, so the first twenty or thirty pages were probably done then; but I went on drawing, because the lambing season had begun, and there in front of me was the mother-and-child theme. This is one of the favorite themes in my work: the large form related to the small form and protecting it, or the complete dependence of the small form on the large form. I tried to express the way the lambs suckled with real energy and violence. There is something biblical about sheep. You don’t hear of horses and cows in the Bible in the same way; you hear of sheep and shepherds.

“…The large back view of a sheep on page 27 was meant to be the end of the sketchbook – like the end of a Charlie Chaplin film, where he turns his back and walks off. But I was still enjoying my sheep drawing, and so I went on with it. Later, when I came back from the Florence exhibition and from carving in Italy through the summer, I found that the sheep had been shorn. They looked pathetically forlorn, naked, skinny, but the shearing revealed the shape underneath the wool. I didn’t like them as much when they were shorn. They must feel miserable; they certainly look it. So after a few more drawings of them in their shorn state, other interests took my attention, and the sketchbook ends.”

I liked reading all that. I was, it seemed, invited into a fine artist’s mind for a few seconds.

I spent several hours with Moore’s book of sheep sketches. They fascinated me with their swirling, zig-zagging and zooming lines – some so much darker and bolder than others. In some of the sketches you can sense Moore’s affection for his subjects; and in others you can get an appreciation for his sense of humor.

How I wish I could sketch well. I try and I always get discouraged. A cousin of mine – a Frenchman – and a very accomplished artist in the 16th and 17th century French school – tells me that sketching well is easy, but that it only comes after practice, practice, practice. He didn’t mean two hours of practice, but days and days and days of working at it and improving and improving.

I so admire the great artists even as I so admire the gifted writers. I keep practicing my writing and sense there are small and incremental improvements that come with that practice. The years are running out – perhaps galloping – and I think this sketch shows that I should stick to practicing my writing.

How nice a gift it is that this thoughtful person gave to us! I will spend more time with it this winter when the cold weather will command that I build a fire and sit by it with some delightful books in hand.

Sketch by Charlie Leck (not Henry Moore by a long-sketch)

*[First published in 1972 in hardcover by Thames & Hudson, New York and currently a copyright property of The Henry Moore Foundation, 1998]


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