The essence of my work lies in breaking down form into its most basic and necessary lines revealing the purest of attitudes and emotions of the sculpture. – Richard Sturgeon
It was an unusually warm November afternoon in Ottawa; the sky a serene and almost cloudless blue with the temperature hovering in the low twenties. This absolute gift of a day made the other people strolling along the pathways and over the lawns in Major’s Hill Park, slow down to drink it all in. The sun was strong and warm on my back as I stepped down the slight grade along Sussex Drive to the Gordon Harrison Canadian Landscape Gallery.
Gordon Harrison’s own colourful landscapes greet the visitor as you come in through the gallery entrance. Then as I moved into the exhibition space where London, Ontario sculptor Richard Sturgeon’s work was displayed, the sun followed me in and seemed to dance with and around the metal sculptures. I had seen some of Richard’s pieces before – on Facebook and at a few group exhibitions in London – but massed together like this, I was more intrigued than ever by the artist’s seemingly alchemical gift for working such hard and solid elements as stone and metal into such elegant sculptural forms suffused with movement and light.
Though each of the eight pieces on display at the Harrison Gallery make use of elementary shapes and raw and natural materials, they are distinctively different in the way that their gesticulations reveal different tensions and sense of flow. Over the last twenty years of his artistic career Richard has endeavored to recapture his explorations of natural environments and give sculptural form to what he has seen and discovered in those explorations. “It is the feeling of being in that raw natural environment that I bring into my studio work,” he says.
The life-shaping environments of his early life have largely inspired the direction and content of Richard’s art. Living in the small farm town of Wallaceburg in southwestern Ontario as a young child, he loved to explore the surrounding wetlands and he reflects that, “Through my art I am rediscovering those streams and marshes of those childhood days.”
Later on he spent time in the Algoma region of Ontario, on what he calls ‘the north shore’. “I went to high school in Sault Ste Marie,” Richard tells me. “So I spent those first two or three years of my early adult life away from the agricultural and industrial area of Wallaceburg, in the area around the Sault, where you can drive in any direction and in fifteen minutes you’re in the middle of nowhere and if you keep going, there is nothing else for a long time.”
The work in this show is quite cannily arranged. The elegant lines and strong curves of three of the larger pieces positioned near the far wall announce their presence as soon as you enter the gallery. And you will eventually work your way over to them but there are more intimate encounters to be enjoyed first. Three of the smaller pieces are well-placed in deep windowsills to exquisitely catch the light. One of the metal pieces is a stylized representations of the wind blowing through late fall trees, a theme which I recognize as a signature motif in Richard’s work.
Like these “wind in the trees” sculptures, certain basic motifs dominate Richard’s work. Perhaps the preeminent Sturgeon motif is the spiral, suggesting that eternal movement which we associate with the largest and the deepest of natural processes – birth, growth and change. Richard remarks that the spiral was a part of his work that has been there since he first started sculpting and still plays a strong part in his sculptures.
In one of the larger floor pieces, Infinite Balance, an entangled spiral has been flung out into space and then suddenly frozen in its jettisoning and hanging flaccid by a thin transparent wire, creating a very jarring sensation. In one of the smaller window pieces, Into the Void, a spiral is effectively energized by a wedge-shaped rock, like a giant time-worn arrowhead, which is held fast in the grip of a spring-like coil.
Another theme that has come into Richard’s work is the kayak; not so much a naturally occurring shape as the form of an ancient human contrivance for cooperating with nature in an ingenious and essential way. In the kayak shape, Richard sees a representation of the eternal and everlasting, another essential aspect of nature. The kayak, Richard notes, is an enduring shape that was used by the original inhabitants of certain northern regions and remains in use today. In his work, A Journey’s End, the kayak is abstracted and presented in its most skeletal form. Through an acid bath process on metal, Richard captures the effect of a form that has been eroded over centuries, creating the sort of specimen you might find in an archaeological site.
In the “wind in the trees” piece, Above the Dam, a strong wind quite viscerally whips through metal branches, leaving only a few copper-coloured leaves stubbornly hanging on in a sort of suspended afterlife. The neoclassic shape of the trees puts one in mind of the paintings of some members of the Group of Seven. Richard admits that in some ways the painters from The Group of Seven are not that far from his own thought processes. He doesn’t seek to copy what they did in their art but honours the way that they shunned the urban life to immerse themselves in a wilderness experience. Richard says, “It is kind of always in my nature to explore a little bit deeper and say ‘yes’ to things – away from the noise of urban life.”
One often hears about the ‘balance of nature’ which must be maintained for any sort of planetary flourishing. And this idea of a careful and exquisite equilibrium turns up again and again in Richard’s art as he balances form and formlessness, the harsh and the fragile, that which is firmly rooted in the solid ground of being and that which is barely hanging on for life.
Richard’s work drew this viewer into a contemplative mood that continued to work on me as I walked back to Major’s Park Hill which is visibly dominated by the architecture of early colonization in the Parliament Buildings on one side and modernized metal and glass structure of the National Art Gallery of Canada on the other side. A few sparse leaves in some of the trees in the park rustled in a slight breeze until suddenly, out of nowhere, a spiraling gust of wind carried a handful of leaves high into the air right in front of me. Further off in the distance, I noticed kayakers paddling on the Ottawa River in a harmonious rhythm carrying them forward.
Watching and feeling the experience of nature all around me – the experiences that Richard so beautifully captures in his work – I suddenly lamented the recent removal of Richard’s sculpture from outside the 100 Kellogg’s Building. The Kellogg’s factory shaped much of the industrialization of London and Richard’s sculpture holds an important and balancing environmental message when placed up against it.
Nida Home Doherty, London artist and arts writer.
Images courtesy of artist.