Sculptor Looks to Ancient Myths for Inspiration

Lisa Clague with her classically influenced piece Bound and Tied in the courtyard at Curve Studios in the River Arts District. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

By her own description, sculptor Lisa Clague looks “normal.” She doesn’t seem like someone prone to making edgy pieces: heads clutched by disembodied hands, dour rabbits wearing harlequin masks, busts of ancient queens consulting with their monkey familiars. 

As a result, she’s heard people comment about her work without realizing she’s the artist. “I’ve heard them say things like I must keep my therapist employed, [and that] ‘this artist must be really sick.’ … It’s fun to introduce myself after they’ve talked about my work among themselves.”

The ideas for her mythology-imbued sculptures, Clague says, emerge from a deep place. She describes her creatures as “mistresses of ambiguity and disguise, of seduction and deception.” She enjoys dualism, “the contrast of light and darkness, beautiful and ugly. It’s an edge I like to teeter on.”

But her everyday life provides sly inspiration. “When I was married, my figures began to have two heads, because it was no longer just me in my life,” she explains. “When my daughter was born, three heads appeared, and I made work that was playful … with a naïve, childlike quality.”

Clague’s father was a metal sculptor, and her mother is a potter. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she says. “I have vivid memories of watching the sparks fly as my father welded together massive steel. I liked his leather boots and blue jeans, and I thought I wanted to be just like him.”

She eventually chose to study painting, textiles, and jewelry making at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Late in picking an elective for her second semester, she had to settle for ceramics, the only class available. “I figured I’d struggle through it and move on,” she says.

Her Visionary Dreamer. Photo by Steve Mann

Clague soon mastered the techniques of wheel throwing, but making functional pottery held little appeal for her. Instead, she became interested in form and color, “making pots with cone lids, reversible plugs, and cone feet. I hand-built elevated planes on angles that the pots seemed to walk down.”

Then she made an unusual triptych — “boxes with compartments filled with frogs, fish, birds, and insects meticulously articulated” — and her future fell into place. “My heart was on fire. In sculpting something I was passionate about, my work took off from that moment.”

The last piece she made in undergrad school was about her boyfriend who had been in a bicycle accident that left him in a coma. Encouraged by her instructor to sculpt what she was experiencing, Clague built what she describes as “two ten-foot, boxed, wooden frames where I hung panels made out of clay slabs pushed through fence wire cages. Large clay thorns were pushed through each panel … like two iron maidens, a figure was trapped inside one and the other was empty, evoking the unknown question: would he ever wake up?”

Spiritus. Photo by Steve Mann

Later, as a grad-school student at California College of Arts and Crafts, Clague studied under renowned sculptor Viola Frey. “She was a tough instructor. I was told to throw my work off the back balcony several times!”

However, Frey also encouraged her students to develop their own work beyond the influences of their instructors. In 1992, Clague began creating small figures each morning based on dreams, and the surreal aspect became a central motif.

“I’m always trying something new in the studio … which keeps me excited about going out there each day,” says Clague. She also keeps various projects going at once, so that she always has something to look forward to — and to keep new viewers gossiping.

Lisa Clague, Momentum Gallery, 24 N. Lexington Ave. (momentumgallery.com) The artist welcomes visitors by appontment to her studio in Bakersville. For more information, visit her Facebook page.

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