Live-Model Sculpting is the Very Shape of Intimacy

Angela Cunningham says her models’ personalities mean more than their physicality.
Portrait by Paul Stebner

Realist figurative painter/sculptor Angela Cunningham studied illustration at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, before earning her BFA at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, California. Then she studied classical techniques at New York’s Grand Central Atelier, graduating in 2010. Now she finds most of her portrait subjects in the mountains: Cunningham teaches private art lessons at her Asheville studio and nationwide, while continuing to finesse her own skills using live models.

“I love people’s emotions, the way they hold themselves, and their quirks.”

Which came first, painting or sculpture?

I have been painting way longer than I’ve been sculpting. But three-dimensional makes so much more sense to me. It’s what we see and feel; it’s more natural. With 2-D you have to put it on a flat plane, but make it look like it’s not flat. In sculpture you don’t have to do that.

Does tactile sensation guide you as you sculpt?

It becomes so tactile that I’ve actually been working with a model who was way over there, sculpting their leg. But I was so focused that I felt like I actually touched their leg. I’m like, “Whoa!” I didn’t touch them. But it really felt like I did.

The visual connection becomes physical?

Yeah. I see it as terrain, and I can feel if that terrain is the same height or depth or whatever as what I’m sculpting.

Is it a constant learning curve?

The [human] figure is the hardest thing to do, but if you’re driven by the skill of learning, you want to do the thing that’s hardest. If something seems too difficult, that’s the direction I end up wanting to go.

It’s not just the aesthetics that appeal to you?

It’s the learning. I know that’s unusual for an artist. But if anything, having a skill that’s constantly developing is probably a bigger driver for me than anything else.


Because of where that takes your mind, when you’re diving deeper with a skill that gets more refined and finessed. And the new ways you develop of seeing the world when you do go there.

Does the personality of the model affect your work?

It’s pretty much the main thing … trying to really capture the personality of the person who is modeling for me. All of it. Their emotions, the way they hold themselves, their quirks … I love quirks.

Physical quirks?

Yeah. Or personality quirks, too. What they’re interested in, what their passion is, what they’re going through emotionally at the time. I try to observe and portray all of that nuance and subtlety. That’s one of the reasons I like working from life. You get to know that person over a stretch of time.

It sounds intimate.

Very. I’m understanding where people are coming from, and learning about humanity.

“The human figure is the hardest thing to do.”

Angela Cunningham, Asheville. The artist’s sculpture is on display during August at the Taylor Gallery (122 Riverside Drive, Studio A, She also shows work at Aura Gallery & Studios (40 West Jordan St., Brevard), at The Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock), and at Canvas ArtSpace (212 S. Church St., Hendersonville), where she conducts drawing workshops. For more information and studio hours by appointment, call 949-290-2823 or visit On Instagram: @angelacunninghamfineart

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