When one steps back to look at the entire 30 plus year art career of Deborah Bridges, what is most surprising is the range of mediums and styles that she has explored and mastered. As a sculptor this has included bronze, clay, stone, and cement, and as a painter, encaustic wax. Taken as a whole, this hugely varied body of work reflects a creative restlessness and versatility, and a sustained commitment to hard work.
It was at age 32 that Deborah Bridges first experienced the mesmerizing pleasure of working with clay. Soon after she sought out an apprenticeship with bronze sculptor, Todd Andrews, at his busy Grass Valley studio, TASCO. She chose this classical, age-old way of apprenticeship as the most direct route to learning both the art and business of sculpture. This studio specialized in monumental scale bronze sculpture where she learned many aspects of classical bronze, including metal work, wax work, mold making, sculpture enlargement, graphic design and marketing.
After three years at TASCO she set off on her own, teaching herself to carve stone and launching her first art business selling stone sculpture. While her first love was figurative work, she knew it was going to take more time and practice to develop the necessary skill to do figurative sculpture. So for the next three years she supported her family by carving ikebana vases out of soapstone and alabaster sculpture before she ever showed her first bronze.
After 10 years of showing and selling bronze sculpture at shows and galleries, she then developed a line of cement garden sculpture which is still being sold across the country today. She says she chose to move away from bronze because she wanted to create fine art in a medium that was accessible to more people. The cost of bronze made every sculpture a costly and serious endeavor. Cement, she says, “was way more fun, and anyone with a yard has a place for garden sculpture”.
After 10 years of working in cement, her restless need to create anew moved her into the ceramic world where she began a body of clay figurative sculpture that remains her primary focus today.
As perhaps the best example of her versatility, Bridges began painting in 2011. Considering herself primarily a sculptor, Bridges chose wax as her painting medium. She was comfortable with encaustic painting as an extension of clay. It was a sculptural material she was already familiar with, and with its multiple layers it has a 3-D quality. While her sculpture is figurative, her painting is not. Bridges prefers to create atmospheric landscapes with soft colors and luminous organic beeswax.
Deborah Bridges has a studio in Grass Valley, California. She works with three apprentices and has a classroom where she teaches ceramic figurative sculpture. Following in the footsteps of her first teacher, she is carrying on the tradition of apprenticeship. She has discovered in teaching the great pleasure to be found in sharing one’s passion and skills with others.
When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
Deborah: I say I am a sculptor and an encaustic painter.
When did you consider yourself a professional artist and when were you able to dedicate yourself full time to that pursuit?
Deborah: I was 32 years old and a single mother of three children when I approached a bronze sculptor, Todd Andrews, to ask if I could apprentice with him. I started selling my work as my sole means of support 3 years later.
What mediums do you work with? or prefer?
Deborah: I consider myself primarily a sculptor which is why I chose wax as a painting medium. Its a sculptural material that I was already comfortable with, so when I decided to pursue color and 2d work it seemed like a natural fit.
How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Deborah: It’s interesting that my sculpture is figurative while my painting is not. One recurring theme in my sculpture is the jester or the fool. I am really drawn to the symbolism of emptiness and the wisdom of not knowing and living in such a way that one stays open to the mystery of life. The jester says all that for me. In the painting I almost always include a dimensional grid of tiny lines throughout the layers of the wax. When I started incising lines into the paintings I wasn’t clear why. The painting just didn’t feel finished without them and I liked the way the lines showed the layered depth of the piece. Now I think they speak to the invisible order of the manifest world. And by that I mean that they speak of sacred geometry and how life orders itself as one connected field of consciousness. I once heard that an artist may not understand why they are doing what they are doing until a couple of years after they have finished a work. That makes writing an artist statement on a new body of work difficult, don’t you think?
You’ve described your work as “intending to capture an atmospheric quality of ease, serenity, and spaciousness”— can you further explain what you mean by that?
Deborah: I came to encaustic painting late in my art career and only because, when I met my sweetheart we moved from a tiny house to a very large home with a lot of big empty walls, I needed to find appropriate art for our new home. When I considered what art I wanted to live with it became clear that I wanted only non-objective work that helped to create an atmospheric quality of serenity to our home. I did not want anything objective and even though I am a figurative sculptor, I did not want paintings of barns or people or mountains in my living room. I had once seen a large encaustic painting in a gallery that caught my attention in such a way that I had never forgotten it. So, I went in search of a teacher to show me the basics of encaustic painting and proceeded to paint for my own walls and personal satisfaction. I started selling my paintings after I participated in an open studio tour which exposed my work to the public and people wanted to purchase the paintings off my walls.
Who did you study encaustic with?
Deborah: I took my first class with Hylla Evans in Sebastopol, California. I paid her for a private day-long class so that I could learn only the techniques I was interested in. I knew the look I was going for and wanted to jump right in. After that I spent a year thrashing around in my studio doing a lot of experimentation. Then I spent a week in a workshop with Shawna Moore. Both of these women are very good teachers. Shawna’s smooth paintings that have so much depth and dimension have always been an inspiration for me.
What is your method with encaustic and what other materials do you use?
Deborah: My methods change all the time in incremental ways, but right now I am using Venetian plaster as my ground and underpainting. I work hot with thin layers, and color is added between the layers with oil sticks and oil paint. Marks are made with incising tools and oil paint. The paintings are thick, with maybe 15 -20 layers of wax. Its always a trick to get deep enough without losing the depth-dimensional effect I want because at some point I start losing the layers underneath by getting too thick.
Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?
Deborah: People often ask me why my faces are so sad. I used to deflect this question back on them and suggest that what they were seeing said more about them than me. But I have come to see that I can only create from my being and that my figures and paintings reflect me. The faces are serious, contemplative and even a little bit sad because that is what I am. It’s also because I want them to intrigue the viewer and cause a pause in their thinking – to make a little spaciousness in their mind. The Persona body of work is all about suggesting that we are more than the characters we play and the body that we inhabit. I chose encaustic wax as my painting medium for that same reason. the beeswax has a luminous depth that intrigues and perplexes. The paintings are serene and a little bit mysterious because that is my intention.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Deborah: I just finished a 9 episode t.v. series on Picasso. I like to watch or read artist documentaries because I appreciate feeling kindred with other artists. When I was young I used to wonder if I was crazy to work so hard at achieving a skill and to fail over and over. I was supporting three children as a single mother when I started my art career and I thought I was crazy to spend so much time failing. Time was precious when my children were young and I didn’t think I could afford to waste hours that I wasn’t getting paid for. That didn’t stop me, though, I just worked longer hours, like into the night when the children slept, in order to make my art career support us. I think that was a long answer to a simple question. In other words, I like to know that I ‘m not crazy, that there are plenty of stubborn, determined and driven artists in the world. Oh, I am also reading ‘Daily Rituals; How Artist’s work.” For the same reason. I find it fascinating to see how creatives structure their lives.
What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them?
Deborah: I have a particular personality trait that is always seeking better or more, its a sense of not being “there yet”. I call her my demon. My biggest challenge is to start a painting or sculpture with her voice in my head and to finish a work even though that voice insists it could be better. I think I will live with this voice of “not good enough” till the day I die, so I’ve decided to appreciate that voice for the way it drives me to get better and better at something and to accept the discomfort that this drive to perfection causes. At this point in my life I understand surrender to what is, even the demons get accepted.
How do you navigate the art world?
Deborah: Well, if you mean how do I function or succeed in the art world, it’s by being tenacious. That’s what I’ve been called anyway. I would say that I started my career in such a way that failure was not an option. I put all my eggs in one basket and hit the ground running. I did art festivals all over the west coast when I started. I think I did about 17 shows a year. You know, street festivals where artists put up a canopy and create a little gallery with pop-up walls. These were juried shows where I was a part of a community of gallery-quality artists who preferred for whatever reason to show and sell their own work directly to the public. I am represented by galleries now and think I spent too much time doing these art festivals. It wasn’t until my children were grown and on their own that I was able to take a step back and plan to build a resume and approach galleries.
Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Deborah: The Persona series is definitely a departure from what I used to do in sculpture. Like I say in my statement on this body of work, my sculpture used to be all about transcendence and now at this point in my life I’m all about fully inhabiting this life and this body. So my figures are grounded and even struggling a little bit with the awkwardness of being human. The paintings haven’t changed much since I started painting 6 years ago.
How do you come up with titles?
Deborah: Titles are difficult for me, very difficult. My last series of sculptures, the Persona series, were all given the names of Shakespeare characters. This was just so that they could be cataloged and kept track of. And it fits since the series is about the characters we play in our lives and the masks we wear. all “actors strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage”. My paintings likewise just need to be labeled for keeping track of them. The paintings are impressionist landscapes at most, or abstract, and I don’t want to lead the viewer. I’d rather they just feel the painting without having to understand it or give it meaning.
Do you have a motto or creed that, as an artist, you Iive by?
Deborah: Not really, but I do like a quote of Picasso that I once heard that goes something like this… “inspiration happens but only if it finds you working.’ I just know that my ideas and inspirations are many, but it’s not until I get to work that they either die a disappointing death or come to life.
Can you describe a typical day and be as specific as possible.
Deborah: I get up around 6:00 AM and make my coffee and sit for an hour or so with silence. Then I check emails and read a bit, usually related to Zen or non-dual teachings. Sometimes I have a morning exercise class. Then I head to the studio where I will be for the rest of the day. I go right to work unless I need to tidy up first. I’ll have lunch in the kitchen then go back and work till around 4 or 5. I take little breaks during the day by wandering around my garden or tending it a little bit. Oh, and I have two grandchildren so they get sprinkled in here and there. I spend part of a day every week with each of them. I feel very fortunate for this life. I used to work into the evening and when the children were young I went back to work after they were in bed. There’s no way I could do that anymore. And with a painting I have to be careful, if I work too many hours straight I start making mistakes and just lose ground.
Deborah: Yes, weekends too. I teach sculpture on Saturday mornings and try to walk 5 miles with my sweetheart on Sunday mornings before getting into the studio. Weekends can tend to be shorter days.
Do you work on one project at a time or several?
Deborah: When I am sculpting I work on two pieces at a time. When I am painting I work three or four at a time. I always work in series in both mediums. Its the way I can evolve an idea and with a painting I usually end up coming back around to the first one or two and reworking it.
Did you ever work for another artist and if so did that have an affect on the way you work?
Deborah: In my apprenticeship I worked with two well established bronze figurative artists. I witnessed tenacity firsthand in my apprenticeship with Todd and must have learned its importance in art-making..
Do you have assistants?
Deborah: I have two apprentices who work with me every Thursday. I really believe in apprenticeship and am happy to give back in the way that I was helped. Its a mutual helping that serves all of us. I get help in the things I don’t want to do, like shipping and cleaning and mold making, and they learn the business of art as well as technique from me. I think I will have more apprentices as I get older. I like having the younger creative energy and inspiration around me as much as I love being a mentor/elder.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about
Deborah: Oh yes. I am going bigger! I just feel called to work bigger in both sculpture and painting . My galleries are asking for bigger paintings and I usually work in the 40-inch range, so that calling is actual; people want bigger paintings. The sculpture is calling me to commit even more to my current “Persona” series by going bigger…
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