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Personality and Mystery: Hal Adkins’ Persephone

Persephone by Hal Adkins (click for a larger image)
Persephone by Hal Adkins (click for a larger image)

“This is such a satisfying portrait, and difficult because it seems so familiar. I was drawn to its simplicity — without sacrificing attention to detail — and nice use of subtle color. The title makes a difference, adding a layer of narrative and pointing to the interior life of the character. Yet its outward but distant look interacts with the viewer in the present.” — Jessica Beels, juror for “Taking Shape”

Sculptor and painter Hal Adkins won the Monkith Saaid Award this month with his best-in-show sculpture, Persephone. We asked him about his artistic background, for some behind-the-scenes details, and his playlist recommendations for the creative process:

What was your goal with Persephone?
Hal Adkins: My goal whenever I’m doing a portrait, whether sculpting or painting, is first of all to get a good likeness, then to get some aspect of the subject’s personality, and finally to convey a sense of narrative or mystery, if you will — the feeling that there’s a story we’re not being told, but that we can sense a small part of. There are those who will say that getting a likeness is not critical, but I’ve always felt that to convey the sense of presence of another human being, it is important that the artwork look credibly like the model.

Of course, taking liberties with the likeness for expressive or emotional reasons is a time-honored practice, going back to at least Goya, and probably before that. However, before you distort a likeness for such reasons, you should first be able to get the likeness down accurately. My goal in creating art is very close to that of Renoir, who believed that art should be beautiful because there is already enough unpleasantness in the world.

Anthropos by Hal Adkins, from the 2015 All-Media Exhibit
Anthropos by Hal Adkins, from the 2015 All-Media Exhibit

Why terra cotta?
Water-based clay is a wonderfully malleable and forgiving medium which allows great expressivity. Sculpting with clay can give you the sense that you are almost creating a person as you shape it and build it up. Sculpting in clay has helped me understand how apt the biblical story of Adam being created from clay is.

“Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.”
― Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Were you a sculptor or painter first?
I began painting when I was a student at Tulane University, spring semester of 1975, now some 40 years ago, when I took intro oil painting from my sister’s boyfriend, a graduate student and great painter named Dale Murray. I only started sculpting last year when I took a workshop with Paul Lucchesi on the advice of Danni Dawson, who said it would help my painting, and it just sort of clicked. I have since taken classes with Thanasi Papapostolou, who is a wonderful sculptor and teacher and has helped me progress.

I think the experience of painting portraits and figures for many years, and especially my concentration on life drawing for five years at the Art League of Houston under the instruction of another great artist and mentor, Janet Hassinger, has enhanced my ability to adapt fairly easily to the medium of sculpture. Sculpting in a way is like doing life drawing in that you need to know anatomy and be able to situate bodily features correctly in relation to each other, but it is drawing in three dimensions with an infinite number of contours to define.

Apostle, oil, by Hal Adkins (from the January 2015 All-Media Exhibit)
Apostle, oil, by Hal Adkins (from the January 2015 All-Media Exhibit)

What draws you to the different media you use?
I think I am drawn to clay and oil paint because they are both traditional technologies that have not changed in 500 years, in the case of oil painting, or 5,000 years, in the case of clay sculpture. They both allow a direct connection to the masters of the past and at least a small appreciation of the struggles they endured in creating the works that are still admired today. Oil paint and clay are both forgiving mediums that allow you to correct and adjust as you go along. Additionally, sculpting in clay satisfies a primal urge we all seem to have for playing with mud!

What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished piece?
In sculpting, when working from a live model, the first step is to decide whether to render a full figure, some portion thereof, or a portrait head or bust. This is where inspiration and intuition take over as you formulate your idea. Another alternative is to do a bas-relief, which involves a nice combination of drawing and sculpting and permits you to create an environment and a little story around the figure. Once you settle on your idea and concept, it becomes a matter of roughing in the piece with masses of clay, constantly adjusting proportions and relationships, and then refining the details and surface. It is a very physical, kinetic process. The figure emerges from the clay and, when it’s going well, begins to take on a life of its own. Modeling the piece is only half the process, followed by drying, firing, repairing if necessary, working up the patina, and mounting on a suitable base.

Hal Adkins - Persphone (detail)
Persephone (detail) by Hal Adkins

How did you achieve the finish and coloration?
The patina on Persephone was achieved by applying numerous transparent layers of pigment over the piece after it was fired. I began with a light green acrylic wash followed by transparent white and then rubbed different hues of oil paint into certain areas. I applied a faint amount of quinacridone rose to the lips, nose, cheeks, eyelids, and ears to give a touch of warmth to the piece.

Do you listen to music while you work? What’s your favorite thing to listen to?
I always listen to music when sculpting or painting. I particularly like Lyle Lovett and other Texas alt-country singer-songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, and Steve Earle. I also listen to James Taylor a lot and just about any 1970s group, the music of my college years. A particular favorite I play often is Nana Mouskouri, a longtime star in Europe who I discovered when I was 21 and have enjoyed ever since. I was born in the Mississippi Delta and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and have a natural fondness for Delta blues singers such as Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Classical guitar music is also very good to work to. Around St. Patrick’s Day, I immerse myself in music of Celtic groups such as Solas and The Waterboys.

How long have you been an artist — or when did you first know you wanted to do what you do?
I always enjoyed drawing when I was young and excelled in art history courses in college, but I had no formal training in art until I took painting my senior year at Tulane. The third painting I did in that class, a portrait of my roommate, was accepted into the annual art school juried show that year, which some art majors did not make it into. Painting became the most exciting and satisfying thing I had ever undertaken, and I began thinking of myself as an artist.

I continued to paint after college and had some commissions, including one for the ABC Television daytime drama “All My Children.” Meanwhile, I did the practical thing and went to law school, becoming a lawyer and practicing for a number of years. While there was satisfaction to be found in drafting effective documents and pleadings and in solving problems for clients, nothing in law ever gave me the feeling of accomplishment and the enjoyment that I get from making art. I am now devoting most of my time to developing my sculpting and painting skills with the goal of becoming a professional portrait painter and sculptor. (Commissions are welcomed!)

“Taking Shape” is open through Monday, September 7. 

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