Her trademark spherical sculptures are only one facet of the endlessly inventive work of Rockland County sculptor Grace Knowlton.
Grace Knowlton is best known for her spherical sculptures, but they are just one facet of her scintillating artistry
by Phyllis Segura
Photographs by Dyana Van Campen
Large spherical sculptures, some silvery, others earth-toned, lie scattered about the hilly, open expanse surrounding artist Grace Knowlton¡¯s Rockland County home and studio. On the path closer to her house, smaller spheres peek out from beneath leafy greenery. The round surfaces of these works are in stark contrast to the unusual angles inside.
Thirty years ago, Knowlton and her husband bought this old farm property atop the Palisades, where the artist has lived ever since. ¡°Leaving New York City was difficult, but families and sculpture need space,¡± says Knowlton. The couple and their five children forsook the large Victorian house on the property (which was eventually sold), and chose instead to live in the barn, which was renovated by architect Hugh Hardy. ¡°He designed theaters and big spaces,¡± Knowlton recalls. The exterior of the barn appears traditional, but Hardy created unique spaces within. ¡°He designed this building by placing two rectangles on top of each other and turning one, leaving a lot of angles, but few right angles,¡± Knowlton says.
The centerpiece of the house today is the spacious studio, which is adjacent to the kitchen and once served as the family dining room. It is an excellent introduction to the artistic impulse. The floor contains 1,800 tiles that Knowlton made herself, each one created by pushing clay into forms she constructed from plywood and burlap. A floor-to-ceiling window forms an angled wall between the kitchen and the studio, while three umbrellas are pushed into the overhead skylight to block direct sun. Large tables in the center of the room are covered with jars of paint, books, brushes, and files; framed photographs lean against the pressed-tin walls; and a well-patched Noguchi paper lantern hangs from the ceiling.
Tall, round posts running down the center of the studio mark where the horse stalls once stood. Between two posts rests a heavy, spooled roll of paper at the ready. Everywhere you look, there is something either waiting to be used or that Knowlton has already turned into art: a pile of mahogany shells, a lamp stand of welded horseshoes, sandboxes full of clay objects, a collection of rusty sardine tins, birdcages, bowls of rocks.
Not far from her house, Knowlton has another studio (one of four on the property) that is equipped for welding and the production of large-scale spheres and other sculptures. The surrounding two-acre landscape serves her in a peaceful, almost collaborative way. Her house is part of a small compound of buildings and studios for potters and other artists who frequently get together over coffee to discuss their work. Despite the closeness of New York City, Knowlton says that ¡°Living here is more rural than suburban.¡±
Talking about her own work, Knowlton, 71, reveals that she started out as a painter, although it wasn¡¯t easy juggling art and family. In fact at age 28, when she married a man who already had three children (the couple has since divorced), she expected to concentrate entirely on motherhood. But ¡°after about five minutes,¡± Knowlton admits, she looked at herself in the mirror and wondered, ¡°Who is that?¡± Soon after, she began painting again, first in the bedroom of her New York apartment, later in ¡°a coal bin behind a Catholic magazine on the Upper East Side,¡± which she rented as a studio.
Whenever possible, she involved her children in her art. ¡°We made all the Christmas ornaments together, and worked with clay, and painted,¡± she recalls.
¡°It was tough raising a family and being an artist. I thought that by having a studio at home I was solving the problem,¡± Knowlton says of the move to Rockland County. ¡°But one day I came into the house and my young daughter asked, ¡®When are you ever going to come home?¡¯ There is no easy answer.¡±
In addition to balancing art with motherhood, Knowlton also had to wrestle with the male-dominated art world. She realized that women artists were being pushed aside or ignored, but she was determined to make it on her own. ¡°It took me a long time to really get the picture that men are treated differently,¡± she says. ¡°But I¡¯ll spare you my abuse stories.¡±
Knowlton¡¯s work gradually changed from painting to sculpting, creating reliefs in latex on canvas, and then the spheres for which she is best known. (She is one of the few women whose work is part of the permanent collection at the Storm King Art Center.) ¡°It was while pregnant that I began to sculpt spheres,¡± she says, when the changing shape of her body brought to mind thoughts of fullness, roundness, bursting, and renewal. ¡°I was intrigued with closed forms and locking space inside.¡±
Knowlton is often asked how she got ¡°stuck¡± on the sphere. ¡°I¡¯ve tried to get away,¡± she says, ¡°but something always pulls me back.¡± When she shifts materials, making spheres out of clay, then concrete, metal scraps, aluminum, paper, copper, steel, or Styrofoam, the message is different. Though her most recent spheres appear to be constructed of a heavy material, they are actually fashioned out of polystyrene foam and then covered with iron oxide, bronze, or painted glazes ¡ª even with dirt and ink made from black walnuts that grow near her house. These balls, boulders, or globes sometimes become three-dimensional canvases when she draws or paints on them. Often she cracks them open, revealing their internal space, and then glues them back together, leaving pieces missing.
When asked about the placement of the spheres around her house, she says, ¡°It¡¯s the opposite of a Japanese garden, where everything has a specific place. If a truck driver were to ask, ¡®Lady, where d¡¯ya want ¡¯em?¡¯ I¡¯d say, ¡®Leave them where they are.¡¯ The arrangement shouldn¡¯t be contrived, and there is no top or bottom to the spherical form.¡±
A ball, however, begs to be rolled, and when placed publicly her works are often vandalized. Knowlton, though, is generous and says rolling the balls is something she would want to do herself, so she understands. ¡°Some people go to great lengths to break the chain links that keep them tethered to the ground, hoping to roll them away; occasionally they settle for graffiti, which can be beautiful, though not always welcome,¡± she says.
After taking a required photography course for a master¡¯s degree at Columbia University¡¯s Teachers College, Knowlton began to experiment with the medium, using platinum and digital techniques and superimposing them. This led to a series of photographs of the unusually angled corners in her home. The ¡°Corners¡± are found everywhere: on the stairs, ceiling, floors, and walls. She even painted the floor white (with easily removable tempera paint) to match the walls. ¡°I use white to keep the corners from being too realistic or, hopefully, to transcend reality,¡± she explains. ¡°Superimposing dual images and adding drawings on the surfaces creates more space and more abstraction.¡± She encourages the viewer to ¡°just relax and experience, and not worry about what it means.¡± Her photographs are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Washington¡¯s Corcoran Gallery, and many other museums.
Knowlton also makes dirt piles from soil collected during her travels. These formless mounds become sculpture and appear as images in her prints and drawings. From the curve of the sphere to the piling up of the soil and the angle of the corners, Knowlton¡¯s art is all about exploring things found in the world around her, working through continuous mutations.
Today, she passes on her philosophy of art by teaching sculpture and mixed media at the Art Students League in Manhattan and, last semester, at William Paterson University in New Jersey. ¡°Frequently, students will say they have no idea what they¡¯re doing, or what they should do,¡± she relates. ¡°I say, ¡®Good.¡¯ That way you¡¯re not starting with preconceived ideas, and you¡¯re free to play and find your way.
¡°One girl wanted to get to a point where she would know if she was good or not, thinking that a light would go on. I told her the doubts don¡¯t go away, but that¡¯s part of what holds your interest ¡ª the learning and the struggle.¡± ¡ö
An exhibition of Knowlton¡¯s work in various media is on exhibit at the Blue Hill Cultural Center in Pearl River through March 15.