Sculptor describes realities of fine art and finances

Whether Malcolm Moran, a sculptor, happens to be working with silver, metal, bronze, or two-ton rock, he brings to it his own touch of gold. When he was 10 years old he sold a tiny carving to a Seattle gallery, and ever since he has had the gift of producing work that people want to own.

What people have especially wanted are his metal sculptures of children at play, each one with a natural base and marked by a skillful blend of cast figures with delicate metal birds, trees, or other objects. Carefully reproduced by his own studio in Monterey, the joyous figures have won thousands of devotees in galleries and jewelry stores around the world.

But sculpture of children represents just one facet of Mr. Moran's impressive career, which has taken many unexpected turns during the five decades after his first sale. He has since produced such diversities as tennis trophies for Clint Eastwood's annual tournament, the interior design for some of Boeing's first 707 airplanes, and a mobile for the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Mich.

A glance around the artist's stunning home -- itself a piece of free-form design -- shows that Mr. Moran no longer strives to please the public or industry as much as his own aesthetic sense. An eclectic collection of abstract works adorns the walls, hearth, and shelves of his white living room, pieces he refuses to sell "until I've made something I like better."

It is hard to imagine a more inspiring setting than the one in which Mr. Moran has chosen to act out the latest stage of his everevolving career.Outside his front window is a wide, oval-shaped pond stocked with shimmering carp and koi fish and and bordered by a massive cyprus hedge. In the distance beyond is a view of the rock-bound, turquoise waters just south of Carmel.

Inside the house, with an indoor garden and a sunken kitchen with countertops of burnished myrtle wood, the artist lives with his wife, Jodi, 12-year-old daughter, Callie, and a well-tended assortment of buff-colored spaniels. Tanned , silver-haired, and often dressed in crisp tennis whites, he projects an image more in line with that of a Hollywood celebrity than the popular perception of a freelance sculptor.

"I've never understood why artists shouldn't be able to live just as well as those that buy their art," Mr. Moran says, throwing a handful of food to his fish, which scatter about like fluttering orange and gold ribbons. During the course of an interview, he warms quickly to the topics of art, artists, and the unavoidable way economics affects them both.

Mr. Moran, who has owned a number of flourishing studios and galleries during his career, clearly prides himself on being a good businessman as well as artist. He acknowledges a debt to his father. "He taught me to appreciate the fact that making money is a necessary part of any endeavor -- in the arts as in anything else. After all, if you don't earn enough to sustain yourself, you end up in another field."

While a student at the University of Washington, Malcolm Moran found himself torn between his interest in fine arts and his father's financial advice. Because architecture and industrial design seemed more practical than sculpture, he took his early training in both.

After college he was kept busy designing for such clients as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Working on what he calls "architectural sculpture" -- huge works commissioned by corporations to adorn the lobbies or landscapes of their buildings -- provided a living, but not a lot of satisfaction.

"The frustration of working on gigantic, commissioned pieces that can take years to complete was enormous," he recalls. "It involved literally tons of material, hiring several assistants, and taking a big risk. For a period of a year to three years it meant working on a project that could be halted at any time. One of the board members could come by and decide he didn't like it, and that would be that."

The economic implications inherent in such work have increasingly made it to domain of wealthy artists only, Mr. Moran says. "A young, unestablished artist simply doesn't have the finances to work that way. So the bids are monopolized by a tiny core of businessmen-artists who have the necessary millions to take the risks. The result is that the art world is becoming more and more polarized -- there is no longer much middle ground between starving and being very rich."

During the industrial phase of has career, Mr. Moran longed more and more to return to the fine arts. In the early 1960s he found himself trading an impressive past in Detroit for an uncertain future as a sculptor in Carmel.

With partner Donald Buby he opened a small gallery, then began the difficult task of filling it with something different.After many false starts, he sculpted , almost as an afterthought, a boy perched on a mineral base flying a metal kite.

That proved to be the prototype of over 30 variations of child forms, works that met with almost instant demand. The children, along with other pieces depicting wharf scenes, windmils, and wildlife, became the Moran trademark.

Among the most notable: a 24-inch-high rendition of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin standing on top of a natural base amid fluttering birds that appear suspended in midair. For industrialist Edgar Kaiser he did a delicate, haunting windmill scene called "Monument to the Past," which has been widely copied in a multitude of variations by other sculptors ever since.

"I was amazed at how quickly it all caught on," he says. "No sooner would I come out with something than studios in Hong Kong and every place else would be turning out imitations."

He was also amazed at the diversity of people who wanted to collect or own a single piece of his work. Celebrities -- among them John Glenn, Ethel Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, and the King of Sweden -- constitute a sizable part of his clientele, but so do citizens of far more modest means. While special commissions can command many thousands of dollars, many of the reproductions produced in his studio sell well under $100.

"I've never believed that only rich people should be able to buy art," he says. "I think it's important to produce things for the mass market that are done with quality. Much of what I've done can be bought by anyone, and that pleases me very much."

Has he any idea why his sculpture, especially that of children, has met with such demand? "Well, it's not because of any complex message. If there's a message at all, it's simply that youth is something to be enjoyed and treasured. Portraying childhood in that way obviously strikes a responsive chord in many people."

He doesn't know of much artwork available today in a low or moderate price range. In part, he sees this as a result of the crafts boom. "Things have gotten very difficult indeed for the young artist who is serious about his work, " he says. "There is now little incentive for someone to put in the years of apprenticeship and training needed to produce high- quality art. It has become too easy to just go off and throw some pottery that can be peddled at a crafts fair. A lot of galleries can no longer survive in a market that is flooded with an abundance of crafts and very little real art."

Mr. Moran no longer maintains a gallery in Carmel, where he says most have been driven out by astronomically high rents. These days his favorite place of exhibition is his home, which is filled with projects he doesn't particularly care to sell.

"At this point in my life, I've earned the right to create exactly what I want to do," he says. "It could well be work that no one else cares for."

But if the past is any guideline, that does not seem likely at all.

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