A Vision of Freedom Born in Prison. INTERVIEW: SCULPTOR

A SHAFT of sunlight sliced through the stone wall of the prison cell. As the prisoner held a small bowl of food to his mouth, he felt something sharp. He ran his fingers over the clump, and found a small rock. Later, when the rays of sun were brighter, he saw a nail popping out of the weathered wood around the cell door. He pulled it out, and, sitting on the floor, used the point to etch a face in the thumb-size stone. It was the first sculpture created by Pal Kepenyes, a native of Kondoros, Hungary.

As an idealistic freedom fighter in the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Mr. Kepenyes was sentenced to five years in prison. Today, he is a naturalized citizen of Mexico, and regarded as one of the world's finest avant-garde sculptors.

His bronze statues, doors, and jewelry are displayed in museums, galleries, and private collections in France, London, West Germany, Hungary, Mexico, Canada. In the United States his work is in many cities, including New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington. In February, he will have a one-man show at the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills, Calif.

``When I look back at those five years, I see how they changed the chart of my life,'' the artist said in an interview at his studio in Acapulco. ``I would never have ventured into the world of art. Also I would never have come to terms, at such an early age, with the conviction of a `higher power' in charge of me.

``Being a political prisoner, I left Hungary as soon as I was released,'' Pal said. ``I went to Paris with no money, but alive to the future. Wasn't I free? I had a vision in prison of being in a black well. I was suffering and in pain and trying to find my way, but all was black, until I suddenly saw a crack of light. To me, light, space, and air symbolized freedom. I felt art was the medium for my extended expression.''

In France he lived on hope and dreams, until he won recognition and attended the Acad'emie des Beaux Arts. After a few years, he had an exhibition in Paris and established his reputation for fine sculpture and goldsmithing.

``In Acapulco, I have found the freedom to create as I am inspired,'' he said.

THE memory of his prison days is evidenced in a bronze self-portrait. The head is encased behind bars. Even in some of his jewelry, memories of the past are relived. A bronze medallion shows the figure of a man reaching up; in the center of the necklace is a hole. ``That refers to opening to the light,'' Kepenyes explained.

Among his best-known pieces are his vivos (referring to ``life'') - a series of sculptures of men and animals, free forms composed of hundreds of pieces of metal. They represent the essence of freedom to Kepenyes.

``You can have a different scene or movement every day,'' he exclaimed, and with that he went to the gallery where several vivos were displayed and moved them into different shapes and scenes. ``Each one can be changed in hundreds of ways.''

One of this futuristic artist's dreams is to make a space-age fantasy of bronze, then have it projected into the heavens via lasers. ``It sounds way out,'' Kepenyes smiled, ``but the truth is, when space travelers are going to other planets, they will enjoy these laser-projected signboards along the way. This to me is another step in freedom: to use the heavens as a canvas....''

The artist's home overlooking Acapulco Bay is another example of his expanded artistry. Both his gallery and the new home he is building face the Pacific Ocean. Even from the outside, one knows an artist lives here: Small bronze figures are woven into the frame.

Inside, at each plateau of the stairs beyond the bronze front door, are statues. The main beam of the house is a 12-foot statue, and there are no walls on the ocean side. The warm climate makes this possible. ``Nothing is shut out - not the sun, nor the sea,'' he declared.

``And the few days it rains, there are no worries, for all the stone furniture is built into the house. Just remove the pillows and covers and it, like me, is free to face the world.''

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