Artis Lane: The Universality Of Sculpture

LOS ANGELES-BASED painter and sculptor Artis Lane traces her roots all the way back to Southern slaves who escaped to Canada via the underground railroad. Born in North Buxton, a small rural village of mostly transplanted slaves in Ontario, Canada, the artist says that ``out of the blue'' her mother gave her the odd, typically masculine name ``Artis.'' The name proved prophetic. At age four she was sculpting clay dolls out of the thick mud that lined the river by her grandfather's house, and by age six she was making exact likenesses of playmates. Further, beneath Lane's elegant countenance lay a fiery, independent tenacity that fueled her art and life well before the feminist movement took hold.

Talking from her home and studio in West Los Angeles, Lane recalls, ``I remember being very young in North Buxton. My grandfather Garrison Shadd used our house for these informal meetings of black village elders - all men. They'd sit around discussing race, politics, matters of import. The old guys would say, `Garrison, what is that girl-child doing here?' He'd simply answer, `She's an artist, she needs to know about the world.'''

Indeed, Lane has learned about the world. In her 30-year career, she's garnered an international reputation, amassed a body of privately and publicly held work that numbers well in the thousands and sweeps skillfully over every medium from drawing, to oil on canvas, to bronze and collage.

Her ``claim to fame'' - a phrase Lane dislikes - is that she has made penetrating portraits of notables like Cary Grant, Armand Hammer, Detroit's mayor Coleman Young, Nancy Kissinger, George Romney, and Barbara Bush, to list a very few.

Among her collectors are Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Lionel Richie. Collectors and subjects like the late Cary Grant, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, and Diahann Carroll became lifelong personal friends.

The notoriety of her subjects netted the artist the dubious media label ``portrait artist to the stars.'' Just the words bring a veil of displeasure across Lane's features. Though grateful for the portrait work that has built her career, Lane confesses she's found the genre constricting.

``Too much is made of my famous portraits. It's not the subject that empowers an artwork. Art is good when it connects us with deeper values. This is the quality in art that moves us, not that we recognize a face we see on TV every Wednesday night.

``I am extremely proud to be a black female artist: I'm grateful for the success. It sounds like a worn clich'e, but I've really been aware of the responsibility of being what is called `the first one,' a person of color where there are few.

``But the older I get, the less I am willing to focus on the differences between people. I am of the firm belief that there is a unified energy - the energy of mind, if you will - that is whole and healing and everyone's birthright. If we connect with it, issues of race and ego fall away. That's the energy I want to convey, not celebrity status.''

Lane's ancestors were Canadian landowners and educators. Her great aunt Mary Shadd who traveled to Canada expressly to begin the first school for transplanted slaves and Canadian blacks was recently the subject of a television documentary on black women in history.

``Queen Victoria decreed that every freed slave should be sold 40 acres of land. My grandfather Garrison Shadd - named after the white Southerner who helped spirit [my grandfather's] parents to freedom - accumulated over 100 acres of prime farmland. Unfortunately, black landowners were exploited, their land was gradually taken, purchased, or cajoled away from them. By the time I was five, my family had to move to Ann Arbor [Mich.] so that my father could find work. The Depression hit just as we arrived and we found ourselves not much better off.''

Lane's view of life's travails is consistently positive, philosophical, even spiritual. ``I've always been given what I needed, even when times were rough. Ann Arbor was a university town, very liberal and progressive, so the modest school I attended happened to have all sorts of experimental programs. I was exposed to Shakespeare, dance, classical art. Most important, I was surrounded by people who continued to encourage my art.''

The family was forced to return to North Buxton and Lane and her sister were placed in the household of an aunt. ``My aunt's husband was the local principal. He was a no-nonsense educator who demanded excellence. Again, it wasn't ideal but I thrived on the discipline. I was first in math, first in art,'' Lane says.

By age 15, Lane had won the Canadian Portraiture Award and the Edith Chapman Scholarship to the Ontario College of Art.

``To supplement my college scholarship I hired myself out to do murals, lettering, portraits of my rich, white classmates, anything. I got a commission to paint perfect miniature portraits of Queen Victoria on hundreds of these commemorative placemats - I didn't see much of recess in those years,'' laughs Lane.

Traveling back and forth from Ontario to Detroit in the summers so that she could work part-time to earn college tuition, Lane met her first husband, black activist and journalist Bill Lane. ``I transferred to Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield, Mich., so that Bill and I could be together. It was a very elite art school and they accepted my portfolio with flying colors but mysteriously denied me entrance. Pressure from the Urban League got me in. Once I was in, my still lifes were sabotaged. Those were tumultuous, painful, but inspiring times. You might say I came of age.''

Divorced and solely supporting her daughter, Lane began working at the Hudson Gallery in Detroit. The wife of Governor Romney read an article on Lane in a Detroit newspaper. ``I went to their home and Mrs. Romney showed me a closet full of portraits they had commissioned and hated. Romney reluctantly agreed to sit for yet another por- trait. We ended up having a two-hour discussion on race and politics after the sitting ... and they hung my portrait.''

In 1959, Lane accepted a portrait commission in Los Angeles and left New York for the West Coast. ``In L.A., I began painting portraits of stars I admired to add to my portfolio. My landlady loved my work and arranged for me to show it to Cary Grant. Cary and I met in a smoky restaurant and we talked for hours. When I finally showed him his portrait, the first thing he did was turn it upside down and ask how I achieved those rich, translucent colors. I was so impressed with his lack of ego, artistic savvy, his integrity and warmth. He was a dear, dear friend from then until his death,'' recalls Lane.

``Quite honestly,'' she adds, ``this inevitable talk about how I `got in with' the famous is uncomfortable for me. It makes it all sound very contrived. The fact is that I did my work well and honestly; I looked for the unique life-spark in each sitter, so my subjects were pleased. That is that.''

In 1986, Lane won recognition for painting another famous American, Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to leave her seat in an all-white section of a bus began the firestorm that led to the 1950s national civil-rights movement.

In the painting the image of Parks is exquisitely rendered, with the contours of her features loosely handled yet creating a perfect likeness. The only touches of color are the rich browns that define Parks' skin. Behind her, a sketchy figure of a white man hovers like a spectre, oddly menacing yet completely neutralized by the quiet strength of Parks.

Lane donated the painting to the Rosa Parks Foundation and its inspiration caused the Anheuser-Busch Company to commission a large bronze bust of Parks that was recently admitted to the National Portrait Gallery.

``I will always do portraiture, but my heart's work is more conceptual and symbolic. Some years back, I became completely exasperated with portraiture as a constant artistic diet. With the help and encouragement of my wonderful husband Vince, I took a giant leap of faith from the commercial safety of the portraits to the kind of work I've always wanted to do.''

In two shows - a solo exhibit at Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., last November, and a group review of black art at Los Angeles's Occidental College this past February - viewers found few celebrities. Instead, works like the sculptures ``Emerging Woman'' or ``Cynthia and Kat'' hinted at new, promising directions.

Though most of her sculpted work is noted for its pristine lines and finely polished contours, in works like ``Emerging Woman'' or ``Cynthia and Kat,'' Lane handles her materials quickly and roughly. A craggy yet graceful surface describes these stately female figures. The sculptures look as if they were unearthed after centuries under the ground. Lane intentionally leaves bits of the ceramic mold that is usually polished away to reveal the smooth bronze beneath. Lane has begun leaving hints of the white substance over parts of her figures to give sculptures an unfinished, time-worn appearance.

``This work is very conceptual. By giving work this transformational look, I'm creating a visual symbol for the idea that life, experience, all of reality is in a continual state of evolution. We never `arrive,' we simply continue to grow.''

The heroic, larger than life-size sculpture ``Adam,'' worked with a Rodin-like surface that light dances over, depicts the strong determined face of a black man; the figure is no one in particular, yet every black man.

In her sculpture ``Release'' from the early '80s, the small figures of a man and woman have been worked so smoothly, with such uninflected grace that the ebony-tinged bronze looks more like porcelain. The man's hands surround but do not touch the waist of the female figure that stands just in front of him, her arms stretched out in a gesture of perfect balance.

The physiognomy and race of the figures in ``Release'' are unspecific and universal. They move our imagination freely backward and forward in time, making us think of Egyptian effigies (which Lane has long studied), classical art, or figures from some noble futuristic race.

``The title `Release' refers to the way any growth between people occurs,'' explains Lane. ``It never happens by clutching and controlling, but through a kind of loose, reciprocal support based in respect. With this sort of support, the woman in the sculpture emerges strong and sure. This could be read as a sculpture about relationships, or the new role for women. But if you really think about it, the principle of allowing growth to occur by letting go is a law of the universe that applies to just about everything.''

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