The Artist Has the Power to Do That: Assemblage Sculpture as Shrine

Posted by: Elaine Luther

“An ordinary set of objects becomes a shrine when it is arranged and given a special significance. Anything displayed or arranged with reverence or evoking mystery can become a shrine. Shrine making is a form of art making that reflects the human urge to assemble and arrange things in a meaningful way.” writes Cathy A. Molchiodi in The Soul’s Palette.

One artist whose work began as jewelry and wall hangings and has more recently moved into shrine territory is Luann Udell.  Her central inspiration for art is cave paintings.

Artist Luann Udell says, “Shrines, yes, I do consider my assemblages just that. I was inspired by a customer back in New Hampshire who collected several pieces of my work: sculptures, a wall hanging (two, actually!) and jewelry. I joined her for coffee at her home, and I saw she had indeed set up a shrine in a prominent place. She’d added mementos of important experiences and important moments of her own—which I LOVED. I love it when people love my work—what artist doesn’t?!—but I especially love when it becomes part of their own life. And I think that’s what shrines do. They are a sacred place to honor what we love in life. Their healing power lies in their ability to ‘hold’ who we are in life, reminding us of the good and the beautiful and the meaningful, especially when things get hard.”

The Tate Museum in the United Kingdom defines a found object as “a natural or man-made object, or fragment of an object, that is found (or sometimes bought) by an artist and kept because of some intrinsic interest the artist sees in it.”

Artist Michael DeMeng who uses found objects and non-traditional materials, said, “My work evolves in two ways. It either starts with a theme that leads me to certain objects, or with objects that lead me to a certain theme.”  Luanne’s work always begins with the theme, her deep inspiration is ancient cave paintings.

On selecting objects

Assemblage artist Betye Saar said in an interview, “You could say I work with dead objects, with things that people have thrown away: old photographs, and so on. But my work is at the crossroads between death and rebirth. Discarded materials have been recycled, so they’re born anew, because the artist has the power to do that.”

While some artists select their found objects, Luann creates hers, saying, “I make all kinds of artifacts. I imagine myself an ancient artist working in ivory and soapstone. I dream of giving these to people I care about, who wear these totems daily until they are worn smooth by the touch of human hands.”

Her process involves sculpting bears, horses, fossil fish, dogs, foxes and bulls from polymer clay and adding a patina for an aged look, until the pieces truly look like artifacts that were unearthed.  She selects beads, buttons and pulls from her extensive collection of fabric to create wall hangings or small, framed or boxed assemblage pieces. 

Her fabric collection still contains fabric whose irregular edges are not frayed by time, but chewed by a beloved pet bunny who had the run of the studio.

When she moved toward making these shrine like pieces in boxes, she studied museum mounts, that’s what the functional display pieces are called in museums that cradle, uplift or otherwise support artifacts in a way that we barely notice.  When a museum mount is doing its job properly, we don’t notice it.

Not content with finding aged boxes, Luann learned to make them herself, studying with wood worker Gary Spykman, creating an apprenticeship of sorts.

She writes on her blog, “For the next four months, I was a guest in Gary’s woodworking shop. We worked out a rough gentlemen’s agreement, where in exchange for small sundries and chores, I would work on refinishing my vintage and antique wooden boxes as he guided me step by step on how to clean them up, repair them and restore them.”

Assemblage artists have stronger feelings about stuff than other people.  Where others see a bag of old junk, assemblage artists’ hearts speed up, their minds race as they thrill that this is exactly the right object for the sculpture they are working on.

Luanne’s talent is in not only finding these objects, but in creating objects, both the animal figures, artifacts, she calls them, but also the boxes, that have this history imbued into them.  While some artists look for objects with the magic still in them, Luann puts the magic in herself.

Luanne’s advice on her blog to fellow artists is “Do your work. Do your own work. Do what makes you happy. Do what has meaning for you. Do it so people know who you are. Do what you can, until you can do better. Do what you can, until you can do more. Do what you can, until you can do no more.”  Click here to read the rest 

Luanne writes, “As an artist, I choose to affirm the creative force of the universe. In my own small way, I must stand on the side of creativity—to grow, to understand, to move forward in a constructive way, and to act in whatever way I can to honor this force. I can do this globally, by contributing to causes that seek to alleviate the conditions that bring acts of horror like this to the world. I can do this locally, by holding my family and loved ones close, and honoring the creative spirit of all other people.

And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.”

All artwork is copyright Luann Udell.

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