Sculptor meets with studentsPublished 10:38pm Wednesday, May 5, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Union High School students Wednesday afternoon learned why Dance of Creation appears to be underwater, why Tuck Langland liked teaching 24/7 and the story behind On With Life.
On with Life will be installed Friday and dedicated at noon Monday outside the new Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital Emergency Department as Dowagiac’s 12th public artwork, the third by Langland and the gift of the Burling family.
Langland, of Granger, Ind., will be presenting a free public slide lecture Monday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the theater in the Dale A. Lyons Building at Southwestern Michigan College for the visual arts portion of the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival.
“You’ve got an honest to God artist in front of you,” Langland began after teacher Rich Frantz introduced him. “Every day, in the studio, turning over large sums of money, which is important to being a professional artist, and making pieces that go around the country.”
Langland attempted to share with students “how I got to this point from where I was,” growing up in St. Paul, Minn., and attending the University of Minnesota – the same Big 10 school which Dowagiac valedictorian Cassandra Stone, will be attending.
When it was time for high school, most attended gigantic St. Paul Central, which tended to “swallow up” students.
That was in 1953, eight years after World War II ended.
Fathers lugged home war trophies of Japanese flags and swords and German rifles and helmets.
“We, as kids, were really into that stuff,” he recalled. “It was kind of exciting to be a kid with big-deal war on – and a war without any doubts. Not like the present war, where the Islamists killed 3,000 of our people.
“We showed them,” he said. “We went over there and killed 6,000 of our own.”
A few blocks from where he lived was the St. Paul Academy, a boys prep school with military uniforms and marching with guns.
“It prepared kids to go to fancy eastern colleges and become stockbrokers, bankers and lawyers,” Langland said.
But Langland’s father was a newspaper reporter and “we couldn’t afford it,” though he qualified with scholarships.
The only arts was the German teacher’s glee club, where they sang opera.
Langland compares the singing he still does today – the White House in December and a week in London in August at Westminster Abbey as the bullet fired from a rifle in his youth.
“A small move here has a large result downstream. A small move now, when you’re in high school, can affect you the rest of your life. Think about that. When you’re given opportunities to try things, see whether or not that might have an effect on you. If you try something new and don’t like it, nothing wasted, nothing lost. Since we had no art at all, I’d never heard about sculpture or Michelangelo or what the Parthenon was.”
While his classmates went off to Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton, Langland attended the University of Minnesota. He enrolled in his first sculpture class as a junior and from that moment on considered himself a sculptor.
Langland spent another three years completing a postgraduate degree and needed a job teaching college.
“I couldn’t find a job in this country, so my wife (Janice) and I sailed to England. I spent three years teaching at English colleges” and another four in Texas. When their daughter turned 5, they moved back north and he joined Indiana University South Bend. He taught at IUSB for 32 years, retiring seven years ago to “a plain fulltime sculptor.”
“The reason college teaching is such a great choice is I wanted to be a sculptor and have a living,” he said. “When you’re a college professor you work for that college 24/7 – 24 hours a week, seven months of the year. My schedule of three days a week – two days of teaching and a day of meetings – gave me time to make sculpture. You’re required to make sculpture. That’s part of the job. They want to hire someone who does what they teach.”
Langland scorns the old saying, “Those who can do, those who cannot, teaches.”
Maybe out of deference to his dad he leaves off the last line, “Those who can’t teach write about it.”
“That’s rubbish,” he said. “Some of the greatest artists, writers, dancers, composers, engineers, doctors, etc., are also teachers. When you go to med school and take a course in heart surgery, you’re taught by a heart surgeon who was in surgery this morning and he’ll come in this afternoon and talk to you about it. Don’t ever fall for that trap that if they’re a teacher they can’t do it.”
Langland talked about commissions.
“Sometimes they know exactly what they want,” like the Mayo Brothers in Minnesota, “sometimes they have no idea – and I have to be creative, but they pay for it ahead of time.
“Maybe you’ve heard from mom and dad, ‘Being an artist or musician is nice, but you can’t earn a living at it.’ I’ve got friends who are sculptors who turn over $1 million a year. Quite a few of them. That’s the top tier. You can make huge money, but not everyone does. For everyone who makes lots of money playing rock and roll, there are hundreds who play in garage bands. But there are good livings to be made in the arts.”
He grabs a book off the shelf of the media center to illustrate his point.
“You can’t find a piece of printed paper that doesn’t have graphic design connected to it.”
Or, watch a movie and see hundreds of credits scroll by down to every last scene painter.
“Have you ever been to the mall?” he chuckles. “You cannot find an item for sale that did not have an artist attached to the design, packaging and marketing, and there are millions of items for sale in a mall. There are loads of jobs for artists. What’s a ‘real job?’ Working as an accountant to make money for someone else? A lot of people live lives of quiet desperation. All I’m saying is there’s a lot of fun to be had in this life and you get one go-around, so you might as well do something that turns you on and have some fun.”
Langland’s first memory of the Dogwood Festival is flying back to South Bend on the same plane which brought Kurt Vonnegut to Dowagiac in 1992.
Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike came the second year “and these are major, major people,” Langland said. “I’ve heard that if you’re a writer and you haven’t been invited to Dowagiac, you’re not on the A list yet.”
Thelda Mathews, who works as a sculpture liaison for K&M Machine-Fabricating in Cassopolis, decided it would be interesting to place artworks in Dowagiac as part of the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival Visual Arts Committee, which she chairs.
“There’s not a small town in this country this size that has 12 public sculptures by nationally-known artists,” he said. “This town is streets ahead of everybody else in that regard. You don’t want to take it for granted because this is pretty amazing stuff. She went around town finding people with three characteristics. That they be lifelong residents who love their town – and there are a lot of those. Second, they have accumulated some money in their life. Third, they’re nearing the end of their lives. Sculpture will beautify the town and be there for centuries. It’s turned Dowagiac around. You should have seen Dowagiac in the ’50s and ’60s with those aluminum facades. It was dead with nothing much happening. All of a sudden it stirred to life, with the Dogwood Festival bringing celebrity artists, dancers, musicians. Placing these sculptures around town, the town’s turned around. One woman, Thelda. She’s an example of what one person can do. And they’re not done yet. I know there’s another in the pipeline. The town is really cranking with awareness of the arts.”
Langland said On with Life celebrates an aunt with a positive zest for life.
Dealt a diagnosis that her life would be cut short, she didn’t go home and curl up in the fetal position with her thumb in her mouth, she strides off smiling, her hand in the air and a scarf over her shoulders.
“We’ve all been given that piece of news,” he said. “From the moment you’re born you have a death sentence. We have a finite time to live. You don’t know how long it is, but we’re not going to make it out of here alive, so live life, have a great time and try not to hurt too many people and to leave the world a better place.”
Inspiration for Dance of Creation came from his 1982 seven-week trip to India and exposure to Hinduism coupled with his thinking about the “seam in the wheel” where the circle of life comes back on itself and “death becomes life.”
“I was just down in Florida,” he said, “and walked through a place called Corkscrew Swamp, which is huge, with a 2 1/2-mile boardwalk. Lots of old trees have fallen,” but new ones poke up in the shallow water.
“Flies make new life out of old life. When a creature dies, flies get on it, eat it and lay eggs in it, and new life comes out of old life. That’s the seam in the circle of life. The God of Destruction dances in a ring of fire at the end of existence. It’s a violent dance at the end of time. I thought to myself, What comes after destruction? New life springs from it, so I created Dance of Creation. Instead of male, it’s female. Instead of fire, she’s under water. That’s why her hair flows out. That’s why she’s up lightly on her toes. Hers is a gentle dance. Everything is the opposite because opposites are often necessary to complete a whole thing.”
Students wanted to know why Tuck sculpts women 75 percent of the time.
“There’s a simple answer,” he said. “I’m a man. I like women. I think women are beautiful. Dancers because sculpture is static. It’s like an actor in a play who can’t move or speak, but can still communicate a great deal with gestures. Dancers specialize in communicating by movement.”
Langland mentions Jean Auel’s book, “Clan of the Cave Bear,” about a Cro-Magnon girl orphaned in a landslide and adopted by Neanderthals who communicate in sign language not unlike dance. Words and dance narrated hunts. “Things get passed down orally. Who wrote Cinderella? Little Red Riding Hood? It isn’t just there. It came from somewhere.”
Asked if he would change anything about his sculptures, Langland replies, “There’s no such thing as bowling a perfect game” in his world. “Every sculpture can be made better. A good friend of mine says, ‘Amateurs never fail and professionals never succeed.’ Michelangelo, maybe the greatest artist who ever lived, shoveled drawings into the fire because he didn’t want people to know how hard he struggled. In the Sistine Chapel, he drew the big toe three times, not because he knew cameras would later be able to get up there and look at it, not because God would see it, but because he could see it, it had to be right. He died at 89. At 88 he said, ‘What a pity. I’m only now beginning to understand sculpture.’ ”
Students also asked him about making realistic figures instead of abstract works.
He replicated in bronze a gentleman farmer who watches over his family graveyard on Redfield Road.
He likes Dance of Creation enough to rebuild its mold.
He’s also fond of his big violin in front of the Morris Civic Auditorium in South Bend, Ind.
“I like the next one best,” he related.
“If you open a door to a new experience,” he said, “that doesn’t mean you need to close the door behind you. You now have two experiences instead of one – the traditional figurative and the more avant garde abstract art. Now, art is moving away from having physical content at all.
“I have a new person standing in my studio and I can make them angry or happy or ugly. Another reason I think it’s important we make images of ourselves is because we never get tired of looking at ourselves. A house without a mirror would be a funny place. If the human race finally chokes on its own garbage and dies out, and the last human on earth creates the last tombstone, it’s not going to be an abstraction. It’s going to be a human face because that’s who we are. We respond to each other as humans. There will come a day when you pop another life into the world. You’ll begin to realize that you’re little and life’s big and the paradox of having children is that a baby is utterly helpless, yet absolutely powerful. One squeak and you’re there. It has total command over your life. I used to make abstract art, but I actually thought it was too easy. Humans are a lot tougher. What I don’t care for is to say, ‘I don’t like that kind of art.’ I’ll look at all art.”
Monday night he’ll talk more about how he works in bronze, which starts with a small piece in oil-based clay.
When he likes it, he makes a mold and casts it in rigid plastic and ships it to a foundry in Oklahoma, where it’s scanned by laser and cut in foam pieces in any size Langland wants.
Langland did a pair of pieces 12 feet tall for the Kansas City Reserve Bank. The same information he started on at 30 inches was then transmitted to California by e-mail for what turned out to 200 eight-inch figures.
Langland’s two daughters did not pursue art careers.
His older daughter, an immigration attorney, lives in Bellingham, Wash.
His younger daughter is a professor of Latin American history at the University of California, Davis.
“Her study of history is from the 1960s and ’70s,” he said. “This kills my wife and I. That’s not history. That’s our youth. Student unrest in Brazil during the military crackdown. We don’t know much about South America. In the ’60s soldiers marched into Parliament in Brazil and said, ‘We’re shutting you down. Everyone out.’ “