publication of the International Sculpture Center
Time for Second: A Conversation with Patricia A. Renick
by Laura H. Chapman
to Contents page>
Stainless steel, 11 x 8 x 8 ft.
Patricia A. Renick,
the International Sculpture Centers 2003 Outstanding Sculpture Educator
Award recipient, was born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1932 and taught at
the University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Architecture and Art
for 31 years. As a sculptor, Renicks strength lies in her ability
to fuse, into a single form, expressive meanings that can be discerned
at different levels of artistic and conceptual depth. Her work is sensuous,
seductive, superbly crafted, and informed by metaphoric thinking. Like
many talented women of her generation, Renick was encouraged to become
an art teacher. The prospect of becoming a real artist did
not unfold until she was 40. She completed an MFA in printmaking while
also taking sculpture courses at Ohio State University. Her thesis show
(1969) included etchings and silk screens of faces printed on silk, then
laminated over mask-like forms and incorporated into wonderfully weird
can be traced in three decade-long intervals. Beginning with her first
solo show in 1970, she exhibited in numerous invitationals, including
a breakthrough exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Before the end
of the decade, she was awarded two other solo museum exhibitions. For
each, she created what have become signature works, monumental
in scale and biomechanical in character. In the 1980s, Renick concentrated
on two personal series of works Life Boats and the more intimate and quasi-autobiographical
2068 Series. She also initiated and directed the landmark National Sculpture
Conference: Works by Women (1987), which brought together 1,200 participants
(Sculpture September/November 1987). Since the 1990s, and continuing to
the present, Renick has created abstract works that appeal to the eye
and trigger subtle kinesthetic responses.
Laura H. Chapman:
Your MFA show was witty, but it also had an underbelly of concern about
human relationships and values in American society. How did these directions
emerge in your work?
Patricia A. Renick:
Ive often had two parallel lines of creative work. One is playful
and humorous, especially in drawing and sometimes in sculpture. At the
same time, Ive had enough experience to recognize issues in my own
life and in the larger world. My work moves in both directions, and sometimes
the two come together in unexpected ways. My serious side is concerned
with relationships: the past and the present, inner feelings and outer
appearances, and the thin line between having control and being controlled.
Perhaps because I came to art relatively late in life, and cherish the
freedoms it offers, Im most frightened by power in the hands of
people who seem to thrive on tearing the wings off dreams.
Have you felt that kind of destructive arrogance?
Fiberglass and salvaged OH-6A Cayuse helicopter, 13 x 10 x 30 ft.
Yes, more than once. But over the years, Ive learned to take it
as a challenge. When someone says, You cant do that,
Im inclined to say, Oh yes I can. You risk failing,
but you also expand your horizons of possibility. Sometimes youre
successful, against the odds. Heres an example. I wanted to get
an MFA in sculpture, but when I sought admission to the program, I was
told: Complete an undergraduate degree in sculpture, then we might
consider you. That arbitrary judgment stunned me, and the chair
of printmaking said: Do your MFA with me and create as much sculpture
as you want. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I didnt
have to worry about what sculpture is supposed to be.
How did you prepare for your solo show at the Cincinnati Art Museum
I had done a maquette that combined a Volkswagen and a Stegosaurus. Overall,
the body forms are similar. At about the same time, there was talk of
a major gasoline shortage. The maquette allowed me to connect the possible
obsolescence of automobiles (from lack of fuel) with extinction (dinosaurs
and their fossil remains as fuel sources).
You decided to take an unpaid leave from the university and put all
your efforts into one work. That was pretty risky. Did you ever question
the wisdom in doing that?
Not really. Once I decided what I wanted to do, there wasnt time
to have second thoughts. I didnt have a studio, so I improvised
under a tent attached to the garage at my house. I named the project Stegowagenvolkssaurus.
In a literal translation, it is shingle-covered-car-peoples-lizard.
I started in the
spring of 1973. I knew the organic parts of the dinosaur would be in fiberglass.
I wanted the car to be a real VW. I managed to get a lot of donations:
a gutted VW from a dealer, Styrofoam, and automotive modeling clay. I
had to heat the clay to 135 degrees (Fahrenheit). I did this in my kitchen.
I moved several thousand pounds of clay, in roasting pans, from the kitchen
to the tent. I improvised with tools such as kitchen graters, until some
unexpected help came from an experienced automotive modeler.
did that happen?
A specialist from Chavant clay, Ron Martin, learned of the project. He
was so curious he flew in from Detroit. He brought all of his handmade
tools. He spent two days teaching me tricks of the trade, how to plan
release lines for the molds, and the like. By late fall, I had to rent
heaters to work under the tent. My luck was holding up, but the tent wasnt.
I finished the clay work and brought in professionals to help with the
molds. By the time the molds were cleaned, it was snowing, so I moved
the project to a donated fabrication shop. Meanwhile, museum staff discovered
that no entrance was large enough for the sculpture. I had to re-engineer
the nearly completed work. It was fully installed about one hour before
the show opened.
Stego was shown on a low platform, with new chrome parts on the car,
silvered windows, an automotive finish, and a plaque like you might see
in a natural history museum.
I wanted viewers to enter a space that resonated as a natural history
museum. I wanted them to feel as if they were seeing an unknown but plausible
species. The platform and plaque identifying the species as Stegowagenvolkssaurus
were part of the concept. The presentation implied that other variations
of the creature might have evolved from some ancestral prototype. The
dark gray room added an aura of mystery, surprise, and discovery. The
music was synthetic, more like a barely audible soundscape, with very
muted honks from car horns and plaintive roars of large animals, as if
heard from a great distance in time.
Stego was a hit with the public and with critics. Images of it have
been reproduced worldwide. It became a signature piece. What happened
Fiberglass, wood chair, and plastic maquette, 5 x 2.5 x 2.5 ft.
It was shown again, in 1975, at the Sculpture for a New Era
exhibition, sponsored by Works of Art in Public Places and the National
Endowment for the Arts. Following that show in Chicago, it was left disassembled
for several weeks in the lobby of a federal building. People didnt
know what it was, jumped on parts, and who knows what else. It was really
damaged. Only the threat of a lawsuit returned the work, along with a
check for damages. The parts are still in storage, but in serious disrepair.
I doubt it will ever be resurrected.
Between 1974 and 1976, you created a second monumental sculpture, Triceracopter.
I had an idea for a sculpture bearing on the aftermath of the Vietnam
War. Although I didnt have a commission or promise of a show, I
thought the idea might be timely for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. I did
not see the work as a celebration, but as a cautionary tale, an expression
of hope for the end of war. War is a dichotomy. It seduces the dream-self
through heroic fantasy while threatening the physical self with extinction.
Second, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do another large work.
I didnt want to be one of those rocking chair people on the front
porch of the future, saddened by what might have been. I had a check for
damages from the earlier work and decided to go ahead with the project.
has a really menacing presence. It is momentarily frozen, passive, but
looks like a formidable killing machine. What is the iconography?
I was drawn to the triceratops as a formthe horns, huge head, and
massive rill. Also, it had a highly developed defense system. It was one
of the last dinosaurs to become extinct. The helicopter also has a special
history. It is a U.S. Army OH-6A Cayuse. In the Vietnam War, the Cayuse
often served as a weapon of attack, drawing enemy fire at night. The tracers
were like bait, providing jet fighters with a target to hit. I wanted
people to sense the combined force of biological and technological weaponry.
The visual metaphor may be strange, but it seemed to resonate with people
on both sides of the ideological struggles about that war. It took over
a year to get the project going, but people were willing to help. The
Army shipped the helicopter cross-country. It was damaged, so I had to
reconstruct the airframe in fiberglass. I got some missing parts from
the National Guard. I found a loft where the owner only charged me for
Studio space matters. How did you end up in the wonderful studio you
For about 12 years, I managed to keep the studio where I created Triceracopter.
When that building was sold, the new owner asked for impossible rent.
At about the same time, several other artists were looking for space.
In 1987, three of us, all women, pooled our resources. We bought a building
with adjacent lots for parking. Each of us has a floor. Since I work in
sculpture, I got the first floor. Later, I broke through a wall, added
double doors, a deck, and created an enclosed landscaped area. I use it
as a sculpture garden and social space. My MFA seminar students met here,
and all classes had an end-of year potluck including artists from the
Your work shifted during the 1980s. Why?
Boats About Life, 197880.
Wood and mixed media, installation view.
I knew there was more out there for me. I loved the intensity and physicality
of work on a large scale. I had proven to myself that I was capable of
doing that. But sometimes I felt like a Don Quixote: going into battle,
armed with bent lances, perched precariously on wooden stilts, twirling
hoola hoops, whistling Impossible Dream. In the 1980s, my
work became more personal. I worked with boats. Theyre aesthetically
compelling forms that allowed me to explore more subtle metaphors. The
first series I called Life Boats. They are boats about life and voyages
during a life span. Procedurally, its easy to start making boats
by creating a centerline, building out the ribs, adding the sides, and
playing with closed or open forms. When the boats are suspended from the
ceiling with monofilament line, they appear to be free-floating, levitating.
The rib-like structures and hulls create beautiful shadows on the floor.
They allude to parent/child relationships, freedom and restraint, innocence
and loss of innocence. For example, I created one boat in white pine.
The form, material, and new oarlocks suggest it is virginal, untried.
Another, near it, is no virgin. The boat form is covered with black leather.
It has a deck of black rubber with a black mink shape, vagina-like, in
the middle. I stretched garters from the prow to the stern. Heres
another example. A large mother boat cradles a smaller child boat inside.
The small boat is held in place, as if in a womb. Springs gently restrain
it, but give it some freedom of movement. In a variant, the small boat
is caged within the large boat by metal meshing. And it rests on spikes
that prevent movement. The stern of the boat is solid wood, with a hinged
door inserted in it, but the door has a padlock on it.
In two of the boats, the deck is replaced with a prone human figure.
A self-portrait, similar to a death mask appears in another. What is this
two boats youre talking about were very personal, but they also
put me in a position to undertake the most important work Ive done
so far. Both works helped me get started on the 2068 Serieseight
boats including a nude female form, somewhat androgynous, uniformly gray,
and made from fiberglass. Its the same figure in each boat. Most
appear to be strapped into the boat.
What does 2068 refer to?
The works capture various states of being I experienced while
I was in a hospital in the late 1950s. 2068 was my hospital case number.
The episode began when I was misdiagnosed, unnecessarily hospitalized,
and given shock treatments. I had been taking a common drug for weight
loss. My regular physician gave me an unlimited prescription for dextroamphetamine
sulfate, later to be known as speed. I went bonkers, with
symptoms that resembled schizophrenia. The whole episode ended 13 months
later. With proper diagnosis and treatment, I could have recovered in
six weeks, and shock treatments were totally unnecessary. But, I was in
a posh private hospital, owned by the doctors. They managed to keep me
there, in a state of psychological dependency on them.
The boat is relevant
to the location of the hospital, near a river. At the same time, I wanted
to obstruct any literal representation of the experience. The figures
have life-like detail and scale, but an unreal appearance. They have a
certain brittleness of edge and details from the body cast, but with a
polished sheen, unlike skin. The deck is just wide and just long enough
to support the figure with the head in the prow and feet near the stern.
The faces are like death masks, without expression, eyes closed. Only
a few elements have some basis in factthe electro-shock machine,
medical mask, and air wing (tube for air).
Is the series a narrative?
There is a narrative. It comes from serial relationships among the eight
forms. These allude to states of mind and sensations of not being in control
of who you are. If you were fully conscious, youd know what was
happening. Your identity would be intact. In order to suggest different
states of mind or identities, I created subtle shifts in the body language
of the figures. I also varied other details like the position of the straps,
the presence or absence of chambers. And each figure is animated in some
way, either from external or internal forces, as if yielding to or resisting
them. When you see them in an installation, theyre suspended in
space, arranged in a semi-circle and lighted. As a single unit, the boats
and their shadows resemble a ghostly flotilla. They seem to be drawn together
by an unseen current.
The works are not
therapeutic in any conventional sense. I created them many years after
the experience. At the same time, trauma has a way of altering your perception
of your self. And, when your art is informed by personal experience, it
has some potential for communicating what it means to be human. All of
us have experiences that wed like to deny or hide. Thats nearly
universal. I would not want to endure what I went through again, but it
is part of my life, and I dont want to erase it. I am a different
person than I might have been without that experience.
Are the 2068 Series and Susans related?
In Susans, I re-developed the face in the 2068 Series, but it is
now a stand-alone work on a pedestal. There are 12 differently oriented
portraits of the same person in a single bust-like form. I wanted it to
be a serene presence, as if the mind were in repose but gathering unseen
impressions from multiple vantage points, like a dream.
People who attended the national conference for women sculptors that
you organized are still talking about it.
title, National Sculpture Conference: Works by Women, drew
lots of people. I thought the time was right for women sculptors to come
together and overcome their sense of isolation. It was time to demonstrate
that there were many of us working in significant ways. I wanted the conference
to focus on excellence, so the art wasnt overwhelmed by politics.
It took time to plan. Its not everyday that you expect 500 people
to show up and you have about 1,200 instead. Fortunately, there were lots
of volunteers. I worked it out so we could have 23 concurrent exhibitions.
We didnt have money to pay speakers, but we did get some support
for other expenses from the Ohio Arts Council, Kentucky Foundation for
Women, and the university.
Who came and why?
We had sculptors from almost every state and several foreign countries.
There were 75 lectures and panel presentations. In the opening session,
we honored Louise Bourgeois, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Catlett, Clyde Connell,
Dorothy Dehner, Claire Falkenstein, Sue Fuller, Louise Nevelson, and Claire
Zeisler. Of these, only Nevelson and Bourgeois were not present. A student
greeted the honorees at the airport, wearing a top hat, presenting roses
and champagne. We gave them citations, silver medals (commissioned), and
devoted major sessions to their work. In addition to the panel sessions
by sculptors, we had continuous slide shows, as well as lectures and panels
with art historians, critics, museum and gallery directors. Technical
experts were availableon materials and techniques, legal issues,
health hazards, commissions. We set up a networking room,
so people with similar interests could find each other, dine together,
and list their names in directories for post-conference exchange. We ended
the conference with a session from The Guerrilla Girls. They offered statistics
on the entry of women into mainstream shows. The statistics were dismal,
but things have improved. We didnt need a follow-up conference.
What about the 90s?
After the boat series and conference, I was ready for a change of pace
and direction. I created a number of small works in metal, some with flat
planes covered with witty drawings. On others, I integrated colorful collage-like
elements. I made these from acrylic paint, dried on plastic, then released
and segmented. These were laminated onto painted metal. I was also drawn
to the elegance of geometric and curvilinear forms, exploring these in
sculptures, drawings, prints, and paintings with vibrant colors. You could
say I was re-inventing what I wanted to do.
Are you saying that formalism now has a definite place in your work?
and its always been there in some degree. As an undergraduate, I
was trained in the Bauhaus tradition and developed a taste or affinity
for the geometricwhether serene or playful. Im not dogmatic
about that kind of aesthetic, but it feels right at this time of my life.
I can work at things without angst. I enjoy the puzzles in a process where
you have to make the most from just a few, very distinct visual elements:
line, shape, space, form, sometimes color.
Do you approach this work with a mathematical mind?
Fiberglass and mixed media, installation view.
No. Everything is intuitive. I have two ways of working. When I develop
maquettes, I use index cards. I think of the cards as flat sheets of metal
that can be bent into forms and combined in different ways. I also have
a fairly large stock of steel and stainless steelrods, sheets, circles,
and triangles. These are for welded pieces. I work with steel directly.
I establish one plane and then envision how others can be developed from
it. Its manageable and mentally intriguing. Thats important
because Im getting a bit arthritic and dont have as much strength
as I used to. I have a welder and dear friend, James Clark, who is helping
What happens to the maquettes?
I rely on a professional fabricator. So far, the major work is 30-Module
Sphere, in stainless steel. Cincinnati officials invited me to create
a work for a new traffic island only one block from my studio. I agreed
to do it, but it turned out that there was no money. The city officials
were embarrassed, but they put me in
touch with a potential patron. With his help and donations from several
businesses, I did get the work fabricated. It was shown at Pier Walk,
then returned and installed in Cincinnati. It was a win-win, except for
the fact that I received no commission.
studio is filled with sculptures, some of them placed with paintings.
Are you planning a show?
Some of this work will be offered in a silent auction, a benefit in October
for students and young sculptors. I created the stainless Ribbon Series
several years ago. I had just bought a metal roll and tried it out with
eccentric shapes. Many are spiral-like. I painted the visible interiors
with gradations of luscious automotive paint. The geometric paintings
echo those colors, but are subdued. I see the sculptures and paintings
as ensembles, displayed together. So far, there are 13 works in the new
Vertical Series. A few have flower-like motifs, but most are geometric.
They make wonderful shadowsduplicate themselves when theyre
placed near a wall. Only a few are symmetrical. I like the balancing acts
in asymmetrydeciding on intervals, placements, and so on.
Over the years, you taught every fine arts student at the university
and mentored many artists. You have served on the boards of arts institutions.
I hear people refer to you as Mother Art. Are these activities
relevant to your work in sculpture?
Longevity gives you perspective. I care deeply about teaching. At the
same time, these people-centered activities are not the same as creating.
When youre being creative, youre in that zone where you dont
know what time of day it is. With people, I have enough credibility as
a sculptor to speak on behalf of other artists. I do that, and I learn
a lot. Im energized by dialogue with students, other artists, people
who want to learn more.
Whats ahead, beyond this body of work?
I've been awarded a commission for a monumental sculpture at Proctor and
Gamble's New Millennium Research and Development Center. It will be at
the outside entrance, and in stainless steel. I am sure that my best work
is still ahead of me.
Laura H. Chapman
is a consultant and writer on art education based in Cincinnati, Ohio.