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Ode to Concrete


Leslie Fry. Swell. Stained reinforced concrete. 60” x 22” x 20”
Detail of Swell

As a sculptor who likes using her hands to model organic forms and usually doesn’t have the budget for bronze casting, I find concrete the best choice for making large outdoor sculptures. I don’t love the dust, the backaches or the weight, but I love what it can do.

Concrete is not generally considered a dignified material in the U.S. – it’s mostly associated with utilitarian construction or cheap roadside statuary. Yet the material is so versatile. The Romans invented concrete and built aqueducts and the Pantheon. European and Japanese architects have continued to innovate using concrete in groundbreaking architecture. In Canada, Mark West founded a department at the University of Manitoba researching fabric-formed concrete architectural supports. In 2004, I went to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., to see its exhibition Liquid Stone. It revealed a whole new world of cement products, including a light-transmitting concrete developed in Hungary called Litracon. When I first started working with concrete in the early 1990s, I made a pilgrimage to the Saylor Cement Museum in Coplay, PA. I fell in love with the old kiln towers – monuments to 19th-century American industry, and reminiscent of medieval towers. For me, they were big, beautiful sculptures.

In mid-December last year, I finished four new concrete sculptures, and installed them in my sculpture garden just as winter temperatures began to drop. This post is about the process of creating those pieces. The sculptures were modeled using polymer-modified concrete with fiberglass over steel armatures. As a finish coat, I applied a smoother concrete without fiberglass, followed by sanding and grinding the forms. With past sculptures I’ve enjoyed the stony look of gray concrete, especially amidst green foliage. In this latest work, however, my aim was to render “liquid stone” into soft forms. For the first time, using color seemed right. I applied thin layers of stain in different colors to the final surfaces.

Originally I had planned to make only two sculptures, Pout and Twist. I designed armatures that were welded in steel, and wired a skin of steel lath to the rods. (Cut-up fingers, ouch!) I purposely left the tops of the armatures open so I could feel how the forms should culminate as I was sculpting them. I did have ideas in mind: pod-like shapes melding botanical and anatomical forms. Like finials, the tops would be intricate – not conducive for modeling with uncooperative concrete. So, I planned to model the top forms in clay, then make molds and cast them in concrete to achieve fine detail. For the top of Pout, I imagined a sort of swirling creemee (that’s Vermontese for soft-serve ice cream) shape that would turn into a heart and a brain.

Building up concrete is slow going; it wants to slump, so each layer has to be added after the previous day’s work has hardened (but not cured; best to keep working while the concrete is fresh). That means no social life until the project is done. I started the sculptures in early August and was refining the bottom forms in early November.
Then the election happened. The world had suddenly changed so I needed to finish these sculptures in a very different way. Hourly NPR news reports seemed to align with the chaos and unpredictability of what I was doing in the studio. Though it was not a conscious reaction to the new patriarchal regime-to-come, the tops of Pout and Twist evolved into drooping, melting phallic forms.

I made many “drawings” – mock-ups on top of the sculptures – that I would photograph as black and white. Photos help create quick objectivity while looking at the entire form, and I tried a lot of ideas (only a few are shown below). At one point, I thought the top of Twist might be resolved with a cluster of small sperm/pistil-like shapes that I cast in cloth. Instead, they inspired me to make a different sculpture altogether: Swell. Other experiments with concrete turned into a small sculpture just for fun, Bouquet.

And that’s how things turn out in the studio when you’re in the flow.