‘I like to think I’m a sculptor,” says Gordon Gund. The tone in his voice suggests a mingling of hope and uncertainty.
Gund is sitting at a circular wood table in the second floor of his Gund Investment Corporation office at 14 Nassau Street in downtown Princeton. The building also houses the Foundation Fighting Blindness, an organization founded in 1971 by Gund and his wife of 50 years, Lulie.
Gund is known to many because of his successful business background. He is a director of the boards of the Kellogg Company and Corning Inc. and former majority owner (now a minority owner) of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The Gund family is ranked No. 83 on the 2015 Forbes magazine list of American’s richest families. Gordon and his wife are also known for their philanthropic work through the Gordon and Llura Gund Foundation.
But on this day Gund is talking about his devotion to sculpture: as both an active creator and now a board member for Grounds For Sculpture.
“What does (being a sculptor) mean?” he says, as he picks up “Gie,” a small sculpture evoking the shape of an amphibian and a name referencing both “give” and a capacity to bend or alter in shape under pressure. “I change one sort of shape to another that is pleasing to people and that is fun to do. I do it out of wood and clay, and they’re made into bronze or resin. I didn’t start doing it because I thought I would sell it. I had work over the years that made me comfortable, so I can do it. I did it because I really enjoyed it.”
But that is only part of the story.
“I’ve been blind since 1968 and started sculpting in 1980,” he says as he recounts his experience with retinitis pigmentosa and gives a testimony to the transformative power of art and its ability to expand awareness and being.
“It was wood carving at first,” he says. “I have a summer place in Nantucket. The person who looked after it when we weren’t there was a carver of shore birds. He got me started because he could tell that it was such a visual place and that I was a little frustrated. He thought I could be more of a part of it.
“Then a neighbor of mine here (in Princeton) was a wood carver, David Rogers, the first head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He lived up the road and helped me learn about tools and wood carving. I liked using my hands. I didn’t know it when I started.”
Gund pauses for a moment under the soft afternoon light and says, “I never thought of myself as an artist, just a wood carver. When someone came over and said, ‘Who’s the artist?’ I looked around. Then it got me intrigued in ways I could work with art. And I started thinking that perhaps my wood carvings could be enlarged and changed. I wanted to see if I could make bronzes out of one of my wood sculptures. I have it here.”
Moving by habit from the table to the desk and back he picks up a small shape, one of his “Fluke” figures. The whale tails — natural shapes smoothed and simplified to elegant slightly abstracted forms — serve as a key to his work.
Gund says he began exploring his art more and studied with the area-based Italian trained American sculptor Linda Ogden. The Johnson Atelier-connected artist advised him to investigate the Digital Atelier at Grounds For Sculpture (U.S. 1, January 29, 2014). There Gund found he could have his works digitally scanned and enlarged several times above their original sizes.
“What a resource it has been!” Gund says of the Digital Atelier, mentioning owner/director Jon Lash and artist Fred Morante — calling the latter “my teacher, my professor. He helps me with a lot of the work that I do.” That includes working in clay and transferring it to other mediums at the atelier.
His willingness to yield has yielded results. In addition to his smaller sculptures being represented by the Ann Korologos Gallery in Basat, Colorado (where small works range from $6,500 to $18,000), large versions of his art can be seen at Grounds For Sculpture, Anne D’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cleveland Institute of Art, University Medical Center of Princeton, the Cleveland and Mayo clinics, and in other public and private collections.
“There is usually some kind of personal experience around it,” he says about his work. He then provides a few examples, starting with “Moment,” a C-shaped sculpture of a fish seen in his office’s conference room. “The fish was from a photograph,” he says. “I like fly fishing, and someone pointed out the photograph. My wife described the photograph of a salmon that had been hooked and was leaping out of the water. I was really intrigued about how it could be out of the water. I couldn’t get it out of the photograph. So I went to Nassau Street Seafood (in Princeton) and got a whole salmon, froze it, and shaped it. And I then explored it to see what it was doing. It was inspired by the photograph. I needed help to build the armature (wire frame). That was part of the process. I wrapped it in aluminum. When I got the clay around the end of the tail, the clay got heavy and broke. That’s part of the experience, the learning.”
The “Fluke” sculptures were born from an experience in Nantucket. “There was this whole school of pilot whales that got stuck on the sand bars, and we went down and moved them off. I went out and the whales were talking to each other, and I tried to loosen one and held the tail. I got interested in the ways the whales sounded and interested in that shape — not in the realistic shape, but in the abstraction of joy (they showed in being freed).”
“Any number of things will get me,” he says about inspiration — like listening to seagulls in Nantucket. “I got to thinking of trying to do something as a challenge. (Sounds) tie in with images. It got me interested in the shapes of what was making those sounds. With the whales it was the fact that these creatures could communicate as they could and couldn’t navigate because they were in shallow water. They weren’t able to use their sonar to move out to sea because it was too shallow. They were also confused by the leader not being with them. It was an interesting thing to experience with all the emotions. When they were talking to each other and couldn’t get themselves off alone, it was a moving experience.”
He adds that music also figures into his creative process. “I listen to music while I’m sculpting. It depends on how I’m feeling at the time. It’s really meaningful to have that time. It’s part of being in a different place with the music along with the texture. It’s very absorbing. The whole experience is great. It’s a change for me. It’s a chance to get into something that is different than what I normally do. It’s transformative. It transports me with the music and the touch.”
Gund then talks about the sculpture “Legacy” — on view at Grounds For Sculpture — and demonstrates how sound can lead to something hidden under the surface. “You know how you can hear the ocean in shells? My wife and I were walking on the beach and found two whelk shells that were facing one another. I was interested in doing a work (based on them) and see if you could hear the sound of the sea in it. And I could.”
Yet “sound-ness” was only the beginning. “What moved me was these two things might be related and what they had been through their entire lives and ended up on the vicinity of the beach and unaware. I call the piece ‘Legacy’ because the image is the legacy of the living things — made by a living organism that was no longer alive, something that lived in it for several years, but something that couldn’t see, something that feels. They don’t have eyes.”
Although Gund has been creating art since the 1980s, he unwittingly was prepared for art by his parents. One of six children, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939. His father, George Gund II, was an investor and president and chairman of what at the time was the largest bank in Ohio, Cleveland Trust. He was also an art collector. “We had a lot of art in the house. My father collected a lot of Western American or Native American art. I got used to sculptures and art around the house. I can see them all today. It is so vivid in my memory.”
In addition to growing up among a collection there were artistic experiences. “The Cleveland Museum of Art had classes on Saturday mornings. It stared at age five or something, finger printing and crayons and take a tour and they would ask you to come back and ask you about something you’d seen. That got us all interested in art. My sister, Agnes, was (later) the president of the Museum of Modern Art (in New York City) for 12 years. She’s more involved with abstract art. My brother Graham is an architect involved with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (Art) has been in our family in variety of ways. I did water color painting very well, and I liked photography. It’s all part of seeing visually. But I get to do the same thing with my hands.”
The move from eye to hand came in late 1960s with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease causing retinal degeneration that left him totally blind. It was the same time that he moved his business from New York to Princeton, where Lulie’s sister [Gail, married to Tom Barrows] had moved, and the Gunds found a community in which to raise their two sons.
One way the Harvard-educated Navy veteran faced his condition was by using his business background and resources. “When I was losing my sight there was nothing I could turn to, very little research, so after my sight went, my wife and I agreed to do what we could do to change that.”
That included joining with other blindness research organizations to create a network of 40 chapters around the world raising money for individuals and foundations — including matching donations (as with the current campaign where the Gunds will match qualifying donations $25,000 or more). The result, he says, is advancement with various techniques, including gene replacement therapy and other breakthroughs that he says have restored sight in more than 100 individuals.
Currently he is looking for the continuation of his efforts. “The hope is that we’re getting so many people involved, young people, who can get it over the finish line. We went into business to go out of business, to find a cure.”
Yet using his early experiences with art has been a way of connecting him with the world. “I like being outside. I guess I take it indoors and have fun.”
The sculptor then mentions his aesthetic approach and process. “The thing I look for is emotion or motion. I want to have feeling or motion to stimulate something unique. I want it to be appealing visually, but the complete understanding only happens when you touch it. And then you know what I was trying to do.
“I also say what I do is teamwork. Fred (Morante) is one of my mentors. My wife is terrific. And fortunately Peter Shearn, he’s been with me 30 years. When I go to a foundry or someone making a mold, where I go to advance work, he’s with me. He has a good eye and great suggestions. He’s a photographer and a very good one. I just don’t go off on an island by myself.”
Gund says the process often takes a good deal of time. “With a form it takes me time to get there. I don’t put too much detail in things and I don’t want to. I like the forms and shapes and smoothness. I’ll check it and check it again.”
His process also involves the selection of media, from the less forgiving wood to the more yielding clay, resin, wax, and plaster works that he can have computer scanned at the Digital Atelier to create larger or multiple pieces in other media, including bronze.
“They have a lot of experience,” says Gund about the atelier team. “Like that salmon (sculpture), I spent several wonderful hours on how to determine the exact right position to hold the fish. The number of potentials is infinite, but it is very important. One little move in a different way and it would be a different piece. That’s just an example in the team work.”
Gund says he tests all final products by hand “over and over” to get the texture right, one that sensuously comes alive under the fingers, like satiny cool skin. “When there is a larger version, I’ll go over it and find things, though you can’t see them.” He says that sculptors who have worked with him now close their eyes and feel sculptures to find imperfections.
The artist says his early experiences with art have provided him with a visual memory that helps him combine image with feeling. “If I’m early in (the creation) and have the form in my mind, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and think about it. I see it inside my head.”
Color also figures into his work. “The clay I use doesn’t have color. But I think of color all the time. When I work on a piece, it has a color to me,” he says.
Yet it is the hand that is important, and Gund has had the opportunity to test it on other sculptures, sometimes through his sister who would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art. There, he says, “on special days you can put gloves on and feel the work. That really brings it home to me. When I lost my sight I thought I lost the ability to appreciate art, but it is quite special to feel what an artist did.”
He adds Grounds For Sculpture’s open encouragement of visitors to touch many of the sculptures was something that appeals to him, and when the leaders at the Grounds “were beginning the process of changing it from an individual’s creation to something that would live on, they asked me to help with that. I had the business sense from being on boards, and my wife and I stared a foundation, so I knew how.”
His involvement is also to help maintain something life enhancing, something he discovered by creating his own sculptures. “If it feels like life,” he says, “and there is a flow that I’m looking for, sculpture really sings.”