Sculptor Autin Wright stands in the midst of his studio at Grounds For Sculpture. Surrounded by decades of works in a variety of materials — wood, Styrofoam, clay — he points to several sculptures on a nearby table and says “the ones I’m going to show at Princeton are bronze pieces.”
Wright is talking about an Arts Council of Princeton exhibition opening Saturday, March 23.
Titled “Riverside Silos/Shaping Spaces,” it pairs his sculpture with new works by Princeton-based photographer Ricardo Barros, who has a history of photographing the Grounds For Sculpture artists and their work.
Wright’s works, he says, related to Barros’ images of geometric industrial buildings. “He wants something to complement what he’s doing,” Wright says.
That includes work informed by geometry, light, shadow, and space — elements that also engaged Wright before his long relationship with the Seward Johnson Atelier.
That began in 1993 when the young artist arrived as an apprentice. Now, 26 years later, Wright is an established and award-winning artist with work at Grounds For Sculpture and Princeton Hospital. He is also the atelier’s technical supervisor for paint and patina.
Wright’s bronzes that have a finish that suggests wood “are the earliest pieces I cast at the Seward Johnson Atelier,” he says. “The concept was from the earlier pieces I did in Jamaica. I’m originally from Jamaica. I did a lot of wood carving in Jamaica. And I translated the original idea in wood into bronze. If you look at the original wood work there is some similarity.
“The thing about wood is that you are limited. In bronze you have freedom to manipulate the pull and squeeze even more. It gave more freedom. But it was bit more challenging.
“When I came here I used wood as my launching pad, as my original idea. And I brought a different twist with it.”
Wright was born in 1960 in Kingston, the home of approximately one-third of Jamaica’s population, roughly 2,900,000.
“My dad was an upholsterer. My mother was a dress maker,” he says. “In the house there were always scraps of materials, buttons, pins. At an early age I leaned to mend my pants and replace buttons and zippers.
“I worked with my dad sometimes in the summer. He had his own business. It was pretty similar to what my mom was doing; she did it for dress and he’d do it for furniture. He removed the old vinyl on a sofa or chair.
“I grew up not knowing any artists. The only one I knew was my mom — making stuff. But when I was in school I was the go-to guy for art. If someone needed a poster or something they would come to me.”
Wright says the artistry was just there. “As far as I remember I was drawing and painting. I got into sculpting when I went to art school and we had to do basic design. For the first time I was designing in 3-D. It was more technical and perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards (sculpture).”
Wright says the decision to go to art was serendipitous. “I didn’t want to go to art school. I was good at it, but you don’t know exactly what you’re good at it. You take it for granted. It’s not something you think about.”
Others did, however, including a high school teacher who suggested art school despite’s the young artist’s intent on studying science.
“The reason I studied art is that a friend gave me an application and said fill it out,” says Wright. “When I applied to school, I applied to both science and art schools. The art school accepted me. The science school rejected me.”
Then there was a twist. “The art school asked for a portfolio, I said, ‘What is that?’ They said when you come in you have to have a portfolio. If you don’t have that, they said come to the summer program.”
That summer Wright created a portfolio in several weeks, and his art career began.
Looking back, Wright ponders the idea of destiny, “Like you’re destined to do something. You always find yourself on the same path. I didn’t consider myself an artist, but I was in art.”
He says it was the same thing coming to the Johnson Atelier.
“I knew about the atelier,” he says, “across from the arts school we had a U.S. embassy and they had a library. There was Sculpture Magazine on the stands — from the International Sculpture Center (at Grounds For Sculpture) — and there was an ad for an apprenticeship program. I applied. I sent in all the information. I applied just to see. I just did it, but I put it on the back burner. After I graduated from art school I was teaching in high school.”
Meanwhile, he says, his mother and sisters immigrated to Connecticut to live with his aunt, and in 1987 she arranged for him to join them
“I had mixed feeling coming here,” he says.”I was happy. I was in the paper all the time in Jamaica. I was an up-and-coming artist. I was selling my work. I was getting a few awards. And I was teaching and having a great time with the kids.”
Then he had an idea: “I was going to go for years and make a few connections. And I’m still here.”
The path to the “here,” the Johnson Atelier, happened when he was taking various jobs and studying graphic arts.
“I was in the library in Sanford. I was hanging out and reading and browsing around and came to the magazine stand, and there it was again in the Sculpture Magazine, the application. I applied again. They said they accepted me and said, ‘Come on down.’”
While his early years at the atelier where economically tough, he was able to live on the small apprentice stipend, money from various building jobs, an award, an opportunity to fill a position in the paint and patina division, and then a few commissions, including several by atelier founder Seward Johnson.
Talking about his work at the atelier, Wright says, “I’m the middle guy between administration and workers I do the estimations between artist and vendors. “
That includes his work with Seward Johnson. To illustrate how the two artists interact, Wright mentions the popular Marilyn Monroe statue and says, “He comes and talks about colors. What color dress? If he’s not sure I’d have a whole color selection. He’d come and select the color. After we paint it may not be exactly what he wants,” and they begin again.
Other artists he has worked with include Joyce Scott, an American artist of African heritage who was the subject of a recent GFS exhibition; internationally known New Jersey raised artist Kiki Smith; Joel Shapiro, a New York-based sculptor using geometric forms; Tom Otterness, a prolific public art sculptor known for his abstracted and sometimes cartoonish human and animal figures; and Michele Oka Doner, an artist using various media and the creator of more than 40 public and private art installations.
Then there was the time he was involved in another way. “I was also one of the figures in George Segal’s bus stop sculpture” at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers.
But what about Wright’s own artwork? First there is his interest in abstracting figures. Using the metaphor of a clean room, he says he enjoys a room that is “clean and precise and polished” and he has an obsession to “get every single spot out, every bump out, and make it almost perfect.”
Then there are the figures and shapes. Using his GFS artwork “Sleep”—a four-section series featuring an eye and lip — as an example, he says, “I’m trying to tell a story. (The eyes and ears) are elements of design, elements to tell a story. The lips show you feel or if you’re stressed . It is very hard to hide emotions with the eyes and lip. I don’t have to use the full figure. My idea is to break (figures) down to the simplest form and simplest shape. That’s pretty much what I do with all my work.”
He also wants those encountering the work to engage their own sensibilities and ideas. “I believe that the viewer is the artist. I feel like a momma. I get pregnant with an idea and give them a baby. I imagine me birthing a piece, but it doesn’t have to be my friend. The viewer would give it a relationship.”
Sometimes to engage the viewer more he leaves the works unnamed. “A person will be spending hours trying to see what you see, rather than having a relationship with the piece.”
Looking at his works as a whole, he says, “One common thread is sensuality. I spend a lot of time seeing it with my fingers. You can almost feel that in all my work. You want to touch it. That comes from my personality, who I am as a human being. I spend more time seeing with my fingers. It’s all in the touch. It’s part of the process. My process is more tactile than anything else. If it doesn’t feel right, it bothers me. It has to feel right.”
Continuing the thought, he adds, “I’m from the islands. They say we’re very sensual. When I came to America it was different — everything was angular and flat. I worked more organically. It took me a while get used to American work and accept it.”
He says working in different media also reflects his personality. “I think I’m a scientist in way. If I weren’t in art I would be doing experiments,” he says.
Now, gesturing to the space, he adds, “This has become my lab. I create with anything — if I don’t have bronze, I use wood. I gravitate to new material. My earlier work was in cement and wood.”
Yet a constant is his approach to using volume and space. “You have to solve it, you have to make it work. You have to see it in its entirety. It’s all in your head. You start on paper, start in drawing. But when you start to work it is very technical, and that’s why I like it.”
“Wood is my first love,” he says. “You always go back to your first love. It still lingers in the back of your mind. I think wood is very seductive. It already has quality to it. As an artist you enhance it. If you want to go way back wood was the medium of choice. Even religion had wood — trees have ways of communication. Trees have a spirit and a soul. I think I’m just helping keep that alive. I pretty much use what was given to me and respect it and bring out what is already there. So people can see what the possibilities are. To develop some respect to what is given to us.”
A resident of Trenton since his atelier days, Wright says, “I ended up purchasing a house from other atelier artists. Back then almost the entire staff ended up in Trenton.”
And although he is not in a formal relationship, Wright engages with through art. In addition to naming works after his mother, daughters, godsons, friends, and partners, instead of a generic “Untitled” series he also engages family in art making and workshops.
“It’s because of my experimental nature,” he says. “I’m not committed to any one material, same thing in life. I open up to experimenting, working with other materials.”
Riverside Silos/Shaping Spaces, Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Opening Saturday, March 23, with an artist talk, 2 to 3 p.m., and reception, 3 to 5 p.m. On view through May 4. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.