Alvin Sher on sculpting a dream life

“Premium Mobile” by Alvin Sher
“Premium Mobile” by Alvin Sher

It's not easy to follow your passion and make a living doing so, but sculptor Alvin Sher seems to have figured out the formula.

For the past 25 years, inspired by travels around the globe, Sher has created both large and small-scale works that use imaginary architectural elements as a vehicle to explore matters mythic and scientific.

He has presented 25 solo shows and his works have been included in more than 200 exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. His outdoor public sculptures are fixtures on the grounds of local venues including New London's Lyman Allyn Museum, the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton and Temple Emanu-El in Waterford.

Sher received a BFA in sculpture from Philadelphia College of Art and an MFA in sculpture from Indiana University. He is a recipient of a Fulbright Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Award. He also has directed the Great Lakes Colleges Association's New York Arts Program.

Sher resides in Niantic with his wife Patricia Sher, a fabric and fiber artist, and their teenage son. He talked about his work in a recent Daybreak interview.

Q. How did this concept of using imaginary architectural elements in your work develop?

A. Having gone to Europe right out of graduate school and seeing ancient structures, cave paintings, I was fascinated with that world. My sculptures were figurative from life-size models up until then. I was looking for further development. I saw these ancient places in Ireland, England, North Africa-I traveled a lot, for months at a time. I started to make some figures that were inside of structures like the stone structures I saw in (my travels). I then found myself just making structures-the figures disappeared. I traveled to India, Africa, Japan, Central America, to see these works. I've photographed, drawn, studied in hundreds of places. I'm moved by these domes, columns, ruins, sundials. I've tried to speak that language with my own imagination. I've had the good fortune to make some very large pieces-they may not be temples, but they're my temples.

Q. Where did you grow up? Why did you become a sculptor?

A. I grew up in Philadelphia. I was always a classroom artist, but nobody took art as a serious occupation then. I had some engineering training, some technical skills, and I thought maybe I could put those together at art school. Never having made a sculpture before, I fell in love with sculpture. When it came to declaring a major, I made it sculpture.

I liked the fact that it was so tangible, in my hands-that I didn't go from a brush to a piece of paper or from a camera to an object I was photographing. I always liked making things with my hands.

Q. Can you talk about your art being metaphors for human curiosity?

A. Ancient peoples were trying to figure out why are these things in the sky moving around? And also, subsequent societies came along and built on the same spots over and over; I'm interested in those kinds of things. The mystery of it and the great accomplishments with limited technology-and just the desire to make something special in that place.

Q. Explain how you use ancient materials and techniques such as stone cutting, and traditional bronze and iron casting, as well as modern technologies like inert gas welding, vaporization casting, plasma metal cutting and computer imaging.

A. It gives me another way to pursue making these castings. Computers are handy for expediting large pieces. I use the computer like an electronic drawing pad to visualize ideas and view them from a multiplicity of angles. All these peoples used the best technology they had and I'm using the best technology I have. Artists have always sought out some technology that would help them express themselves.

(That said) rapid prototypes come out too perfect. Some things (about modern technology) speak to me and other things don't. I like as much as possible to show my hand in my work-I don't try to finish (a piece) to the extent that you can't see any of that. I like people to touch my sculpture, and see as much as possible how I made it.

Q. Speaking of showing your hand in your work, why does the hand appear in so many of your pieces?

A. At some point, I was cutting Styrofoam to glue together to make a sculpture. I was holding a big piece of Styrofoam down to draw something, and then I drew around my hand because it looked interesting, and I cut it out and incorporated it into one of my sculptures.

There's a lot of meaning for ancient people in the hand. I was thinking about the meanings and how I like to have my hand in making (art) and want it exposed. It adds a certain richness, something organic to something that could be too mechanical. It's my signature.

Q. What brought you to Niantic?

A. While I was teaching at Hobart College in upstate New York (after graduate school) I ran into some artists who, by happenstance, lived in Connecticut. I spent a couple summers in New London-an artist friend invited me who had a house and studio, and I helped him build a foundry. It was a free place to stay for a few months and work on my own (pieces). I liked it up here. I liked the climate; I met a lot of artists. I started looking for a place and found a cottage with a big lot in Niantic. I built a big studio on the property.

I had the cottage in Connecticut and a loft in New York City at the same time. For 20-plus years, I showed in New York (where I also) directed an apprenticeship program for students in the arts, who came from all over the county. A rich part of teaching (for me) was getting students out into the real world. It was an exciting time in New York in the '70s and '80s. Five years ago, I retired here full-time.

Q. Now that you're "retired," how do you spend your days?

A. Doing art full time. I also do volunteer work, I'm on the board of my synagogue, and I do things (in which) I have a cultural interest.

“Clairvoyant II” by sculptor Alvin Sher
“Clairvoyant II” by sculptor Alvin Sher
“Inception” by sculptor Alvin Sher
“Inception” by sculptor Alvin Sher

Works on view

Alvin Sher Sculptures: a one-person show of the artist's small works in cast bronze and cast iron is on exhibit at The Sculptors Guild DUMBO Gallery, 111 Front St., Brooklyn, New York through Jan. 26.

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