Western North Carolina Woman

sally rogers, sculptor
by arlene winkler

For some reason I’m thinking about history on my way to this interview. Ever since I witnessed the terrible events of September 11, my sense of continuity has become rather tenuous, and I suspect I am looking for an anchor. So far, I’ve found the most comfort in the words of Chairman Mao, who, when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

I can only wonder what all of this has to do with Sally Rogers.

As it turns out, I get to read the answer before I meet her. The trees along the gravel road that leads to her studio are hung with hand-lettered signs. At 30 miles an hour I almost pass: “Democracy RIP 1776-2000”, so I slow down for the Abbie Hoffman quote: “You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents—not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” However, I come close to crashing the car, when I read the one from Barbara Bush: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

“I’ve put up over two dozen signs next to the road, over the last three or four years,” she explains, as I stagger into her sun filled studio. Her favorite, the Hoffman quote, has endured the longest, withstanding the weather and the anonymous individuals who removed the others. When the signs get taken down or defaced, she considers it—in addition to trespassing and theft of private property—a chance to “rotate the stock.” Now, as we look at her inventory, past and present, I’m impressed by the breadth of her reading, but even more by her willingness to take a stand.

“What an immense mass of evil must result, from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what might happen.”
(Tolstoy) — on the eve of the Iraq War, 3/2003

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
(Voltaire) in the midst of the obviously fallacious WMD search.

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion runs deep.” (Saul Bellow)

“Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All this, and we have yet to discuss the artwork—but I admit, I’m a little intimidated. Her studio is a sculptor’s dream, encompassing a metals shop, hot shop, cold shop and mold making area, as well as a gallery. Sally Rogers is that rarified being, a sculptor who actually supports herself with her work. Since her residency at Penland School of Crafts, in 1994, she has transcended her craft beginnings in glass to become a sought after sculptor. Her public commissions now come from all over the country, and increasingly, from all over the world.

These are large, beautifully crafted constructions of glass, steel and stone that seem to defy accepted notions of balance and form, with their earth solid, genderless references to the human figure. “Abstracting the human form allows you to reach people on a more visceral level,” she explains. “It helps make a connection between the ways we relate on a small personal level, and what happens at the larger or world level.”

She brings tremendous energy to the process, fabricating large elements from steel, which is then ground, welded, sandblasted and finished with acid, before a final treatment of hot beeswax and linseed oil. Utilizing a pâté de verre glass-casting process, for the glass portions, these, as well as the stone elements, are cut and ground to invisible tolerances to fit into the steel. In her own words, “Public Art has to endure physically as well as conceptually”.

But now we’re standing in front of an atypical assemblage entitled Hypocrisy, built on cross pieces of charred locust beams. It’s disturbingly different than the large public pieces we’ve been talking about.

“One of my in-your-face ideas,” she acknowledges. “I have a lot of them. But I don’t expect people to buy them. And I certainly don’t expect to get them publicly funded. The purpose of public art is to communicate with the public.”

Is she saying it’s a bad thing to stir up controversy?

“Not at all. Challenging assumptions is the nature of what we do as artists, and if no one’s reacting, we’re probably not doing our job. With public art pieces, however, I find it works better with more accessible images. Using public art funding is a privilege and a responsibility - not something to be abused.” We recall the furor over Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” in 1997 and the earlier lawsuit over the Robert Mapplethorpe show in Cincinnati, that included portraits of sadomasochistic acts.

“I don’t know if Serrano will stand up to the test of time,” I venture, “But it’s hard to argue with Mapplethorpe’s genius.”

“I agree, but that particular body of work had no place in the public art domain. The idea of public art funding was to educate, to open people’s minds to new ways of seeing -not to make them feel that the privilege of using their tax dollars was being abused.”

The Cincinnati Arts Center and the show’s director were acquitted in a much-publicized trial. But the arts, and public arts funding, remained a point of contention throughout the 1990s as politicians debated the value of art in society and the need for the government to sponsor it. The negative effect on NEA funding was significant. Ultimately some of the money came back, but the question today is, what happened to freedom of expression? Or am I being disingenuous, is it even possible for freedom of expression to co-exist with government funding?

“I think that if you look at funding requirements as a muzzle, it turns into a barrier to creativity. The real challenge is to get fine art integrated into communities, to build an understanding about art that is not functional, that is intended to define a space rather than accent it, to acknowledge that it has value—and not just culturally. In total productivity terms, even people who are not arts-oriented have to admit that art adds economic value to a community. It’s a draw, it raises value of real estate.”

She’s got that part right. As the wife of a New York artist, I saw our shabby Brooklyn neighborhood get hot, and the monthly rent on our loft go from $1500 to $6500. In the words of Merilyn McCorkle, the poet laureate of our Brooklyn neighborhood, “Artists are the truffle pigs of real estate.” I’d like to see that acknowledged—starting right here. If the real estate industry in Western North Carolina gave a dollar to the arts for every time they used the word “arty” we wouldn’t need any NEA funding…and Asheville’s dream of becoming a world class city would have a better chance of becoming reality—starting right here, with a world class artist.

On the way home, I decide to take a detour to Warren Wilson College, the site of her latest commission Like all her work, it is the stance and posture of this piece that suggest its emotional inspiration. Love and passion, acceptance and hope, pain and separation, rebirth and renewal are continuing themes that she indicates through heart imagery; cast glass forms in earthy reds that are vaguely reminiscent of that organ. In this one, I see the juxtaposition of glass within the circular steel framework as a metaphor for spiritual conflict. To my surprise, it gives me a sense of place and makes me feel … anchored.

If it weren’t so late, I’d stop at the wine store and buy a bottle of Dom and drive back up the mountain. On second thought, skip the champagne, I’d rather put up another sign—a quote from Zola: “If you ask me why I am here as an artist, I will tell you, I am here to live out loud.”

Sally Rogers earned her BFA from the College of Art and Design in Detroit, Michigan and an MFA in Glass, from Kent State University, in Kent Ohio, and in her former life, she was an Artist in Residence, at Penland School of Crafts in Penland North Carolina. Her work, which has been featured in numerous art publications, is in museums as well as private and corporate collections. A long list of public commissions includes a large-scale sculpture on the campus of Warren Wilson College. More complete information and examples of her sculpture can be found at: sallyrogers.net

Her work is shown at:
Blue Spiral Gallery, Asheville North Carolina
Galerie Internationale du Verre, Biot France
Imago Galleries, Palm Desert Florida
Sandra Ainsley Gallery, Toronto, Ontario Canada

Arlene Winkler is a free lance financial writer who specializes in institutional finance. Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her, they’re all credited to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grand mother of four, and the author of three screenplays she is dealing with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel under her own name.

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