A Love Affair with Form

An article from the Atlanta Journal constitution:

When Martin Dawe saw a Rodin exhibition as a youth, it was love at first sight.

“It totally affected me.” says the Atlanta artist. “The emotion, the strength, the shapes. It was so strong in my heart. I knew I wanted to be a sculptor.”

And so he is. His credits range from the 8-foot-tall classical male nudes atop the World Athletes Monument on Peachtree Street and the lithe abstracted figures created jigsaw-style adorning the Fulton County Juvenile Justice Court Facility to the life-size crouching bronze lion in a restaurant in Oman, in the Middle East.

Dawe has converted an old auto repair shop off Howell Mill Road into a workshop for CherryLion Studios. He puts in 65-hour weeks in the airy open space, along with two apprentices, Alicia Jenkins and Michael Allman, and two friendly Labrador retrievers, Kayla and Dude. Mary Stanley, Dawe’s part-time manager and harshest critic, keeps track of administrative details in the front office, which doubles as a gallery for small works and photographs of larger projects.

Works in various stages of completion punctuate the room. A fluttering eagle with a 8-foot wingspan, which will perch atop an 18-foot-tall column at Emory University’s Clairmont campus. A scale model for a monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt “a spitting image, in leg braces” will become a life-size bronze for FDR State Park in Pine Mountain. Designs for a line of porcelain platters with stunning leaf designs are laid out on a table. Plaster molds of precious works fill floor-to-ceiling shelves against the walls.

Dawe, 47, seems the picture of success. But it wasn’t always thus. Just last fall he was down to one commission, effected by the economy like everyone else. And the journey from teenage ambition to this atelier was not easy. A painter can hang out his shingle, but not an artist who works in bronze.

For Dawe, education at Boston and Georgia State universities was only the beginning. While at GSU, he began an eight year apprenticeship with the late sculptor Julian Harris that ended with Harris’ death. The first two years there all Dawe did was carve letters. Gradually, he helped with the sculptures and took on small commissions.

“I owe my career to him.” says Dawe.

He learned not only about the craft but about the business of commission sculpture. Even with that experience, it wasn’t easy. Dawe says he scraped by for years, solvent only because of his parents’ financial support.

“You don’t just go out and do this,” he says,” You have to get people to trust you and gain experience.”

Aesthetics is only one a aspect of the large-scale commissions he does. There’s a certain amount of engineering involved, not to mention issues of site and lighting. The eagle, for example, will be approached from two directions, so the sculptor has labored to make it work from the back as well as the front.

We walk back to the part of the 6000-square-foot area that Dawe calls his “think tank”, where he talks about his process. For clients who want him to develop a concept, he spends time researching the project, which might take him to historical archives or the Web, and comes up with phrases that he feels distill its essence. These phrases lead to images and on to a three-dimensional sketch, a small clay maquette. Maps of the sculpture site are attached to the wall, and Dawe uses the Photoshop computer program to insert the virtual piece into the landscape to test the scale and placement.

For bronze works (he also has work cast in other metals and composites) apprentice Allman constructs a steel-and-wire mesh armature, and Dawe makes the sculpture with around 600 pounds of clay. The apprentice makes a rubber mold and envelopes that in a plaster mother mold. Then the mold is sent to a fine art bronze foundry where they use the lost-wax method to reproduce the sculpture.

But not all work Dawe does requires his imagination. For example, he is making a copy of a marble sculpture of a Confederate soldier in downtown Macon for a private patron, replacing the soldier’s face with one of the patron’s ancestors. Dawe doesn’t mind. It’s an exercise that sharpens his skills, like a musician doing his scales, he says. And getting better is a lifelong effort.

“Form is so elusive,” he says, “It’s a complicated language. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”.

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