Interview by Clare Henry

New York Feb 2006

Tinker tailor soldier sailor, rich man poor man, beggar man, thief? In this long ago male universe, sculptor was not a traditional option, even for men; never for women. I thought about this as Julie Speidel enthused over her artists materials. “Today a truck delivered 2,000 pounds of 1/8” silicon bronze sheets to my island studio,” she told me. “The first time I saw two separate pieces of bronze becoming one, it was magic. It continues to be magical today.”

So is this alchemical passion what makes a sculptor? Speidel’s large scale bronze and stone sculptures loom over her slim figure, their tall structures reflecting her love of ancient megaliths and totems; their heavy mass and solid structure often pierced and punctured by defiant holes, their geometric sections, sliced coils, facets and hard edges softened by texture and exquisite patination.

But why choose clay over oils; stone and a chisel over charcoal? Sculpture is hard work, a constant battle with tough, heavy materials that requires muscle and brawn. Even for big, bulky men like David Smith or Henry Moore, their large scale forged, cast, carved, cut, beaten and bent three dimensional creations required much flexing of rugged energy, sweat and calloused hands. An articulate fluent writer, surely this journalist’s daughter could have taken up her pen rather than a hammer? And how did someone from the Pacific rim come to identify so strongly with early Scottish, Irish and English megaliths?

In search of answers to these initial, very basic questions I began my interview with Julie Speidel, safe in the knowledge that practicalities and logistics would soon lead to conversations on deeper philosophies and aesthetic debates. And so it was.

Clare: Tell me about your experiences with megaliths? As I am from Scotland, these prehistoric standing stones like the Callanish circle from 3000 BC on the Isle of Lewis or stone age burial chambers such as Skara Brae on Orkney—all built long before the pyramids—form a fundamental connection for you and me.

Julie: I moved to Europe when I was 12, first to Mallorca, Spain. On long bike rides we explored the countryside of this Balearic Island where I saw my first standing stones. My sister Marion was 7 at the time and could fit into the short empty Roman graves or sarcophagi, cut out of the barren stone hills. How small those people must have been; I began to understand the difference in historical human sizes. It was an epiphany for me.

Then we joined my mother and stepfather in England. That first summer, we drove to Scotland. My stepfather was a geologist, so steeped in conversations about glacial valleys, ice thaws and drifting continents, we explored the Scottish countryside via megaliths, the dolmens and stone circles. What is still with me is the awe and wonder of the megalithic stones. That summer we also went to the Inner Hebrides, and the islands of Mull and Iona, with their desolate spaces and single lane roads. Mull’s Lochbuie Stone Circle stands in the wonderfully named “Field of the Druids,” stark and so beautiful with nothing around, but hills and views of the sea.

The next five years were at boarding schools in Sussex. Each Sunday we were taken out into the country for day hikes. I walked around Stonehenge and explored Avebury. These stones were always powerful and mysterious to me—vestiges of ancient cultures. I still seek out sacred places—in Corsica, China, Mongolia and Britain—and they never disappoint. To be standing out in the land, and to allow the power of these sites to flow into me feeds me in a special way.

Clare: Can you explain your strong initial interest in things three dimensional?

Julie: I think I was destined to work in 3D. When I was in 5th grade, we were asked to make a poster representing Bolivia. My vision was of the whirling skirts of the Bolivian women. I cut out different color and size circles of paper and layered them thickly so that they rose off the surface of the paper. I still work with paper, and it usually ends up with a multi-dimensional quality. I love mulberry paper—its richness and pliability. You can wet it, then use wooden patterns, put it through the printing press, dry it, add color—it’s a wonderful mix of medium. As a child I always collected 3D objects: little sacred treasures. I still have white stones from Loch Lomond. I still gather stones and driftwood on the beach. Before I was 8 years old I remember going camping at Klaloch, a remote beach on the Washington Coast. There I saw a tremendous dead whale, with its ribs sticking out—that image has always stayed with me. My studio shelves are filled with a collection of objects and forms that intrigue me: I have rusty horse—bits, worn bicycle pedals, animal horns, seed pods—natural and manmade wonders are an endless inspiration for me.

Clare: Were you encouraged to be an artist?

Julie: No, sadly not. After an English boarding school education, I returned to Seattle and the University of Washington where I joined a sorority founded by my grandmother. My aptitude for art had never been encouraged and I was not wise enough to take even one art course at the University. “What will you ever do with it?” was the oft repeated refrain. In my junior year, I married a law student and worked for three years to put him through law school. My role model then was the 1960 perfect wife and mother. I sustained this role through two marriages and four beloved children, and did it pretty well. During those years, there was always the making of art in my life, but never the serious work of art.

Clare: How did you make the leap?

Julie: I began with jewelry. My first pieces were made of copper—I took thin sheets and cut and manipulated them into amorphic shapes. I learned to solder and patina. I made belts, necklaces and earrings. The business developed so quickly, I had to go to my neighborhood bank for a startup loan. I remember the banker asked me why I thought I could succeed when others did not. Totally unprepared, I answered that I design from the unconscious and people buy from the unconscious. I got the loan. I named the company Bonafacio after a town I’d visited in Corsica. I sold through reps at stores throughout the country including New York City. For two years I had around 15 jewelers working for me in a studio overlooking Puget Sound in Seattle. I had made some small jewelry pieces that I wanted to see bigger, so I bought a welder and I made my first 5 foot bronze sculpture.

Clare: You came to sculpture relatively late. How did you start exhibiting in galleries? What happen next?

Julie: Linda Farris, a gallery owner in Seattle, had seen that first sculpture I made and sold—she asked me to dinner. After a healthy conversation about my goals, she advised me to quit the jewelry business and get three sculptures ready for her next show. It became clear to me that making sculpture was what I really wanted to do. It had a certain magic—transforming hard bronze into beautiful and elegant shapes.

Clare: You said earlier that you “design from the unconscious and people buy from the unconscious.” While that’s a great, if flippant, answer for a bank manager, it worries me a little. Can you elaborate?

Julie: I believe that the work of many artists derives from the collective unconscious. I think of my work as being “derivative” of certain vocabularies that transcend one place or time: these tend to be the fundamental visual vocabularies of all cultures. This is what I look for as I travel to places with such diverse cultures as China, Turkey and India. I’m still grounded in my early exposure to the European megaliths, but my travels have given me the opportunities to see how people in other parts of the world have made their transcendent experiences manifest in two and three dimensions. The sources for my inspiration are boundless.

Clare: Sorry to be difficult—but the expression ’boundless’ disturbs me too!

Julie: Sources being ’boundless’ is really what we’ve just talked about: many places and peoples have created visual images that seem connected though they may not be. The word “unconscious” does not mean without consciousness, but being open to things that I believe are larger than individual knowledge. I also find continuing sources within the natural world and the work of artists and artisans, both of our culture and of more distant times and places, such as the Chinese terracotta warriors of Xian. I am open to whatever helps to inspire a visual form that I can work with.

Clare: Your piece, “Nod to Xian” from 2002 is just one of many recent instances when your work references a primitive figure with two legs and a head—of sorts. One is even called Alicia! I also see a very Henry Moore-esque helmet shape in use. One might even say that you are moving from standing stones to primitive figures?

Julie: You’re correct on both counts. But I didn’t mean to do a helmet like Henry Moore, I cut up some shapes and that’s what I came up with.

Clare: Good sculpture is normally very tactile. People find it difficult to keep their fingers off it! Does this aspect of feel and touch mean a lot to you, or are your surfaces a byproduct of coloration?

Julie: I want my work to be very tactile: Sense of touch is closely related to sight. My jewelry was fundamentally grounded in touch—how it felt on the body was very important. The relationship to the human body has always been important in my work. “Kuqa” and “Taihu,” two ocean stone and bronze benches I made recently, (the latter made up of three scallops), are the most current example of a clear connection to human touch being integral to the piece. With all my work I anticipate and expect that human hands will interact with it. This is a positive aspect, but does not overshadow the visual design which is still the driver. When people say, “I just can’t take my hands off the piece” that’s wonderful, but I hope people connect with the sculpture on all levels.

Clare: Can you expound on the textures you use?

Julie: The texture of the surface is about a sense of movement. The human impulse is to touch 3-D form and my work invites them to do so; the surface texture never prohibits it. Many are smooth and sensual to touch, but others have the roughness appropriate to the interest I’m trying to give to the material.

Clare: Please explain how you go about starting the actual making and manipulation of a sculpture, about the logistics involved.

Julie: There are limitations with any material, but there are also great possibilities. One of my tried and true processes in the design of sculpture is forming ovals, balls, cones, and cylinders—geometric shapes in plasticine. I then cut them into surprising and interesting chunks. I think I learned this from chopping vegetables! My family suffered from oddly cut chunks of bread for years. My process is basically an evolution from plasticene maquette, I take small malleable plasticene shapes and work them with my hands, then skewer elements together with bits of thin welding rods. Later I move to a larger chipboard model (thin flexible cardboard that mirrors some of qualities of bronze sheet metal) to the actual metal sculpture. I have trays of maquette elements in plasticene that sit before me as a source of visual possibilities along with wood and other natural elements that I have often cut and shaped. Occasionally I also work in plaster to understand a potential shape or relationship—this is especially useful for work that will be realized in stone.

Clare: Can you describe your studio situation?

Julie: I live and work on Vashon Island, a 15 minute ferry ride from Seattle, Washington. My grandfather built a summer home there where I spent time as a child, beachcombing and playing in the woods. My studio (“The Farm”) is 5 minutes from my home—on one of the original strawberry farms brought to fame by “Snow Falling on Cedars.” The farm has two buildings that I use as my studio. The old barn is where I have my paint and patina studio as well as a separate area for metal grinding. The other is a large red metal outbuilding divided into 2 spaces: one for designing and office; the other where we build the sculptures. Working as a team with my three studio assistants, we bend, shape, weld and grind bronze into sculptures, roughly based on clay models and cardboard patterns.

Clare: You seem to have a special love of sheets of bronze. Why is that?

Julie: The wonderful aspect of working in fabricated bronze is that I am able to add and subtract pieces as we go along. So while, I have a general idea of what the sculpture will be, I often let it “grow.” I ask myself—“does this or that piece work better? Should I adjust it up an inch; remove it; substitute it?” A marvelous aspect of the fabrication process is the ability to be additive and subtractive, unlike working in stone or cast bronze. This allows great flexibility in my process. There always has to be a balance that feels right and this usually involves the perfect amount of asymmetry and other key elements—I need to be able to walk around the sculpture and have every view sing.

Clare: Obviously the structure of things fascinate you, but what about flexibility and pliability in a sculptural creation? Megaliths are very male and phallic: overpowering, intrinsically dominating. Do you agree that your work has its dominant side?

Julie: I actually don’t think of metal or stone as stiff or unbending. For me, these are all pliable or subtractive, giving me a huge range of possible forms. Yes, I agree that these are “powerful” materials that could be characterized as masculine, but that has never been a factor (at least on a conscious level) in my choosing to work with them. I still believe that my choice of materials and my sense of their flexibility is more derived from seeing so many cultures work with them in varied ways.

Clare: Can circular be male as well as feminine? Is there a ’latent feminist content” to your work, as one writer suggested?

Julie: Your question about feminism has led me to think more about its relation to my work. I have never felt an overt connection to the feminist movement though I certainly acknowledge that my adulthood parallels the tremendous changes and opportunities that have come with cultural shifts. Perhaps the most visible, though unconscious aspect of this, is my journey from creating small, personal scale art (i.e. jewelry) to making bolder, large work on a public scale. My personal history may provide some insights—or not. My mother was a high society/profile debutante of the year in Seattle before WW II. She went to Stanford in the middle of the Depression, and at 19 got engaged to an Annapolis midshipman whom she jilted to marry my father, a newspaper reporter. After fourteen years and three children, the marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. I was taken to Europe and did not see my father for ten years. My mother soon married an outspoken, ultimately famous geologist. Despite this my mother remained an unfulfilled woman who could never be pleased. By my second divorce in the 1980’s, I saw myself repeating my mother’s patterns, including her reluctance to explore and use her talents. I broke the mold. Despite four kids, I started doing serious creative work. Certainly the cultural climate was more supportive of this experimentation in my time than it would have been for my mother. I began with jewelry, a safer place for a woman to stretch aesthetically and professionally. Then the big sculpture began. The strength and boldness of my shapes feel intuitively right to me. Whether one should label them masculine or feminine, I will leave for others to decide.

Clare: Some of your recent sculptures are very beautifully patinated? Where did you learn this?

Julie: I learned my patina recipes and application techniques when I was making jewelry from George Tsutakawa, a grand professor and sculptor at the University of Washington. He shared his patina recipes with me, and I still use those formulas. In wanting to expand my palette, I have developed patinas that include pigment, so I can make any color. I like the spectrum of finishes this allows me, from the classic patinas to those that are very colorful and painterly.

Clare: I notice that some of your pieces are very bright—strong reds, yellows, very upbeat—some would say outrageous! But overall you seem to favour a subdued palette?

Julie: From the start of my career I’ve worked with both palettes: I remains rooted in both “color” and the traditional, browns and greens, but in the course of these 21 years, the pigmented “colored” pieces have indeed become brighter and bolder.

Clare: Are you happy with your progress over the last two decades? What changes would you highlight?

Julie: The work has developed more nuance while remaining anchored in simplicity. The range of materials has expanded and new combinations have permitted me to realize ideas that are more ambitious structurally.

Clare: Looking through the book illustrations, I notice many of the names are celtic or Gaelic. We seem to have come full circle from our Callanish and Lochbuie starting point!

Julie: True, many of my sculptures are named after British megalithic sites. Recently I’ve also used the names of ancient deities; Isong: goddess of fertility from the Ibibio people in South Africa, Arhat: protectors and instructors of the Buddhist religion, Tanith: a celestial lunar goddess from Carthage, Phoenicia. So evocative!

Clare: This has been an exciting voyage for your readers and viewers. Tell us what will be different about the work to come; about the future!

Julie: My vocabulary continues to expand while I mine the depths of the same fundamentals that have always fascinated me in terms of shape, form and materials. Opportunities to work on a larger scale in the public arena brings new possibilities. Travels and exposure to different visual experiences will always provide fresh ideas, a new vision for me: I’m lucky in my chosen profession.

— Clare Henry, art critic, Financial Times, New York, 2006