Helen Evans Ramsaran
Ideas for my recent bronze sculptures evolved out of recent trips to Africa where I was fascinated by the various styles of the indigenous, domestic architecture of Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Benin. While in Africa, ideas for these sculptures developed gradually as I began to comprehend concepts of extended family, communal living and village life. These concepts play a vital role in the design and execution of the many unique styles of domestic, vernacular architecture of West Africa.
In my creative process, I find that I am drawn to and use quite freely, those special elements in traditional African architecture that suggest an affiliation with the ancestors, (forked shapes). I also use shapes of trees which suggest life, zig-zag forms which suggest lightning, alluding to a connection between earth and sky and even spiral forms and pathways which suggest movement and journeys. These concepts and forms are ideally suited to be executed in bronze and encaustic on paper because of their organic and transformative nature. It is particularly the transformative nature of the elements and symbols embedded in the architecture of the house that fascinate me. The house, therefore, is a place not only for its current inhabitants, but it holds a place for the spirits of the ancestors and future generations as well. These are the ideas I ponder as I work, however, in the final sculptures that I create, I arrive at my own unique notions about the architecture of the space that is called home.
During the month of June 2007, two artists were invited to go to Senegal, West Africa to conduct month long ceramics workshops and experiments using the local clay and minerals. French ceramics artist, David Challier and I worked with a local collective of women ceramic artists from the village of Ngueniene near the town of Joal. The work of the women was superb, however, they desired more technical assistance to make the pottery more durable and information on marketing their work. Since I have recently organized a collective of ceramics artisans in Brooklyn, New York and have guided them through the process of becoming economically self sufficient through the sale of their work, the Director of Portes et Passages, a not for profit organization in Senegal, considered me an ideal candidate to do workshops and share my expertise about marketing ceramics with the women's collective of Ngueniene. Our mutual exchanges on the art of firing and creating materials proved to be beneficial for all of us. Later, we learned that we have both been invited to return to assist the women in building a high powered kiln so that their pottery can be glazed and will be more durable.
While in Dakar, Senegal during the summer of 2007, I visited a local bronze-casting foundry. The proprietor has invited me to return and work in the foundry with some of the local artists. Being there was a wonderful experience and after giving it some thought, I have decided to return to Senegal for one year, to work on a special series of bronze sculptures and to spend one or two months working with the women of Ngueniene.
In the future, I will continue to work in bronze, but I am also drawn to soft materials such as clay, paper, and fabric. In fact, Senegal is one of the fashion capitals of West Africa and its rich tradition of textile making is renown. What intrigues me about textiles in West Africa is that so much of the history and culture of traditional West African societies are woven into the very essence of the designs. I would like to travel more in West Africa researching many of the creative industries, especially women's cooperative. This is a special opportunity for me to be in West Africa where I can become acquainted with some of Africa's most highly acclaimed artists in the contemporary art world. Traveling and becoming intimately aware of other cultures has played an integral role in my development as an artist.
In July of 2002, I was invited, along with New York artist, Susan Ortega, to participate in the Annual Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani in eastern Thailand. After a wonderful two-week tour of the country, we were taken to the eastern region where twenty-six artists from 13 countries had been invited to participate in the wax carving competition. Two artists from each country drew lots to determine the color of a 5' x 2' x 2' block of wax that was to be carved over a three day period.
After the competition, we viewed the parade of huge carved wax candle floats that depicted the journey of the Buddha to Enlightenment. These elaborate floats were created by the local communities and paraded throughout the town each year during the period of Buddhist Lent.
In June 1998, I took a sabbatical leave from the City University of New York where I have taught sculpture at John Jay College since 1974. I traveled to Ghana West Africa and spent one year at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. While there, I created a series of sculptures in wax that have been cast in bronze. During my stay at the University, I served on a committee that will develop bronze casting facilities in the Art Department of the University. While in West Africa, I traveled to Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Benin, the indigenous architecture of the region.
I left Ghana in June 1999 and traveled to Southern Africa. After a brief stay in Zimbabwe, I traveled to Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa, Lesotho, and back to Zimbabwe. During my travels in Southern Africa I continued to work on my photographic essay of the indigenous architecture of the region. I use these slides and other photographic materials both in my work, in slide lectures and in workshops for students and others.
From March to June 2000, I was Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Community Access Television. During this residency, I used the photographic material from Africa to experiment with digital technology. I find digital technology to be beneficial while working on large-scale sculpture. From June to August 1995, I was visiting artist at the bronze-casting foundry of San Jose State University. While there, I began work on a large environmental work that I call, Kuca. In Litammali, the language of the Batammaliba people of northern Togo and Benin, kuca refers to a well-worn path. My serpentine path that measures approximately 120 feet when completed will consist of over one hundred segments that will be cast in bronze. In 1995, I was awarded a studio space in the International Studio Program in Tribeca where I was in residence from December 1995 to December 1996 and completed the wax work for the bronze casting of this large scale work.
From April 9th to June 19, 1994, my large and small bronze sculptures were featured in a one-woman exhibition at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk Virginia. This exhibition traveled to New York to the Studio Museum in Harlem where it was on display from July 17th to October 2, 1994. The large bronze sculptures, which were included in these exhibitions, are a part of a series of works, which I call, the Sanctuary Group. They include, The Sanctuary, Nesting Piece, Bench Piece Part 1 and 2, The Throne, Winged Moondance and Sacred Secrets. These pieces suggest an imaginary ritual space, a place for a nighttime ritual, thus their stark white patinas.
Within the past fourteen years, my sculptures have been included in seven international exhibitions. From September 1-17, 2002, my work will be exhibited in a group exhibition titled: LIFE - COLOR - FORM, at Gallery Brocken in Tokyo, Japan. In August 1996, I was invited to go to Johannesburg, South Africa to participate in the art festivities commemorating National Women's Day. Also, in August 1996, I traveled to Tokyo, Japan to participate in a two-person exhibition; Masami Aihara and Helen Evans Ramsaran, at the Atagoyama Gallery in Ginza, the heart of Tokyo's art community. Past international exhibitions include: a solo exhibition entitled; "Les Contes Visuels," La Fourmi Ailee Galerie, Paris, France, 1988. Group exhibitions in which my sculptures have been exhibited are, Salon des Artistes Independents, Grand Palais, Paris, France, 1989; the Prix d'Art Contemporain de Monte-Carlo, Musee Monaco, 1989; Group Exhibition of Sculpture, Brasil Inter-Art Galerie, Paris, France, 1989.
From 1987 to 1988, I took a sabbatical leave from the City University of New York, where I taught sculpture and ceramics from 1974 to 2008, to spent one year working with the highly acclaimed stone carvers of Zimbabwe. There, I created a group of stone carvings that suggests the prehistoric origins of the Shona, Karanga and Ndebele people of Zimbabwe. Everywhere in the landscape of present day Zimbabwe there is the overwhelming presence of granite boulders, sometimes adorned with prehistoric, red ochre paintings of warriors and animals. Those rock paintings were my first real encounter with prehistoric Africa. This experience formed a new link for me in my own history. In Zimbabwe I created a group of twenty stone carvings that I call, Prehistoric Stamps. These suggest the seeds, fossils, animals and people who populated the landscape of southern Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. In addition to stone carving, I also created a group of sculptures in wax for bronze casting.
While I was in Zimbabwe, I spent one month traveling. and visited such places as Mutare and Great Zimbabwe (the Zimbabwe Ruins), Chimanimani, Bulawayo, Victoria Falls, Kariba and Botswana. After completing my sculptures in June 1988, I left Zimbabwe and traveled to Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia where I was able to view the art works of other important art centers in Africa.
During the year 1980-81, I took a sabbatical leave from the City University of New York and traveled to Pietrasanta, Italy, where I set up a small studio at the Mariani Foundry and spent seven months casting five large sculptures in bronze. I concluded my year by traveling throughout Italy studying and photographing the sculptures of the Renaissance Masters. From Italy, I continued my travels and studies in Greece, Egypt, West Africa and parts of Western Europe.
For many years I have had a profound interest in the arts and belief systems of such ancient cultures as Africa, Mexico, China and Japan. In 1982, I traveled extensively in Mexico viewing the ancient sculpture and architecture of the Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and Aztecs of ancient Mexico. And in 1984, I spent the summer in Japan learning the delicate art of traditional Japanese papermaking or Washi. While in Yoshino, Japan, I was apprenticed to the papermaker, Hiroyuki Fukunishi who has been designated as one of Japan's intangible, living national treasures. After my experiences in Japan, I began a series of experimental sculptures in handmade paper which I call, The Secret Myths Series. These sculptures represent enlarged amulets that have been inscribed with brightly colored symbols from African mythology. During the summer of 1986, I spent two months in the Dominican Republic where I expanded this series to include totem sculptures based on the mythology of the Taino Indians of the Caribbean.
Recently one of my bronze sculptures, Cliff Dwellers, was included in the collection of the Mead Art Museum of Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusets. My sculptures can be found in private collections as well as public ones. In 1985, I was commissioned to design a large bronze sculpture in commemoration of the 20th anniversary celebration of John Jay College. Also in 1979, I was commissioned to design and execute a small bronze sculpture commemorating the 15th anniversary celebration of John Jay College. In 1976, I completed a large outdoor sculpture commissioned for the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.
Recently, I was the recipient of a grant from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York for the academic year 2003-04. The funds were used to create a series of sculptures and two-dimensional work on the theme of Secrecy. In 1996-97, I received a grant of $3,050 from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York that I used for some of the casting costs of my latest work, Kuca, a well worn Path. This path comprises over 100 segments which when connected forms a serpentine path measuring approximately 120 feet. This work is in progress. In 1994-95, I received a grant of $5,200 from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York. After much reading and research on belief systems in West Africa, particularly as it is expressed in the traditional architecture of the Batammaliba of northern Ghana, Togo and Benin, I have created a series of small, bronze sculptures based on a loose interpretation of my findings. I continued work on this series when I traveled to West Africa in 1998.
In July 1993, I was the recipient of a $5,000 grant from the Elizabeth Foundation. In July 1985, I received a grant of $6,000 from the Research Foundation of the City University of New York. From September 1985 to June 1986, I was the recipient of a $9,000 artist-in-residence grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. My residence site for the period of the grant was Harlem School of the Arts. During my residency, I created a series of small bronze sculptures and a large bronze sculpture called, Dance of the Nightingale, for the courtyard of the school. In 1984-85, I was the recipient of the Third World Artists Fellowship from the Printmaking Workshop of New York City. The six artists were given workshops in lithography and etching and had access to the Printmaking Workshop for one year. At the end of the fellowship period the six artists created a portfolio of prints entitled, Atmospheric Burn.
During the summer of 1978, I was awarded a Cummington Community of the Arts residency where I worked on a special series of relief sculptures (that were cast in bronze) that are entitled, Visual Tales. The series is autobiographic in its statement and assumes the form of a visual narrative. The images and forms are somewhat calligraphic, thus posing some very delicate and challenging casting problems. In the Fall of 1978, I was awarded a residency at the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture in Princeton, New Jersey. It was at the Atelier that I perfected the technique of casting those very delicate bronze sculptures. I completed that series in 1981 in Pietrasanta, Italy. Since that time, I have returned to Pietrasanta often during summer months to cast my sculptures at the Fonderia del Massimo del Chiaro.
At the age of twenty-five in 1969-70, I was awarded a $10,000 artist-in-residence grant by the Central Midwestern Regional Educational Laboratory. I spent one year in residence at Palm Beach High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. Since that grant was awarded to me at an early stage in my career, it provided: (1) the means to purchase much needed supplies, power tools and equipment, (2) the time and money to create sculptures on a large scale. During my residency, I created ten large fiberglass/resin sculptures.
In 1968, I received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Ohio State University where I studied bronze casting with David Black and welding with John Freeman. I have also studied anatomical drawing with Robert Beverly Hale at the Art Students League and photography at the New School in New York City.