Dancing with Fire

Some artists never grow up. Thank god.

By preserving the child within, they help us survive this brutal world, with its tornadoes, hurricanes, e. coli outbreaks and drawer-dropping congressmen. Seeing the whimsical work of sculptors Dana Stewart and Francois Guillemin relieves the tension lines in our brows.

It’s no surprise that when the two middle-age sculptors get together, they bring out the impishness in each other. They recently engaged in such repartee at Firedance Studio in Hopewell, where nearly 30 works from Stewart’s “Beast” series, as well as new jewelry and furnishings by Guillemin, are on view through July 15.

“Artists live between lament and despair,” says Guillemin, whose eyes glint from his bearded face.

“And howling at the moon,” adds Stewart.

“It’s a three-bedroom house: lament, despair and hope,” says Guillemin.

“Hope is the living room,” quips Stewart, who refers to his own studio, in Lambertville, as “the goldmine,” because he hopes something lucky will happen.

The brotherly duo looked back to their days at San Diego State University in the 1970s. “Francois was a character,” says Stewart. “We got along.”

And Stewart must have been a character too. He lived in a 1961 Econoline, furnished with a mahogany dresser and potted plants, and when he invited guests his bed was always made. “I would shower at school,” he says.

In 1977, Herk Van Tongeren, a former professor at San Diego State who went on to become the president of the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute in Hamilton, invited Guillemin and Stewart out and offered them positions. The third member of their triumvirate, sculptor Fred Morante, is not present, but his wife, Leni Morante, also a sculptor, provides the organizational and administrative skills to run Firedance Studio.

“We were meeting all these people with so much energy, artists from Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria, Canada, Egypt,” says Stewart of the experience at the Atelier. Both Guillemin and Stewart became department heads, and both were involved in the infamous cannon incident that ended in a blast.

Having forged the weapon, Guillemin was curious to see it work during a Fourth of July celebration at the Atelier. So he fired the cannon, and saw the metal ball travel over a lake, through a forest, and into a neighbor’s bathroom. “The target was unintended,” says Guillemin, who is such a good raconteur you wonder if he doesn’t do these things just to get a story.

A week later, Guillemin resigned from his job at the foundry. “I realized I wouldn’t be going very far in the company,” he says, laughing.

Both Stewart and Guillemin lived at the now defunct Ettl Farm art colony on Rosedale Road in Princeton, founded by sculptor Alex Ettl, a high school dropout who became a millionaire philanthropist by selling sculpture tools and making castings. “We were 25 artists living in a barn,” says Stewart of those Bohemian days.

Stewart lived at Ettl Farm for 16 years, eventually moving to Lambertville where he runs his own foundry, but Guillemin went on to buy a house closer to the Atelier, then located in the Penns Neck section of West Windsor. He would rent a room to visiting artists from the Atelier. Guillemin moved to another house in West Windsor when the Atelier moved to Hamilton.

Influenced by Surrealists Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, Stewart began making his beasts in 1976, after seeing an African dog sculpture with nails driven into it. Instead of nails, he made an animal with a long tail. Stewart was teaching at Rutgers at the time, and, he recounts, his fellow teachers liked the beast but not the tail. “I knew I was on to something,” he says.

“Grimaces, snarls, stances, and other gestures convey an array of emotions, including fear, lamentation, and aggression,” Stewart writes of his beasts on his website. “Tails, commonly recognized as an animal’s emotional barometer, are exaggerated in size in comparison to each creature’s body mass. Long and thick, the appendages are held upright, standing erect, taut and on-guard…The viewer is invited to share in the sculpture by deciding what type of creature the beast may be and is also invited to empathize with the beast.”

Not only has Stewart kept pet rats, but he’s given them names like Mortifer, Snag and Billy. Twelve works from his imaginary menagerie are at Grounds For Sculpture, and “Boomer,” one of his larger beasts, is a permanent fixture at the south end of New Hope, Pa., along River Road.

“Sitting on His Laurels,” a small rat with a long tail sitting on a ball, on view at Firedance Studio, may look familiar to visitors of the men’s room at Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture.

“I was talking to (Grounds For Sculpture Founder J.) Seward (Johnson Jr.) after he built Rat’s, and suggested he pin the tail against the door and use it as a door knocker,” recounts Stewart. Instead, “Sitting on His Laurels” was bolted to the counter of the men’s room.

If women want to view it? “There’s a knot hole in the door, so women can check to see if the coast is clear,” says Guillemin.

Stewart gets his ideas working with the materials. He often uses the lost wax method. “I like developing the story as it goes along, developing characters,” he says. “Composition draws me in. I like teeth, and I like making the pieces a little awkward.” They’re all self-portraits of a sort, he admits.

“What Tail?” is a beast 18 inches long with a 17-foot-long tail, and was named by one of Stewart’s two daughters.

He has also created a series of flukes (flat fish) with long stalk-like human legs “Heading Back to the Water.”

“The fluke is a whimsical thing,” he says. “This is a reminder that you have to take a quantum leap before you fall on your face doing something dangerous or risky.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Stewart’s mother was a fashion model and his father worked in the aerospace industry. He earned his master’s degree in sculpture from San Diego State University in 1977.

Guillemin, who refers to himself as Le Corbeau, or the Crow, is a goldsmith and furniture maker as well as a sculptor.

He took the name of the glossy black bird while living with his French-born parents in the mountains near Santa Fe, N.M. “It had to do with my way of living,” he told me years ago. “I thought I’d be a hermit living off the land. My friends all had Spanish and Indian blood. They had animal names: Beaver, Grasshopper, Cricket, Trout, Urraca (Spanish for magpie).” He studied forestry before art, wanting to live in the woods – anything to not have to commute in a suit and tie.

Born in Texas to French-born parents, he spent a part of his childhood in a provincial chateau in France built by one of Napolean’s generals, where the sculpture in the surrounding woods had been used as target practice for the Germans during World War II. Le Corbeau’s mother was a musician and musicologist and his father a neuroendocrinologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1977.

“My family always had art and art books,” says le Corbeau. “My parents always saw themselves as artists.” Dr. Roger Guillemin put his art career on hold while pursuing medicine, but is a pioneer in digital art, creating works that range from impressionistic landscapes to pure abstraction. Le Corbeau and the senior Guillemin have never exhibited together, but the son cites it as a goal.

Guillemin never graduated from college. “The best year was the one I didn’t pay tuition,” he says. He found his element in jewelry making, where he was surrounded by female students, and says he was teaching the class anyway.

“I left in my senior year to work as a jewelry designer in Texas,” he says. “I think it was around 1975. I’m too old to remember.” (He was born in 1954, so that would be about right.)

He has done everything from making railings for Bon Jovi’s house to a fire hydrant with webbed frog feet (“Assistant Against Fire”), to fabricating the metal tree grates at Albert E. Hinds Plaza at the Princeton Public Library.

What he terms jewelry is, to this observer, more like small sculpture. In the past I have seen a silver wine goblet, letter openers and a cigar box made of Nautilus shell, gold and silver. A sterling silver sugar bowl, “Pastoral Farce,” takes the form of cows holding up an egg-shaped world with a tiny farm tractor on top.

This time, his work in gold and gemstones fits the definition most of us have for jewelry. “Pearls are my weakness,” he says with a twinkle.  There’s a necklace of Biwa and Keshi pearls, with a gold tree-like piece as the pendant on which five oblong pearls hang. A ring was cast  in gold mimosa blossoms just as they emerge into a flower, along with rubelite. Another has dogwood flowers, and on a bracelet a kangaroo faces off with an alligator.

Guillemin, also influenced by the Surrealists, casts from found objects, including toys. He has used elements of a model railroad kit to cast gold for a necklace that evokes Etruscan jewelry. From this necklace, tiny little railroad people with suitcases, or a jacket over an arm, dangle. There’s even a stripper and a Southern belle.

Le Corbeau takes me into the back of the 15,000-square-foot studio and showroom he established in 2007 to see what he’s working on now. There’s a silver bowl on a stand that looks like an abalone shell, pearlized, and a silver box that has been cast from the bark of coconut palm. Though rough like bark, it is polished to a bright silvery sheen. Samples of the surface before it is polished have a smoky look, with dark areas in the recesses, also beautiful, but Guillemin says he prefers the clean look.

Leni Morante takes me to the Lower Trestle Gallery to see “In the Weeds,” a bedstead of forged steel with black patina that resembles twigs with knots. Guillemin’s son, Kierin, who is between high school and college, helped to work on it. “Francois drew the profile on the wall and the team brought it to life,” says Morante. “There were many technical problems to solve, but it looks effortless. That’s what art is.”

Sculpture, jewelry and furniture by Dana Stewart and Francois Guillemin is on view at Firedance Studio, 56 Railroad Place, Hopewell, through July 15.

For more info contact: 609-644-4044 or info@firedancestudio.com

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