Body Building

Artist Richard MacDonald’s sculptures are meditations on the human condition

She stands aloof in the space, her form entwined in the delicate cloth that drapes across the top of her head, threads her thighs and clings loosely to a portion of her bare torso. Her body is lithe, yet powerful, her face angular and beautiful. But she refuses to bring her eyes to meet those that regard her, as though she belongs to a time and place removed from the one she occupies.

And Richard MacDonald loves her.

“She is mysterious, she is sensual,” he observed, admiringly.

“She” is “Nightfall,” a nearly one-half-ton bronze statue in the center of The Art of Richard MacDonald gallery inside the Bellagio Las Vegas.

The figure eyes a grapefruit-size sphere she holds in front of her with one hand while in the other, held behind her, is an identical ball seemingly on the verge of falling from her grasp.

“She holds the hope of the future, and in the back she is letting go of the past,” MacDonald explained. “Which is something we all need to do.”

The prolific artist exudes a passion and preternatural energy undiminished by three decades of creating sculptures and monuments that serve as mediations on the human form and the human condition.

He has been commissioned to create works for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and the Royal Ballet School in London, and has exhibited and sold his unique and limited-edition works worldwide.

“There’s a thing that was said about art — I think it was (Marcel) Duchamp,” MacDonald said, walking around his gallery, one of his two local spaces — the other is in CityCenter — that are partnerships with Cirque du Soleil and its co-founder
Guy Laliberté.

“‘The English language is almost impossible to describe human emotions. And to describe art is to destroy it one word at a time.’ So as I tell you what I think, I am actually destroying my art, but there is not much way to communicate if I do not,” he said, laughing.

MacDonald began his professional career as an illustrator, but soon turned to sculpture, focusing on monuments as a way to gain notoriety and financial reward.

“I thought monuments mean big dollars, big power, success — all the stuff. Not so. Because, if I asked one question to anybody in this room …”

MacDonald scanned the space and approached a nearby gallery representative.

“Let me ask you one question. You’re not on the spot. Do you know who did the Statue of Liberty?”

“I am so sorry, no,” she answered.

“Hey, that’s OK; 99.99 percent of people in this building do not know who it is,” he told her.

“So I (realized) that if you don’t know who created a monument like the Statue of Liberty, then you could not be famous.”

‘IT CHANGED MY LIFE’

One day in 1986, MacDonald was returning to his ranch home in Placerville, California, where he was in the process of creating a monument. It was an image of William Seward for the Z.J. Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska. It would become a turning point in his career and life.

“I open the door, and the blaze hit me in the face,” he said, recalling coming upon the scene of his burning home.

“I went down on the ground, on my elbows, looking for my dog. It was too late; that was probably my greatest loss that day.

“I’m sitting there fighting this fire — because I had water pressure — and I was still trying to save anything I can. But the roof is gone, and a firefighter is up there screaming, ‘Get out,’ because all of the materials, the rubber and fiberglass; the fumes from that can kill you. I could not feel my hands for months.

“That fire was the universe telling me, in a sense, I was going in the wrong direction. That is one hell of a way to do it because it wiped me out. Destroyed everything I owned and left me penniless, basically. Then the state of Alaska sued me because the monument that I was working on melted in the fire, so I ended up doing that for a year for free.”

The 900-pound bronze likeness of Seward in mid stride, top hat and cane clenched in one hand at his side, still resides at the library.

Financially desperate and emotionally reeling, the artist needed a plan. Enter self-help speaker and writer Tony Robbins.

“Friends of mine turned me on to his tapes, and they changed my state. I came up with a plan that no other artist in the United States did. My career launched in 1988, and by 1991, I was selling more bronzes than anyone else on this planet. I had 72 galleries worldwide. It changed my life.”

DON’T LOOK BACK

It is early morning, and the gallery was still relatively quiet. He stopped beside a sculpture in red patina (MacDonald’s solo exhibition, Red, is an exploration of the color as it relates to sculpted form), an inverted woman atop a man, faces together in a delicate, ephemeral balance.

“This piece was done in my studio in Las Vegas. It is called ‘Yin and Yang’, explained MacDonald. “It took three years to do, and it started nine years prior to that.”

The models featured are former U.S. National Gymnastics champion Kristie Phillips-Bannister and Cirque du Soleil performer Stephan Choiniere.

“They never actually get into that pose; they come kind of close,” he said.

“My job as an artist, as I see it, is to instill the connection of human beings. So “Yin and Yang” is about the coupling of the male and female. It is all-handmade, and it looks handmade because being such a high-technology environment and culture these days, we lose sight of who we are sometimes just as human beings. You see the tool marks, and these hands made those tools.”

Moving through the gallery, we stopped in front of one bronze piece of two nude figures near the top of what appears to be a rope of hanging fabric. The man, hairless and heavily muscled, clutches the material in one arm, as though holding on for life, while supporting the body of a blindfolded woman bent backward with the other.

“This is called ‘Orpheus Ascending,’” MacDonald said. “(The models) never did this. In fact, this guy was strong, but he could not hold her (in that position). So I would take her naked body, and hold her over so I could feel what the body felt like underneath, so I could sculpt it. The blindfold is trust.”

The trust of Orpheus faltered famously when he glanced behind to assure himself that his deceased wife, Eurydice, still trailed him as he led her from Hades — a glimpse that sent her instantly and forever back to the underworld.

MacDonald’s past profoundly informs his work and life, but he keeps his eyes set on the future at a time many artists experience diminished output due to aging bodies. And, in an art world constantly searching for the new and novel, the tendency is to become creatively drained by the demands to evolve and remain relevant.

“They are like children,” he said of his sculptures. “No two are alike, just like us.

“Each one is a separate personality. Each one has different intention: Go forward without fear, the beauty of love and passion and compassion, understanding that life is delicate — the balance of this delicate thing called life — and you could lose it at any time.

My brother was killed when I was 15. That was a big lesson.”

‘CANNOT THINK OF MONEY FIRST’

MacDonald’s rapid and lasting commercial success is due, in part, to an innate business acumen that has allowed him to create relationships with dealers and collectors in all continents.

“I understand marketing; I understand business; and I understand that you cannot have one interfere or determine the other,” he explained. “When I create artwork, I do not think about money. Nobody is allowed to talk about money in my studio — we are creating art here. And that is a very difficult thing because, as a businessman, I could develop 100 ideas that would make an enormous amount of money.

“But in art, you cannot do that. It is backward. You cannot think of the money first. Just create art. And then be a genius about how you market. The main thing for me is excellence.”

‘WATERFALL OF HUMANITY’

MacDonald’s work is deeply rooted in the tradition of figurative human form sculpture. But despite its worldwide popularity, the teaching and practice of the art form sharply has declined in recent decades.

“In figurative art, particularly in bronze, you do not find top-flight artists anymore,” observed MacDonald. “It is hard to do; schools do not teach it. It is not part of the curriculum, for the most part. Ninety percent of all the colleges in the world used to teach this — now they do not.”

MacDonald devotes time to teach and set a university curriculum to help preserve and promote the art that he sees. Creating an essential, universal connection between artist and viewer is often impossible in other media or subject matter.

“I think it is really important to teach children that there are opportunities (in art), and that we do not lose something that is beautiful and beneficial,” he explained. “The greatest thing for an architect to build is … what? A museum. What is in it? Some of the most valuable things on earth and things that we prize.

“For me, I am just part of that whole. I am less interested in the individual human being as I am in the waterfall of humanity. So I am just a part of the waterfall, and I want to leave, hopefully, a legacy. Something for children coming up and for people to enjoy and to connect with.”

As for the Statue of Liberty, its creator did receive a measure of lasting recognition after all. French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed the monument, which was dedicated in 1886. His childhood home in the Alsace town of Colmar is now a small museum dedicated to his work. The Musée Bartholdi hosts about 15,000 visitors annually.

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