Careful carving | SteamboatToday.com

Careful carving

Commissioned sculpture offers realistic challenge for local artist

Margaret Hair

— Sculptor Sandy P. Graves does her best artwork at night.

It’s a reality of the trade that doesn’t do much for her health or her memory. Case in point: It took Graves a few moments to recall how long she’s been working on her biggest project to date, a commission by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association that eventually will be placed on the Routt County Courthouse lawn.

“I know I don’t have any responsibility to anyone in the world at that time,” Graves said about spending the wee hours forming a three-person, life-size sculpture in the back room of the Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat.

“I can really get into that right-brained mode and just get lost. That loss of a sense of time and space, everything goes away when you’re in that mode. Everything happens twice as easy,” she said.

Kneading a mound of oil-based clay that will become a ponytail on one of her figures, Graves said she has a lot of work left to do on her depiction of children at play. On Feb. 20, the Chamber hosts a “meet the artist” reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Artists’ Gallery. Two weeks before the date, on an afternoon off from her job as an art and Spanish teacher at The Lowell Whiteman School, Graves said she was working to finish a rough outline.

That outline comes from a quarter-size mock-up of the finished product. Explaining that one of her biggest challenges is keeping the sculpture from becoming too realistic, Graves paused and looked at her work.

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“Then there’s a whole lot of time where you just stand back and stare, and try to figure out what to do next,” she said.

This process started with a concept around October 2006, Graves said. Conceptually, the Chamber was specific about what it wanted – something joyful, something with children, something representing Routt County’s three main industries – so Graves focused on pulling viewers in from all sides of the sculpture.

“Then, I spent a lot of time talking to people I know in the community who are involved in these industries, and thought about when they entered our community history,” Graves said, pointing out the children’s traditional miner’s hat, Nordic skiing gear and cowboy attire.

In the gallery’s main room, Graves’ more abstract work – a collection of cast bronze horses with very long legs – is on display with oil paintings by Bonnie McGee and prints by Maggie Smith. She said those works provide a welcome artistic break from her commission.

“Doing all the tedious work of this realistic work : these are nice because they’re so loose and abstract that they can balance that out,” Graves said. With her horses, she plays with negative space, making gaps look more substantial that the actual bronze that fills them.

As for the Chamber piece, Graves refers to it as a big deal.

“Very few artists get the opportunity to really have their work in a permanent place, and to have that opportunity is a huge responsibility,” Graves said.

“I feel like I really want the piece to be something the whole community can take pride in.”