A profile of one of the best sculptors in the world – MacDonald

A piece I found in the Summer 2011 Edition of Pelican Hill Magazine that profiles the best peak-action sculptor in the world. I love sculpture as an art form and so I eat up stories like this.

The Human Theater of Richard MacDonald

Richard MacDonald first noticed the small group of men and women gathered outside his hotel as he was leaving for one of his art openings about six years ago. MacDonald, one of the foremost figurative sculptors in the country, recognized an avid collector among the waiting entourage.

When he arrived at his gallery in downtown Laguna, which was packed with more than 1,000 people to see his latest work, MacDonald spotted the same group again.They were all dressed in black tie attire, although the opening was not a formal affair.This time one of the women, wearing an evening gown, approached him.

She whispered in his ear, “He’s dying. He has only days to live and flew all of us out here. It was one of the last things he wanted to do was see your art.”

When MacDonald recounted this exchange in a recent interview, he had to pause a moment to collect his emotions.“I’ve thought about retiring at one point. But when people are so moved like that…”

During his 22-year career as a prolific sculptor, MacDonald, 65, said this poignant visit was one of the most extreme reactions he has received from his work. However, the California native said it was not unusual for his realistic depictions of the human figure, usually captured in the peak moment of physical or emotional expression, to evoke powerful responses.

“I cannot tell you how many people, powerful people, come to my studio and they are in tears they
are so moved by what they see,” said MacDonald, who works and teaches out of his 25,0000-square-foot studio in Monterey, along with two apprentices. MacDonald’s son and daughter-in-law, Rich and Ariane McDonald, own a gallery in downtown Laguna Beach, which the artist named after his grandson, Dawson Cole.

His bronze sculptures, which are represented in galleries around the world, convey a type of human theater, depicting everything from dancers and gymnasts to mythological gods and wild animals.

“My goal is to make fine art, and fine art comes from the soul,” he said.“If you have the virtuosity and facility, you can take and create something of significance.”

MacDonald first turned to art when he was 15, shortly after his brother’s death in a car crash sent him in the “wrong direction.” An uncle, who was a leading graphic artist, sent MacDonald from his home in Monterey to the Art Institute of Miami.The uncle even took a teaching job at the Institute to mentor the young MacDonald. From there, MacDonald returned to California, and graduated cum laude from the

Los Angeles Art Center in 1971. For the next 15 years, MacDonald worked as a commercial illustrator and painter, where he honed his rendering skills of the human figure.

MacDonald, however, tired of the temporary nature of illustration, experimented with sculpture at a night class, where he cast his first bronze bust. He went on to teach himself the principles of figurative sculpture, and focused on the classical traditions of the Renaissance with a contemporary sensibility.

One of his many major commissions, which catapulted him into the spotlight, was a 26-foot gymnast called “The Flair,” which he designed for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Another one of his masterworks is “Momentum,” a 15-foot sculpture celebrating the 100th playing of the U.S. Open Gold Championship at Pebble Beach in 2000. MacDonald has also partnered with Cirque du Soleil, with whom he shares several galleries in Las Vegas.

Although MacDonald is proud of his monumental works, he prefers to focus on his private pieces. He starts by making the form out of clay, which he then uses to make the mold to create the bronze cast. Unlike most sculptors, MacDonald never works off photographs of his subjects, but draws on a photographic memory and actually sculpts directly in the clay. He has professional dancers, athletes and other performers as models, having them leap in the air or hold poses while he “draws” their form in the wet clay.

“I can actually feel the interior body of a dancer,” he said. “I have the ability to capture a split second… I want you to be hit with whatever the essence is of this sculpture.”

In what he describes as one of his most thrilling experiences, MacDonald once brought in two
trainers and four wild cats — a cheetah, mountain lion, black panther and serval — to his studio so he could draw them. He made models of the cheetah as it went through several moves, such as standing, sitting and jumping.Then the trainers brought the cheetah out to a nearby sheep ranch and watched it accelerate to 60 miles an hour within four seconds. At one point, they distracted the cat with a herd of sheep so MacDonald could touch and explore its anatomy first hand.

“Just don’t get near his feet,” MacDonald said, laughing.“At one point, I was massaging the cheetah’s scapula, and he whipped his head around and scared me to death.”

Currently, MacDonald is working on a commission for the Royal Ballet School in London, where he is creating a memorial to the ballet’s founder, Dame Ninette de Valois. Located in a 5,000 square-foot plaza at Whitelodge in Richmond Park, London, the grand monument will include multiple figures in the 16-foot-tall Grand Coda.

To prepare for the monument, due for completion in 2013, MacDonald has attended numerous ballet performances, had the pleasure of meeting with ballet patron Prince Charles and worked directly with the principals of the Royal Ballet.

“These guys are just flying through air and I’m capturing them in the split second and putting it into a work of art, via clay to the bronze,” he said. “There are very few people who do what I do. There aren’t any schools, few if any, that teach this. I’m always looking for the next challenge.

Written By Janine Robinson

Dawson Cole Fine Art Gallery is currently showcasing MacDonald’s exploratory studies and how we prepared for his commission with the Royal Ballet in London, along with other pieces.

Dawson Cole Fine Art
326 Glenneyre St.
Laguna Beach, CA


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