Encore Magazine, December, 1997  

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By Ben Jones
Meet the Artist Who Dresses for a Steel Job

 

  AL LAVERGNE'S sculptures are made of blue steel. But they are rooted in red clay.
  LaVergne, a professor of art at Western Michigan University, creates large works out of fabricated metal. But he got his start as a boy by molding horses and cows out of clay on his father's farm in rural Louisiana.
  LaVergne, 54, now lives outside of Paw Paw. Nevertheless, he still feels attached to the French Creole culture he was born into and to the childhood experiences that shaped his life.
  His current studio is located in the Knollwood Building, a former primary-school building on the edge of campus. LaVergne likes the rambling structure for its isolation—he's one of only two full-time faculty in the building and has been located there for about seven years. As he works on his latest piece, a writhing shape about five feet long, the sculptor wears a tan workshirt pitted with black pinprick holes made by flying sparks. His work boots have steel flaps that reach from the tongue to the steel toes, to protect his feet from chunks of metal that may fall on them.
  "It's saved me many times," he says.
  Indeed, LaVergne's feet seem to have been steered to his current station in life by a guiding influence that took him out of the most humble of origins imaginable in America.
  These days, he is busy happily creating. The clutter of the studio includes a leather hide hung over a ceiling pipe to dry—a material his father often made use of in saddles and harness straps and which LaVergne occasionally incorporates.
  There's also a black-and-white poster showing Dexter Gordon taking a cigarette break as he cradles his clarinet. LaVergne sees an analogy between jazz music and the rounded shapes he plies. His full-scale works are not merely blowups of the preliminary models. Instead, the models merely form starting points for his improvisa-tion-hy-fabrication.
  "I cut the metal in panels, and I build with it," he says. "Because of that, I'm able to pretty much go into any direction I want. I try to be as spontaneous as possible and react to it as it develops.
  "If something feels right, I try to continue that, pretty much like a blues player or a jazz player would do."
  Such free-form composition, however, can play havoc with arts committees who have commissioned LaVergne to execute a concept they have agreed to based on his model.
  "I start a thing, and then as I go I'll see ways to get better as an artist," he says. "But then that may change the concept of what the committee thought I was going to do."
  This frequently gets him into trouble with civic leaders whose tastes run toward the conventional, LaVergne notes, chuckling.
  "I always like to build the works and then let them decide if they want them or not," he says. "That's really the best way. I am not a technician. I'm into the possibility of evolving with a piece. Really, I'm concerned with those issues that are somewhat esoteric and intangible."
  And governmental committees are not strong on esotericism and intangibility. LaVergne points at the serpentine piece he's currently working on and says he doesn't know how close it is to its final form.
  "No telling where this piece is going to go," he says. "But I'm having a lot of fun."
  Yes, LaVergne is a free spirit who likes to conjure a free association of ideas with his forms. But he's also a hard worker: He's at his studio by eight each morning, sculpting — or fabricating, as he would say.
  His latest creation, a seven-foot-tall statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is being done for a city park bearing King's name in Shreveport, La. The statue has Dr. King holding the hands of a young black woman and a young white man, who in turn are holding their free hands outstretched, as if ready to join with others. LaVergne intends the statue to show how Dr. King's concerns of peace, unity and education transcended race and gender.
  He admires the statue of Dr. King just north of Kalamazoo's downtown as one of the finest realistic sculptures of the man that he has seen. But realism wasn't one of LaVergne's concerns. He wanted to portray the power of Dr. King's message—as an energy source that others could plug into to become better, bolder, and more dynamic.
  So in making the final version, sure enough, LaVergne departed from the model. He found himself abstracting Dr. King's arms, which turn into a book and other tools of learning before they attach to his torso.
  "His body starts to change," LaVergne says. "Instead of just having arms holding books, his arm becomes the book, and then you might see a microscope. So all of these things make up the individual joints of his body. That concept kind of scared them.
  "And you see, that was where the controversy came in," he says. "They (the arts committee) said, 'But this doesn't look like Dr. King.'"
  "No, but does it feel like him?" LaVergne replied. "Are those ideas about what he was about?"
  " Well, yes, but ..."
  So the politicians debated putting the statue in a less visible location. They procrastinated until the public began clamoring to see the work so it could decide for itself, and, as a result, the sculpture was installed on Nov. 3. If all goes well, it could be dedicated early next year.
  "They're going to let people see it gradually, without the fanfare," he says. "Then, if it's well-received — and I anticipate it will he — they'll have an unveiling or dedication. It's going to take a few months — people who hate it have to make their peace with it."
  "I've had pieces rejected before," he says. "If it doesn't survive the initial couple of months, then you have to take it down."
Although the scrutiny that comes with public commissions is painful, LaVergne says he's not about to conform to expectations.
  "Some people don't like to have their lives changed by public art," he says. "All of those fears have to be worked out, and after they can see it as a sculpture, people begin to love it, because they are able to see the sculpture as a sculpture, instead of seeing it with the fears that they brought.
  "I believe that art is supposed to confront us, because it's going to make us think in different ways. This is what the King piece does that I'm so excited about."
  King's goal of education was crucial to LaVergne's own destiny, although his school years were made difficult because he spoke a French patois, not English — there were no language specialists in the schools then — and because of a childhood bout with tuberculosis.
  One of 11 children of parents who were sharecroppers, LaVergne's early life, although poor, was filled with artistic examples. He attended school at Basile, on the border of Evangeline and Acadia parishes. The prinicipal there spotted the talent he and his siblings possessed and asked them to work on special projects like float decorations.
  There was no television in that area of Louisiana in the early 1950s. Instead, on rainy days when LaVergne and his siblings couldn't work the fields of corn and cotton, they formed tilings from clay they had dug up on their farm.
  "It was wonderful stuff," LaVergne says. "We would amuse ourselves, model the animals. My brother was really good at it; he could make horses."
  LaVergne's father made all sorts things, but with a purpose: Being poor he often could not afford to buy parts tools, so he fashioned replacements i of wood and leather — handles, whips harnesses, even saddles.
  When he needed a metal piece, sometimes sent LaVergne on the ho to the blacksmith's shop in town, about a dozen miles away.
  "You'd go down there, and son times the guy wasn't quite finished," says. "So you'd have to wait around. He'd forge, put the metal in the fire, u it would get red, and he'd sharpen l blades. As a kid, I guess that made impression on me. You'd watch, and would stick with you, years later."
  In time, LaVergne did turn metal — and to the figures he was familiar with molding as a child. His first large figurative sculpture was of a horse a carriage pulling Mardi Gras musicians a sight from former days in that region. Done independently, it now stands the state capital grounds in Bat Rouge.
  But at first, he intended to sculpt just a horse.
  "Then, fortunately, the horse looked lonesome, so I added the cart and the figures," he says. "Eventually, I had the feeling of a form that was completed."
  The statue is painted black to preserve the metal. Its forms are smooth and rounded, but now LaVergne leaves the bumpy welds on his finished work, to show the process of forming it.
  His own childhood bears a few such scars.
  When La Vergne was 12, he contracted tuberculosis. The cure at that time was to quarantine patients in a hospital ward. LaVergne stayed there a year. His first night in the infirmary he was awoken by the death throes of the old man in the bed next to him.
The men in the ward played cards, but LaVergne wasn't any good at gambling. To pass the hours, he turned to his familiar childhood amusement, fashioning things in clay.
  When he returned to school, his friends had passed him by, leaving him feeling isolated among his younger classmates. It reinforced his reliance on his own company.
  " I developed a way of being alone a lot," he says, "because I knew how to do that, and that was a way of protecting your sanity. So you find some way to spend your time. And I was doing little art pieces at the time."
  The traumatic experience of his early illness, along with several deaths in his family, have influenced his choice of medium, he thinks.
  " There was a need to go into permanent, strong, resistant kinds of materials," he says. "I got TB, my sister died of lupus, my brother died of sickle cell, so in my own mind, I'm making things that are going to withstand all of this. Viruses are not going to survive steel and bronze."
  Because of the sense of loss associated with attending so many funerals, LaVergne suspects he wanted something durable. He rejected impermanent mediums such as wood and clay, although he realizes nothing is permanent.
  " I tried stone, but that was too time-consuming — it takes you a year to do a piece out of stone. So metal seemed to he the logical option, because you could weld the pieces and it could happen quickly."
  Over time, he developed the technique he calls fabricating. In tills process, the sculpture is not cast but rather is built by laying piece upon piece.
  It's not dissimilar to the art his mother practiced. Although she had no training in art, she possessed a keen sense of color, he says, and made beautifully colored quilts from patches she rescued from old shirts or grain bags.
  "Some of the quilts she made were wonderful, abstract expressionist stuff," LaVergne says. "There are all kinds of cylinder shapes, reds and greens and yellows. She was able to put patches in a certain way to look good.
  " I would ask her sometimes, 'Why did you put this one there?' She wasn't intellectually aware of it, necessarily, but there was a need there — it felt right, because of the color harmony or color vocabulary she was working with. And each quilt had its own identity."
  Other influences are submerged in his work — for instance, faith healing, an oral tradition of medicinal practices passed down through his family and stemming from Creole voodooism. Not
that he messes with potions—he confesses that he's somewhat fearful of the supernatural anyway — but he suspects that somehow he feeds on that culture.
  "There are still some things I have to process yet," he says. "But I think that, if there is a connection to do with a lot of that, then I'm really closer to my ancestors than I've ever been."
  Ironically, LaVergne was among the first in his family to go to college. Because of his illness, he was eligible for what the state of Louisiana called a Vocational Rehabilitation Program.
  "That meant if you had a major illness, the state would pay to educate you so you could become useful to the community," he says. Many of his brothers, frustrated at falling behind their peers because of the language barrier, had quit school. LaVergne's art sustained him. His principal brought the state program to his attention, suggested he major in art, and wrote a letter of recommendation for him to Southern University in Baton Rouge, a traditionally black institution affiliated with Louisiana State University.
  From there, LaVergne won an art scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned master of arts and master of fine arts degrees, graduating with honors in the early 1970s.
  Berkeley was where he began working with metals. He started out like other students who would design a work on paper using different parts that formed geometrical shapes, then would put it together almost by blueprint.
  "When I was in grad school, most people there were using found parts," he says. "You would do assemblages: You'd get a round piece, you'd get a square piece, and you'd do a nice little concept.
  "After awhile, my pieces began to look like other people's work. When you use geometries, there's only so many equations you can come up with before you start repeating yourself. To some degree, it's going to look like the piece you did the last time."
  That's when LaVergne began to develop a vocabulary of hard and soft forms, using a rough textural appearance without attempting an exact physical replication.
  "Gradually my planes began to look like arms and legs and feet, and then I began to see figures emerge from them," he says.
So despite all the higher education, LaVergne's journey has really been about self-discovery, not formal processes or techniques. And that's what has connected him to his ancestors, just as the figures gradually found their way out of his geometric works.
When you go to college, you learn all this new knowledge, but you're still basically yourself," he says. "You still have to learn about you. That new stuff is good, technical stuff, but as an artist, you still have to talk about yourself."
  He's lucky, he says, in that his early difficult circumstances, such as rural poverty or a serious, confining illness, supplied him with material.
  "I have a mosaic of experiences," he says. "I have a wealth of stuff to talk about."
  And he'll continue to let his blow torch and his welder do his talking on a big scale.
  "The older I get, the more I realize that everything I do is part of a natural evolution," he says. "And anything I learn, I'm
actually going back and harvesting all of those feelings and memories.
  "That's the true way to make art — for me, anyway."

 


Al LaVergne takes a photo break from his current project in his studio at the Knollwood Building. He starts with an idea, but isn't really sure where it will go. Ninety percent of the work he has sold are pieces "created as part of his own quest."

 

 

Al LaVergne consults with students in a sculpture class he teaches.

 

This outdoor sculpture of LaVergne's is displayed in Baton Rouge. He says his work is in "just about every major city in Louisiana." His art is also exhibited in New York and Detroit as part of private collections, on the Grand Rapids WMU campus, and in New Jersey where he has traded bis works with another well-known sculpture.

 

Al's Martin Luther Kink sculpture,
a commissioned piece, was recently made public at a city park in Shreveport, La.