conversation
     

 

A CONVERSATION WITH AL LAVERGNE
Taken from an interview between Al Lavergne and Helen Sheridan on August 15, 1995.

HS Where do you find the ideas that lead to sculpture?

AL They come when I'm in the studio. I've always done a lot of experimenting when making shapes. I use steel plates and pipes as raw material, but I reform them rather than just assembling the different pieces. In the reforming process, I follow my intuition. The ideas come through this process.

HS So working directly with these industrial materials is central to the development of your ideas?

AL Yes. Each sculpture takes a long time to develop because my ideas change as I work. I often stumble on something that opens an entirely new avenue. I have the most fun when I can pursue an idea that comes to me during the process. That's what happened with Infatuation. It wasn't going to be a big piece. I made a circular form that came together in a satisfying way and wanted to make a second one like it. When I found I couldn't, I tried to back track to discover what was wrong. The first had a personality, a presence that I liked but couldn't get with the second. Although it was structurally the same, the second form lacked the gracefulness of the first. It looked contrived.

HS How did you resolve the problem? Why didn't you leave the first, successful form as a sculpture in itself?

AL It wasn't enough in itself. I had to broaden it. The only way to do this was to create a line that would move away from the first circular form, allow it its own spatial integrity, and keep moving through in space. I'm very concerned with defining and activating spaces.
I felt the piece would grow as an extension of the circle form. I wanted the ends to join somewhere, but I didn't want them simply to connect as in an ordinary circle. So I changed directions and repeated the circle form. Once I did that, I achieved something like a necklace, where the individual, smaller circles become parts of the larger circle. That's how the sculptural form eventually resolved itself.

HS Relying so heavily on intuition at each stage of the process must be very time consuming.

AL It is. In my work I often have to second guess what I've done. When I run into a problem, I'll leave what I'm doing for a day or two. When I go back, I may change or entirely remove parts that I've added. Each sculpture must grow in a way that's compatible with and doesn't impair what has gone before. I'm always revisiting and thinking about the forms I make to see if they feel true. If I believe that I can't improve on a form, I have to leave it alone. If it still seems true after six months, then it will probably work as a sculpture.

AL One of my on-going concerns is maintaining my emotional involvement. What I have to do is keep inventing my need for doing the piece. To paraphrase, one day I might feel like ice cream, the next day I might want a different kind of food, and so on. When I'm finished eating I'll have a complete meal of the things I like. Making a sculpture is something like that for me. It's very complicated. I'm constantly re-examining what I've done, the ideas I've explored and the forms I've developed. What is true for me today will be re-examined and redefined tomorrow. With Infatuation I explored a number of ideas I eventually discarded. I tried to force a number of forms I created to fit in a satisfactory way, but over time it became clear that they didn't work well, didn't say enough. They had to go.

HS So you're involved in a continuing improvisation?

AL I want a piece to be defined as I do it, as opposed to the working out of some preconceived and fixed idea. It's like jazz, where you start with a musical idea and see what you can make of it. The decisions you make will be judged by the problems that you create for yourself. Solutions come when you find a way to leap beyond the problems you've created to get back into the general flow of the piece itself. I also want to be able to reap the rewards of discovery within the process. I used to destroy a lot of beautiful things because I had a prior notion of the forms or surface qualities I wanted to create. Questions always have to be asked. In the way I work, success often depends on the quality of the question I've asked or my reasons for doing what determines the outcome. The best questions bring the best results. I go into my studio with the attitude: "What am I going to ask myself today?"

HS The process requires great technical virtuosity. Improvisation is based on years of training, experience and feeling.

AL And risk! The risk is really the fun because it challenges what you know. That's what I try to do. Obviously, I have competence with metals. I can shape and move forms. But as important as it is, my work is not about competence. Certainly that's important. I've had a lot of fun exploring what I can do with metal. I used to be very excited about doing things with steel that you might think could only be done in wood or some other medium. But that's not enough any more.

HS Risk also involves the possibility of disaster.

AL That's true. It's not practical. It's hard to convince your loved ones that you're making sense. It's also necessary to separate the creative process from everyday life. I don't gamble with my family. I gamble in the studio. I pay my own way, so I can afford to do it my way. People tell me all the time that there must be an easier way to do things. I'm sure there is, for them. I have fun doing what I do, even when it isn't easy. Time is moving on. I'm past 50 now. I sometimes wonder if I'll have enough time to do all that I want to do. There are a lot of questions I don't have answers for, and in the past few years I've had things happen in my personal life that have made me recommit myself to my art. It all comes to the studio with me. The things I produce in my studio are the result of struggle, of stretching and falling on my face and getting up again. Though it's painful, I want to keep falling on my face. It's worthwhile in terms of what I learn from the experience.

HS Why is it that you work in steel fabrication, which I associate with collaboration and extensive planning?

AL In the early years I couldn't afford to work with a foundry; but even after I had access to other media, such as bronze casting, I found them too confining. I like to work alone. Fabrication allows me to approach the concerns I have as an artist and, at the same time, work independently. But industrial pipe and welding skills are just the starting point. The ways I manipulate the material and use fabricating techniques must result in something that didn't exist before and has a lasting strength. I'm fascinated by the strength of steel. As a kid I always had to share things and they were always breaking down. Nothing is invincible, but steel can withstand so much. I enjoy its strength and immediacy. It's also fun to transform steel pipe into organic shapes. I love that transforming process.

HS Do you enjoy actually handling the materials?

AL Handling the materials, steel pipe and plates, is not much fun. It's work. But it's a choice I've made. I'd rather work with steel in my studio than go to committee meetings. I enjoy the freedom to do what I choose in my studio, but it's no fun loading gas cylinders in the back of my truck or walking through the scrapyard. I don't look forward to doing many of the things that must be done. I do them because they're necessary for my work. It's all worthwhile if I end up with something that I feel good about. Everything else is forgotten.

HS Have you ever used assistants to help with the heavier, more mundane work?

AL I would have a big problem telling assistants what to do. I don't even know what I'm going to do all the time. I know what I feel. Although I'm dealing with a physical medium, the ideas that drive me are not clearly defined and thought out. My hope is that the forms I create will move the people who see them.

HS Although your sculpture is abstract, many of your forms are biomorphic and suggest forms found in nature. Just how important is nature in your work?

AL I think nature has a lot to do with my inspiration. But there's a danger in dealing with organic shapes. If you twist a pipe a certain way, it may look like a vine or a tree or some other specific organic form. I don't want people to see particular, identifiable forms in my work. At an earlier stage in my career I was interested in transforming metals into forms that everyone could identify. It was something I did for a number of years and, on that level, I succeeded. But after a time, my forms began to repeat themselves. Once I had developed my sculptural vocabulary, I had to decide whether I was going to be a craftsman, repeating and reassembling the same predictable forms, or if I was going to ask deeper questions.
I'm trying to ask some of those questions in my current work. At the most basic level, I'm trying to define a strong and interesting sculptural space. Lately I've been pleased that I've been able, to some degree, to redefine organic movement and combine it with inorganic angles and planes.

HS Would you call yourself an "abstract expressionist" sculptor?

AL I don't think I fit into a particular place in the continuum of art history, and I try not to define myself in those terms. I think we've got enough art historians out there who can apply those labels. I think self is more important than art historical references. When I go into the studio I look to myself and ask questions of myself. If I fail or succeed, it's going to be because I did what I wanted to do. I feel very comfortable within the area I've chosen for myself. I think there are plenty of issues to investigate.

HS I understand you've done a number of commissions. How do you reconcile your highly personal approach with commission work?

AL I've run into problems with commissions. If people commission a portrait, they expect to recognize the image when you are finished. To some degree an artist doing a portrait becomes an illustrator. There are real limits to the extent to which I can experiment when doing a commission. I don't want to be judged purely on my ability to represent something in an anatomically correct way. I try to respond to the theme I'm representing or to the experiences of the person I'm portraying. In most cases, this kind of engagement helps me move beyond the level of illustrator or animator. But my personality as an artist really emerges in the way I solve the problems of moving from one shape to another within the sculpture. That's what makes my pieces individual. I believe there's always a way to make the material do what you want, and I pride myself on being tenacious enough to find a solution that will work well. It may not be the same solution that another artist would choose, but it's mine. I want to be able to recognize my work as my own. I don't look for other artists to give me choices. I make my own choices. The improvisation involved in making my choices is what I find most satisfying.

HS Your sculpture has grown in size and complexity, in some cases to the point where they approach environments. Do you intend for viewers to see them as such?

AL Very much so. I'm concerned with that very issue in Vitality, a piece I'm working on now. I want it to be viewed from the inside. I have to leave the piece open so that people can examine what's going on inside.

HS How big a concern is safety?

AL I'm very concerned about safety. I can't show pieces that aren't stable and safe to exhibit. One of the worst things that could happen would be for a weld to fail. I have to do the technical things so that my pieces can be viewed without risk.

HS Earlier you mentioned visiting scrapyards. Is that where you find most of your material?

AL Yes. In fact, I get a certain amount of pleasure in working with the people at the scrapyards where I get my steel. When I go into a scrapyard for the first time, the workmen don't know what to think. They try to understand my needs in terms of something practical, like plumbing or a construction project. When I go a second time, they give me that "here he comes again" look and I'm the butt of the joke for a while. But by the third trip, they're interested and, after that, they start holding things they think I might like. They're really intrigued by the idea of making art, of creating something that has no practical function. In a way, they become part of the experience. One fellow I know has been in the business for 40 years. Since I met him two years ago, he has become my friend, my protector every time I visit the yard. When I load my truck and drive up on the scales, he'll come up and make sure they're treating me right and that I don't get charged more than I should. He values what I do because it's different, something I do for love rather than money. That makes my relationship with him special.

HS We haven't talked about your background or personal history. What were some of the factors or influences that contributed to your decision to become an artist?

AL I grew up in Louisiana on a farm with lots of brothers and sisters. As little kids we all worked in the fields. When the weather was bad and we couldn't work, we'd have to find ways to entertain ourselves. Because my folks couldn't afford to buy much, we would make things. My father had to be a jack of all trades, so it was natural for us to do a lot of different things. I started playing with objects, making things. All my brothers were good at making things. We could look at something, then come away and make a pretty good version of it. We were known as the brothers who could build things that would actually work.
For me, there was pleasure in making objects that went beyond actually using them. The blacksmith shop was right down the road from us, and I'd go there with my father. I was fascinated by the way the blacksmith could take steel and pound it into something totally different. It made a lot of sense to me. At school, the principal was quick to realize that the kids in my family had this unusual ability. We were always asked to do things like build the Homecoming floats. That was nice. It kept us out of the classroom. There weren't any art classes in my high school, but I was always doing things. When I was ready to graduate, someone suggested that I think about art. It wasn't until I went off to college that I actually saw a few people producing art.

HS You were an art major?

AL I didn't think I had much choice. Art was natural for me. I enjoy the confrontation with the elements, the opportunity to resolve problems. I have a brother who is the same way with industrial equipment. He can look at a piece of equipment and pretty much figure out how it works. My things don't function as practical objects, but I hope they're fun to look at.

HS When did you decide to concentrate on sculpture?

AL Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was drawn to sculpture from the time of those early visits to the blacksmith shop. It made so much sense to me. Then in the early 1970s I studied with Peter Voulkos in California. He was a strong influence, both intimidating and powerful. That's when I got into steel. There was no formal metals curriculum, so I did it on my own. I get real pleasure in being able to walk around the pieces I create, in experiencing a work fully. As far as I'm concerned, sculpture is really what art is all about.

HS This exhibition will give audiences in the area an opportunity to see a significant number of your works together for the first time. What does that mean for you?

AL The pieces I make in my studio are me. The pieces in this show will represent me. I'm excited about that.