New York sculptor seeks solace, a place to work in Missoula
by Cory Walsh, The Missoulian
Sculpting with stone requires patience.
Carefully tapping as the pieces crumble off, adjusting and readjusting as the form emerges from a solid block.
Once a piece is removed, it can never go back on.
“That’s why it takes patience. Just because you’ve got a big hard stone doesn’t mean you’ve gotta go like a maniac,” said August Christian, an artist who recently moved here from New York. ” ‘Cause then you end up with nothing.”
The 66-year-old said you have to follow the material’s lead.
“The stone will tell you what you can do and what you can’t do,” he said.
Christian, a trained sculptor hindered by post-traumatic stress disorder, moved to Missoula last October after decades in New York City took their toll. He lost his rent-controlled apartment and was living in a small shared studio.
A friend going back more than 30 years, Raymond Russ, lived here in Missoula. Christian visited the city in the 1970s after leaving the Army, and remembered the friendly atmosphere.
“I’ve lived in the big city my whole life, so I’ve had enough. Up to here,” he said.
He’s found an apartment, but can’t work. His preferred medium of marble has its own set of needs: a space that’s about 400 square feet with concrete floors and windows with natural light. Because of the weight, it must be on the first floor or have a service elevator.
Russ, who edits an academic journal, said the move has benefited Christian so far.
However, they haven’t had much luck after four months of looking since the October move.”I’m sort of in limbo now,” he said.
He’s still paying off the debt from relocating, sculptures and all, to Montana.
Christian, who grew up in Chicago, enlisted in the Army in 1968 on his 18th birthday and served from the start of 1969 to August 1970.
He reached the rank of sergeant, working on long-range reconnaissance missions in the Mekong Delta.
“Our job was to find the enemy, count them, see what kind of weapons they had, location, time and get the hell out of there, but it didn’t always work like that. You can get caught, and we did a lot of running. A lot of running,” he said.
He said he lost some people close to him in country, and he was injured once by shrapnel from a grenade. He covered his eyes with his hand, which needed stitches along with his forehead.
“I covered my eyes. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to be blind, I guess,” he said.
He earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, two Air Medals and a Combat Infantryman Badge.
What he saw in Vietnam fueled his distrust of the government, a belief that would come into full view when he moved to New York and played in a rock group called the Boo Hoo Band.
He still has a few recordings of their confrontational songs like “Corporate Interest” and “Do You C.I.A.”
“I guess you would call it punk rock, but people would say that we were no punk band because we could actually play our instruments,” he said.
They played in the famed clubs of the time like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, where groups like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television and others found a place for their music.
A 1978 Harvard Crimson article has a description of the Boo Hoo Band’s in-your-face presence on stage, which included “plunging a dagger into occupied tables in the club audience, and pouring hot wax on his bare chest.”
Pouring hot wax on myself?” he told the reporter. “It’s just part of the character, you know? For me it’s just acting. It doesn’t take much talent. Everybody has it. You just have to have the nerve. It’s freedom. On stage it’s anarchy. That’s the only time you can experience anarchy, I think, is on stage. That’s total anarchy, because anything can happen. Anything.”
Looking back, he said the character was a street punk, “a little ‘Clockwork Orange.’ ”
At the end of the set, he’d wrap himself in plastic wrap and slowly cut himself loose over the course the song.
He said fights broke out during their sets and they were eventually barred from both CBGB and Max’s, leaving them with nowhere to play.
After the band fell apart, he went to study at the Art Students League of New York.
He had carved wood sculptures back in Chicago, and had an eye for the figure. He was already in his late 20s when he began studying sculpture with Jose De Creeft for a few years.
De Creeft was in his 90s and focused on teaching instead of new works. De Creeft is best known for the “Alice in Wonderland” sculpture in Central Park, but pioneered making modern sculpture from scrap metal.
Christian worked in De Creeft’s studio, surrounded by his sculptures, and learned “how to bring a stone to fruition.”
He would critique my work. I would work all day and he would come down in the evening and see what I had done. In the beginning it was kind of tough,” he said.
He knew sculpture was his path when he won a student award, and got a compliment and admonition from De Creeft.
His initial works were abstractions of the figure, typically women, but he branched into several different directions.
He sculpted large marble busts, typically at 2 1/2 times life size, that were influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Medieval forms.
He also makes collages, using books of 18th century etchings, and mixing and scrambling their subject matter into a personal mythology. In “Sweet Bird Of Youth,” a minotaur flees a goose in a mountaintop temple, which is bellowing flames. A piece called “Illana” functions as a portrait, a creature whose body and head are assembled from rows of trumpets and organ pipes, adorned with a single inquisitive eye.
He has portfolios’ worth of the collages in his apartment, but they likely represent the last that he’ll make.
“I’ve gotten to a point where I can’t find those books anymore. They’re rare,” he said.
He openly describes the collages as morbid, although they’re in stark contrast to the sensuousness of his wood and stone sculptures, and the collages hint at his post-traumatic stress disorder in a way the sculptures do not.
He said his PTSD didn’t set in until shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He began having severe panic attacks and couldn’t sleep. “I would wake up in the middle of the night hearing voices, ‘You’re gonna die,’ and things like that,” he said.
“It was one thing after another, and I got to the point where I was completely broken down. I wouldn’t even leave my apartment,” he said.
He’s sought out treatment for the PTSD from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which he still receives, and is getting by on a stipend from the Department of Defense.
And until he can find a studio, he’ll stay in limbo without any extra money coming in. He intends to stay in Missoula for the long term, and needs a place to sculpt that he can access via bike or the bus – the longtime New Yorker doesn’t drive.
Russ has helped Christian get set up, although he himself will be moving back to the East Coast soon for work. Russ enlisted another friend to run Christian’s website and help answer his emails – he doesn’t own or use a computer.
He keeps his work in storage, where he can’t show it, although he brought out a few pieces for visitors. One of them was the sculpture that won that prize decades ago.
“When I showed this to Jose, he finally, finally said to me, ‘You must be proud.’ So that was major encouragement. He said ‘You must be proud. Now in 20 years you can take it seriously,’ ” he said.
Feb 26, 2016
Photography by: Dariusz Janczewski ©2016