Darlis Lamb: Stories in Sculpture

Nature may be the best mentor of all for an artist. Certainly sculptor Darlis Lamb credits the natural world for her inspiration, her models, and the sense of peace and serenity she conveys in her work.Lamb’s pieces, whether the current series of bronze fruits and vegetables or earlier sculptures of people, animals, and still lifes, draw from the world around her. She says, “The shapes I’m using are beautiful…relate to anatomy…organic forms. Can we really improve on nature that’s beautiful?” . She continues, “From a purely artistic standpoint, I find working with the subjects I have chosen to be a focus on beauty, form and design in the most classic sense, in that all forms, including those in human anatomy relate to these shapes.”

While her work can be described as realistic, much of it approaches superrealism (also known as photorealism), so detailed and complete that the viewer catches a complete sense of the original model. Take a pear from one of her French Lessons series. Indeed, one gallery visitor did try to take the pear, thinking (before she picked it up) that it was a real piece of fruit. Yet Lamb’s intent is not to fool the viewer. Instead she brings to her work a story that may be true or imagined, a weaving of perceptions and feelings that she experiences. She then hopes the viewer creates a story of his own. Her series Bonds in Nature: Birds and Animals highlights her approach. She says, “Almost always, when I am inspired to sculpt a bird or an animal, it is the result of a connection made in some way that creates a bond between myself and a beautiful creature of nature. “Butterscotch (a sculpture of a plump rabbit) was the result of having been caretaker for this pudgy, tame and lovable animal for three and a half weeks, while he modeled for a class I taught at St. Mary’s Academy in Denver. . .For every sculpture, there is a story.” Or consider the piece that features chocolate-dipped strawberries, a brush, and a pot of chocolate. Although rendered in bronze with a patina, the components look yummy enough to eat. Lamb says, “People like strawberries and chocolate, and I wanted to use the brush, too.” She imagined a scenario: someone preparing the dessert for a picnic with the underlying stone as a table, or a family’s children interrupted for refreshments while they were painting.

The Story Begins

Lamb’s journey to this point as a successful artist began when she was a child. Born in Nebraska, she was interested in drawing and art from the beginning. But the story-telling aspect of reading also attracted her, and she recalls reading many fairy tales like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, stories featuring forests and castles, animals and princesses. Because her family moved frequently and lived in small towns, she was on her own frequently. Reading stimulated her imagination; reading initiated the process of visualization which contributed to her attraction to art. During her academic career at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Creighton University, and Columbia Pacific University (she received a BA and MA in Fine Arts after she married), she thought she might go into fashion and design. That led to an interest in anatomy classes, which has served her in her art career. Prior to moving to Colorado in 1975, she worked primarily in paint and printmaking, a good approach during the time when her husband traveled frequently and her children were small, although she continued her fashionista phase by making clothes for herself and her daughter. A transfer in her husband’s employment brought her and the family to Colorado, first to the mountains where her husband worked on the construction of the Eisenhower Tunnel. Like many newcomers, the family fell in love with the state and decided to stay, but moved to metro Denver so their three children could attend school.

The Stories Multiply

Once in Colorado, Lamb’s artistic interests began to change. She describes this process as evolution-like, with phases that build on one another. She thought about teaching, but a pottery class at Red Rocks Community College changed her mind. Once she got her hands in clay, the three-dimensional interaction with material became a passion. By 1982 sculpting was a priority. The first phase was human figures, which also have their foundation in nature. She saw something she loved and sculpted it. Beauty, Grace, Dignity: Figures is a series of human forms, frequently female, almost melodic in their execution. In an interview with Southwest Art in 1989, Lamb said, “If I, as an artist, can touch someone by offering a softer form of beauty and grace, my purpose will have been fulfilled” – Carol Dickinson, former director of Golden’s Foothills Art Center, said about Lamb’s work, “I think Ms. Lamb brings humanity and eloquence to her sculptures. At one level, figures such as her elderly Greek folk, she seems to grasp and convey an essential dignity. At another level, that of intuition, mystical or mythic resonance–she invests the sculptures with a pure kind of expressiveness.” The Old Greek and his wife (named, of course, The Old Greek’s Wife) are two favorites of the public and the artist. One set can be viewed in Loveland’s Benson Park. Lamb explained the background and motivation for the work. “The Old Greek was inspired by an elderly gentleman I observed on a ferry while traveling from the Greek Isle of Santorini to Mykonos in 1985. I was captivated by his strong, yet comfortable sense of himself, as if he felt that by virtue of his age he had earned the right to be wherever he wished. I imagined him to be an old sailor, His wife sat on a chair nearby, very proper in her orthodox Greek attire.”

Zen-Like Developments

An accident in 1988, her only one sculpting she stresses, led to another series of works, Timeless Journey: Bronze Zen Landscape Series. These miniature figures sit on a rock-like surface or within circles and resulted from having her arm in a cast for six weeks. While walking by a table holding an object in her left hand and a matte knife in her right, she slipped, cutting her arm. She escaped permanent injury, but the physical restrictions imposed by her condition mandated smaller works.
A fortunate coincidence, for the pieces she produced struck a responsive chord in people. Kristin Bucher said in her profile of Lamb in Southwest Art Magazine, 1999, “The works of Lamb’s Zen Landscape series share the common themes of simplicity and serenity.” – Lamb herself explains the Zen series are “reduced to essence or impression, intimate in size. Their metaphoric content is most often related to on personal or private levels, calling forth thoughts, feelings, memories and imagination that differ from one individual to another. The landscape elements lend emphasis and sometimes a feeling of space and vastness to the privacy of a captured moment.” Her current series of bronzes, the French Lessons series, harken back to her painting. Painted still lifes frequently incorporate fruit and vegetables. She thought, “Why not do it in bronze?” French impressionists also provided motivation with their incorporation of natural subjects and their romanticism, and provided the designation for the series as well as the duel-language titles for many of the individual pieces, thereby giving continuity and an added sensibility to the subject. Lamb shops for exquisite fruits and vegetables to serve as models. The finished pieces have “been so well received. There’re so relaxing, there’s no angst. They’re so sensual.” People are drawn to exam them closely. The April 2009 issue of American Art Collector says Lamb’s bronzes “are defined by elegant form, classical expression and sensitive design.”

The Stories’ Setting

Lamb’s studio is part of her home in Arapahoe County. She has an area on the first floor of the large, sprawling, warm home for sculpting, where she puts a composition together like a still life. The multi-step process begins in clay, then to wax or plaster mold in a downstairs work area, and from there to a foundry for a ceramic shell. After the foundry pours in the bronze, the shell is broken off. Specialists in metal finishing and patinas help complete the work.
Because Lamb casts her sculptures, she can replicate pieces. For instance, each work in French Lessons is done in groups, or editions of multiples, and even older works can be recreated as needed. Appreciation for her work abounds. Lamb has won numerous awards and commissions. She exhibits nationally as well as locally. Her pieces are found in the Nebraska Historical Society, the American Lung Association of Colorado, and the United States Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, among others. Selected private collections are star-spangled, like authors Patricia Cornwell and Amy Tan, and film personalities Ron Howard and Kevin Pollack. But the most treasured responses are those like one related by a collector, who bought a piece for his wife. The sculpture brought tears to her eyes because it reminded her of a friend who had passed away.

Lamb says, “My sculpture is created from personal perceptions and impressions. It is then re-perceived through the viewer, giving added life and meaning based upon the completely different experiences that are brought to the work. This, to me, represents a form of completion in the artistic circle.”

By Bonnie McCune

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