Nationally acclaimed American public sculptor Aaron T Stephan lives and works in Portland, Maine. His work presents a wry look at the world around him – focusing on the complex web of information carried by everyday materials and objects. Stephan has completed over 25 major public works in municipal spaces throughout the United States.
A graduate of Maine College of Art and SUNY New Paltz, his work is noted for his diverse approach to form spanning from a life-sized orchestra of plastic snap-to parts, gestural streetlights, and gracefully curved ladders reminiscent of DNA. Stephan’s public works can be found in the collections of cities across the nation including San Diego (California), Salt Lake City (Utah), Clearwater (Florida), Arvada (Colorado), Nashville (Tennessee), and Lubbock (Texas) among many others.
What inspired you to become a sculptor?
It always felt like it was the thing I needed to do. There’s something about altering and arranging things within the world -as a way of communication- that has always fascinated me. As a kid, I would rearrange stones to make designs in the driveway, today I make public sculpture, there’s not that big of a difference.
What materials do you use to create your artworks, which are your favorite, and why?
For every site I choose a material that makes sense within a certain environment. This decision comes after extensive research and discovery. My materials have ranged from wood, to street signs, and steel guardrail, to aluminum light poles. Each one is chosen in dialogue with the place.
How do you come up with innovative art ideas?
It is an organic process of feeling my way toward a final project. First, I begin with extensive research into the site, the community, the architecture, the function of the space, community dialogues, and future plans. From here, I begin to create a series of “what ifs”. These are basically sketches exploring what might or might not engage the space. From there, I pick, choose, and alter. It’s almost like I homing in and finding the project that makes sense for my vision. It needs to engage the site, speak to the community, and maintain a dialogue over a long period of time.
What is your most exotics sculpture?
I’m not sure what you mean by exotic – but I work in a wide range of scales and materials for municipalities, museums, and galleries. Currently, I am working on a project (Untitled) for The Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine. The project consists of over four thousand carefully crafted handmade cement blocks arranged in a forty-foot square field. As the blocks get closer to the center of the piece, they become smaller in scale. The result is a visual effect in which it seems you are standing at the edge of a descending pit.
What makes your sculptures unique?
I’m not terribly concerned with being unique. At best, I am finding my voice in a massive field of voices. With this, I enter the larger dialogue in a productive and engaging way.
What is the primary skill set one must possess to be a good sculptor?
Your sculptures are quite large. Why this format and how do you decide what size a sculpture will be?
Some are large and some are not. I’m concerned with how a sculpture will be approached and what its relationship is to the human body. With a public sculpture like Paths Rising at Tampa International Airport, the sculpture is massive but contains hundreds of components -in this case ladders- that are human sized. This is a way to take the traditional format of the public monument, where the messaging is coming from a large institution, and flip it on its head. Here, the sculpture begins with the person standing it front of it. The ladder is a metaphorical invitation to enter the piece and to have a direct relationship with it – rather than the message or ideology coming from the institution itself.
What is the most expensive sculpture you ever sold?
The largest budget I have worked with is my most recent project at Tampa international airport called Paths Rising. In addition to this, I am currently under contract for a project in Downtown Seattle to be installed in 2023 or 2024 called Expansive Field.
What do your sculptures cost on average and how do you price your work?
I create a wide variety of works from small unlimited edition books ($10) to massive public sculptures ($500,000). Like any other production, making a sculpture includes a wide range of costs including materials, labor, shipping, installation, and a long list of other fees associated with a work’s coming into being.
How do you sell your art? Do you have to look for clients or do they find you?
Every which way you can imagine. Some clients come directly to me, some come as references – some projects I apply to and some art is purchased through galleries.
Who are your clients? Are they mostly private collectors or businesses? What countries do they come from and how old are they?
All of the above.
On average, how long does it take for you to create an artwork?
This varies greatly. At least a few months, and ten years or so at the most.
PART 2 of our Exclusive Interview with Nationally Acclaimed Public Sculptor Aaron T Stephan
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