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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, May 5, 2010 10 years ago

Body of work

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Keith Christopher has outgrown his Sarasota studio.

The 900-square-foot space, located in an industrial warehouse off U.S. 301, used to suit the sculptor just fine. That is until Pomona moved in.

Dismantled and adhered to boards, Pomona is the 33-year-old artist’s largest project to date. A monumental sculpture commissioned last fall by the developers of Citrus Square, the new downtown condominium project on Orange Avenue, Pomona is a whopping 13 feet long by 9 feet high.

“I can’t wait to see her finished in the off-white color,” Christopher says. “It’s hard to visualize her when she looks like a chocolate Easter bunny.”

He fixes his gaze on the goddess taking up most of his studio. Sculpted from a deep brown classic clay, Pomona, named after the Roman goddess of fruit trees, has undergone several transformations since Christopher started the project eight months ago.

For one: She’s less curvy.

“The commissioning party wanted her thinner,” Christopher says. “But I didn’t want her to look like a bikini model, so we had to find some middle ground. The piece is supposed to be more classical, more voluptuous.”

Although most of the work was sculpted in less than two months using only one model — a 20-something Sarasota cosmetology student — the changes to Pomona’s body pushed back the March installation date and required hours of tedious re-sculpting and the use of additional (skinnier) models.

“Personally,” Christopher says, “I prefer the voluptuous female form.”

However genuine the statement, it seems to contradict the bevy of slender nudes padding much of the artist’s portfolio and studio.

“A lot of those hang in the lobbies of plastic surgery offices,” he says, gesturing toward his collection of cosmetically enhanced nudes finished in bronze and resin. “There’s a market for that stuff.”

A Lakewood Ranch resident, Christopher studied business at Arizona State University and apprenticed with renowned Arizona bronze sculptor John Soderberg when he was 18 years old. Under Soderberg’s tutelage he sculpted “First Day Home,” an almost photo-like realistic image of a father cradling a newborn baby. He credits the piece — a tribute to his own father, who died when Christopher was 15 — with helping launch his career as a figurative sculptor.

The life likeness of “First Day Home” had universal appeal. Christopher had captured fatherhood in one pivotal moment. The resulting work was at once sentimental, strong and literal, themes he has remained faithful to for 16 years.

“I believe with figurative sculpture it’s easier to convey an idea or a story,” Christopher says. “As a craftsman or an artist, I appreciate the challenge. There’s a great deal of technical work required and it gives me daily gratification.”

Even his pregnancy casts and children’s portrait sculptures are highly technical and capture every crease and dimple.

Swigging from a gallon jug of water, Christopher glances ruefully at Pomona. With so many hours invested in the sculpture, there were moments when aggravation eclipsed gratification, which is a reality to which any artist can relate.

“You can get too close to a piece,” Christopher says. “You don’t know the level of your final execution until two, three years down the road, when you find all the things you would have done differently.”

The shelves behind him are stacked with worn polyurethane molds. Like cookie cutters, the molds are used to create limited-edition runs of his female forms.

A pull-behind trailer obscures a cramped rehearsal space, where Christopher, who moonlights as the lead singer of a local cover band, Someone from Somewhere, practices between gigs. Up a steep flight of wooden steps is a 300-square-foot bedroom that Christopher built himself to make all-nighters more comfortable. Aside from an old television set and piles of VHS tapes, the loft is the roomiest nook in the studio — until Pomona moves out.

Asked whether he’s apprehensive about displaying such a large piece of work in a permanent public space, Christopher replies with an emphatic no.

“Art is subjective,” he says. “One person will love it; one person will hate it. You can only offer your best or hand someone a piece of clay to see if they can do better.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].

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