New Sculpture Sprouts at Sheldon Museum

Helen Ramsaran, The Sanctuary, 1994, painted bronze, 108 x 120 x 120 inches (274.32 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm) Image courtesy the Sheldon Museum of Art

Helen Ramsaran, The Sanctuary, 1994, painted bronze, 108 x 120 x 120 inches (274.32 x 304.8 x 304.8 cm) Image courtesy the Sheldon Museum of Art

By L. Kent Wolgamott

“The Sanctuary” stands along the walkway between the Sheldon Museum of Art and the College of Business Administration, eight winged white pieces of bronze stretching toward the sky around a circle of white rocks with a pit in the middle. The newest addition to the Sheldon’s acclaimed sculpture garden, “The Sanctuary” comes from sculptor Helen Ramsaran. 

It is, to a large degree, exactly what it appears to be — a representation of trees. But they aren’t just any trees. They’re representative of trees from Africa, where Ramsaran has frequently traveled, the continent she calls her muse.

In Lincoln Thursday for the dedication of “The Sanctuary,” Ramsaran talked about the piece and her work in a public lecture and in an interview, revealing much about its origin and meaning.

“I call it a sacred grove,” Ramsaran said. “There were sacred groves in the Ivory Coast and in other parts of Africa as well. A sacred grove is a group of trees that may be on the outskirts of a village. Inside the gap of trees is an area where ceremonies take place. The general public is not allowed to go there, just the people in the group. It’s a place where one does sacred ceremonies and everything about those ceremonies is pretty secret.” Ramsaran is among those who don’t know what was passed on in the groves of trees or what the ceremonies that took place in those spaces entailed. But that lack of knowledge didn’t deter her from making the piece. “I don’t need to know the secret,“ Ramsaran said. “I just needed to know it was there. I decided to make my own secret grove.”  To do so, Ramsaran made wax models of each of her “trees,” then cast them in bronze, covering the surface with a white paint.

For smaller pieces, like “Winged Moondance,” which is on view on the Sheldon’s second floor bridge, Ramsaran does the wax work herself, skipping the clay models generally used in the bronze sculptural process.  “I do little sketches and not detailed ones,” Ramsaran said of her working process. “I don’t mold them in clay. I work directly into wax. I work by cutting the pieces (of wax) and carving into them and putting them together with a soldering iron.” “Winged Moondance” is part of “The Sanctuary Group,” a series of seven pieces that represent components of what might have occurred at a ceremony in the sacred grove.

Helen Evans Ramsaran, Winged Moondance, 1994, painted with bronze steel elements, 64 inches (162.56cm

Helen Evans Ramsaran, Winged Moondance, 1994, painted with bronze steel elements, 64 inches (162.56cm

The spindly-legged piece with a bird flying from the top is designed to suggest honoring ancestors, Ramsaran said. “With ‘The Sanctuary Group,’ I thought of them as the group,” she said. “So it is good that ‘Winged Moondance’ is here. With some of the other work, like the Pathways, they are not grouped. Every now and then I do one.”

Ramsaran has a third piece connected with Sheldon - a “Magic Finger” that is included in the catalog for “Its Surreal Thing: The Temptation of Objects,” a 2013 exhibition of three-dimensional objects that was surreal and connected with the historical surreal movement. The catalog is a clear Plexiglas box filled with large playing cards containing images of the show’s objects and the four small surreal sculptures. “I like magic,” Ramsaran said. “I read all those Harry Potter books. I like the idea that you point at something and it happens.” One thing all three of her pieces have in common is that they are easy to understand. “The Sanctuary” looks like trees — and with a little background, the title, construction and placement of the work become more apparent. “Winged Moondance” has a spiritual/ritualistic sensibility, feels African and with the background, connects with “Sanctuary." And the catalog piece is perfectly surreal. “I would like for it to be accessible,” she said of her work. “I came from a working class background. Not many people in my community understood art, could relate to art. So I don’t want my pieces to be so obtuse. I want them to work a little (to understand it). But I want it to be there.” Ramsaran, who is retired from teaching after spending four decades at New York City colleges and universities, has experienced the struggle for, first, recognition of African-American art, then for integration of it into the broader art world.

“The younger artists don’t think too much about that anymore because so much has gone on before,” Ramsaran said. “For some of the older artists, it still is difficult to get our work in context. “When I walked into your (Sheldon) collection, one of the impressive things is you placed the work of African-American artists in context with their pieces. We’ve been talking about that for the last 30 to 40 years. The Sheldon museum has got it.” That’s one of the reasons Ramsaran is thrilled to have her work at Sheldon.

“I’m just really stunned,” she said immediately after the unveiling. “I’m stunned with the presentation of both of the pieces. It’s a very beautiful collection, and I’m happy to be a part of it.” The feeling is mutual on the part of the museum, said Sheldon Director Jorge Daniel Veneciano.

“She is very much a thinking person’s artist,” Veneciano said. “It is natural that her solo shows and collections tend to be (at) college and university museums. There’s something about it that fits with university art programs. Her work is not splashy in a way that larger museums want for blockbuster exhibitions. There’s something about Helen’s work that needs thoughtfulness.”


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