Harp & Hound Interviews D. L. Engle
H&H: Tell us about your childhood.
DLE: I was born in Southern California and still live here. Perhaps it was growing up in California in a pre-computer and video era, spending much of the year outdoors, which allowed my love of Nature to develop. I was happiest when surrounded by nature’s landscapes, studying the structures and behaviors of animals. The attraction grew into a lifelong obsession expressed in art. I’ve been a full-time sculptor more than forty years.
H&H: How did you start making art?
DLE: I was compulsively drawing and sculpting from a young age. However, since it would be many years before I had access to appropriate art materials and training, my first creative efforts using backyard mud and mother’s lipstick, scrawled onto the walls of our house, were not met with appreciation or encouragement. But I persisted, and in a few more years was drawing our pets and other animals, and seriously studying comparative anatomy and taxonomy. By my early high school years I had started to pursue the study of art in earnest.
H&H: Why do you make art?
DLE: It seems to be an inborn obsession: the urge to make something that evokes a feeling in others. My objective goes beyond a mere documentation of the subject. It reaches for a place where the poetry of the subject becomes the more truthful rendition of it with power to elicit an emotional response.
H&H: What inspires you?
DLE: I summarized my philosophy on my website: "There is a quality that animals possess that has intrigued us since our beginning. With reverence, we painted and carved them on cave walls. Through all ages and cultures, animals have inhabited our dreams and mythologies. We see distilled in them all the powers and mysteries of Creation and so have longed for a closer understanding and kinship with that mystery.”
Our appreciation, sensitivity to, and desire for natural beauty is a hardwired part of a very old survival skill. In short, and at its most basic application, it is the ability to identify exemplary health and fitness in potential mates and allies, as well as to recognize “normalcy”, which would indicate safety, in the world around us. That is why I think that art that is based on sincere observations of natural forms is inherently satisfying and nurturing.
Sighthounds and horses epitomize this concept to me with their athleticism and intensity. I’ve owned and appreciated coursing hounds most of my life.
H&H: Tell us about your animals.
DLE: I have a fourteen year old rescued Afghan/Borzoi cross. I am also blessed with a very dear stray cat who chose to adopt me. Completing my pack is a pair of young Taigans. The Taigans are a very old working sighthound originally from Kyrgyzstan. Traditionally they hunt for their nomadic masters and control herd predators. All of my animals are frequently pressed into service as models. Only the cat objects.
H&H: How do you work?
DLE: I work from life, studying live models in their environment whenever possible, where they will be at ease and engaged in their normal activities. What I’m looking for are natural expressions. As I work, I’m not making a portrait of that particular animal, but rather referencing its form and gestures to make a representation of universal emotions displayed by that subject. To do that well requires the judicious use of artistic license. This makes the finished sculpture a relevant or interesting statement because its content is revealed as universal rather than specific.
I’ve worked at racetracks, sanctuaries, zoos, and livestock shows. Learning how to work around different species has been a necessity, as most animals consider a direct stare rude, if not actually threatening, and respond accordingly. Since I haven’t yet wanted to make a sculpture that depicts an angry or nervous animal, I’ve had to learn to fit into their world to put them at ease and gain their trust. In the process I’ve learned aspects about the animals that only spending days sitting next to them can reveal.
It took four days of sitting outside the enclosures housing the mountain lions before they emerged from their dens and showed themselves to me. Once I was accepted, I observed attributes I’d have never otherwise known about mountain lions; for instance, they chirp and mew. I learned that an effective calming signal for approaching their enclosures was to imitate their vocalizations because they would hear me long before they saw me. Baboons can be contemplative and charming creatures…most of the time. The African lion’s confident swagger is justified. Unlike the shy and solitary mountain lions, they know they have the backup of their pride. When I first walked up to a pride of lionesses, the sisters advanced on me, shoulder to shoulder, in frank appraisal of my suitability as a snack. I have never been more grateful that a fence separated me from subjects, or felt a stronger expression of power and arrogance. Though this encounter happened years ago, I have yet to sculpt it. I’m still thinking about it.
The small clay sketches done in the field act as notes, contributing the information used to make enlargements in the studio. I always have several pieces in development and some spend years in the development process.
What I make can range in scale from tiny jewelry pieces cast in sterling or gold to life-sized sculptures in bronze. I consider the jewelry to be tiny personal sculpture. The technique for creating the jewelry, lost wax casting, is the same as for foundry bronze sculptures.
H&H: What other artists have been inspirational to you in your work?
DLE: Too many to name and covering styles, types, epochs and cultures too vast and varied! If there is a common thread, it would be the level of sincerity and competency of the artists and their desire to use their art to facilitate a heightened awareness of the mystery of life. This is art that offers a connection to a rejuvenating source, rather than offering distraction or amusement.
H&H: Which piece is your favorite and why?
DLE: Since each piece I make is a continuation and a variation on the theme of connecting to a heightened awareness, I don’t think of them in terms of favorites, but instead, of each as promoting a specific mood, such as dynamic action, strength, peacefulness, humor or pleasure, etc.
H&H: What has been the most touching or amazing moment you've experienced as an artist?
DLE: There have been many, such as being invited to see a spectacular installation of one of my large works at a client’s home and seeing how much enjoyment it brought to their lives. You have to have the right space for large sculpture and if you do the impact is tremendous!
When people tell me about how my work made them feel, I know that sculpture has delivered its message. It is gratifying and humbling to know that artwork has brought a state of consciousness to someone that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. It is a reminder of the better things we already know but can’t seem to hang onto.
“Waiting”, a small bronze of a heavily pregnant mare, is an example of this. The tension created by the mare’s massive girth held atop her delicate legs seems at odds with her tranquil and stoic demeanor. One person who saw “Waiting” at an exhibit told me how it affected her. She said that looking at it transported her to a time in her past when as a young girl she would lie atop a grassy hilltop, close her eyes and hear the far off drone of an airplane. It gave her the feeling of time standing still and a sense of peace. It is amazing to me that each feeling that is summoned by connecting with the artwork is personal and unique to each viewer even though the overall sentiment produced is meditative stillness.
H&H: How do you know when a work is finished?
DLE: The bronze begins as clay. The clay is finished when it begins to breathe and speak eloquently with its own voice. I’m working toward creating a palatable living presence within the form. From that point the second stage begins, which is to transform the clay into bronze.
H&H: Tell us about your Irish Wolfhound bronzes.
DLE: By the late 1980s, I was casting in bronze regularly and Irish Wolfhounds were included among the early editions. In all, I’ve done thirteen limited editions of Irish Wolfhounds and many jewelry pieces. I’ll talk about a couple of the sculptures here:
“Swift and Powerful” is a twenty-three inch long limited edition noted for its depiction of powerful forward motion while appearing to float effortlessly from every angle viewed. In 2002, Philippa Crowe Neilson approached me with an idea for a sculpture inspired by her bitch, Ch. Kingsland Song. I never saw Song in person, but was impressed by the way she moved in the videos I studied and thought this is what the sculpture needs to be about: the feeling you get when you see this vibrant animal effortlessly float by.
Philippa and I worked closely during the clay phase of the sculpture. There was a lively flow of photos, videos, and ideas between us as we shared our thoughts during the creation process. She was pleased and excited with the lifelike effect being achieved in the clay and shared with me her wishes for additional projects for the future. Sadly, Philippa was fighting illness during this time and didn’t live to see the piece cast in bronze. I hope this bronze will be a reminder of Philippa’s vision of the essence and athleticism of this breed.
“Guardians” was introduced as a limited edition bronze at the 2010 IWCA National in Pleasanton, CA where it was greeted with enthusiastic praise.
This piece came into existence when I accepted a commission from Jody Jeweler in 2009 to create a memorial award to honor Dee Brehl, the long time breeder, exhibitor, and enthusiastic supporter of Irish Wolfhounds. The Dee Brehl Challenge Trophy is offered by the Potomac Valley Irish Wolfhound Club since 2010 for best bred by exhibitor dog.
I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Dee and Bob Brehl and many of their hounds on several occasions. The Brehls remain among the foremost in my mind of the many dedicated Irish Wolfhound supporters. The title “Guardians” is a reflection of mutual dedication. The steadfast strength and grace apparent in this work are inspired by the ancient promise between the great hound and his keepers: that each wouldalways honor and protect the other.
One of my current projects is a monumental Irish Wolfhound titled: “Of Great Size and Commanding Appearance”.
H&H: Where is your work shown?
DLE: I’m an exhibiting member of the California Art Club and The National Sculpture Society, having been granted membership to both organizations by peer review of my body of work.
Generally I introduce new pieces at the California Art Club’s Gold Medal Juried Annual Exhibitions and at juried exhibits hosted by the National Sculpture Society. Invitations to upcoming exhibits and other announcements are included in my newsletters.
The National Sculpture Society honored me with the $5000 Marilyn Newmark Memorial Grant, given to an artist who demonstrates outstanding achievement and dedication to animals in art. Recently, my small bronze “Happy Bear” was awarded The Margaret Hexter Prize for a creative sculpture in the round at The National Sculpture Society’s 82nd annual juried exhibition. My works are included in permanent collections at the Wildling Art Museum in Solvang, CA, the AKC Museum of the Dog in St. Louis, MO, and most satisfying to me, cherished in personal collections worldwide.
DLE: Thank you. It has been my pleasure.
June 2012 Featured Artist
A Plein Air Sculptor by Steve Doherty
D. L. Engle working on a plein air sculpture of a Shire stallion
The benefits of working directly from live subjects extend to every artist, including sculptors like Californian D.L. Engle. "I cannot do authentic work without first exploring the live presence and character of whatever animal being studied," she explains.
“I work directly from live models because that is the essence of what the sculpture will be about”, D. L. Engle said said when we asked her about her plein air sculptures. “ Observing animals in an environment where they are at ease and exhibiting natural expressions, gestures and behaviors means that I visit any place they can be found and studied. It often takes a long period of acclimatization before some very shy animals will allow themselves to be observed.”
Engle, on the left, with, her maquette for A Colorful Character and the cowboy who modeled for her.*
Engle goes on, “As with most Plein Air painters, my field studies are often later enlarged in the studio. My largest field study to date that has become a finished bronze is the 11.5" tall Shire Stallion Pride and Power; shown in the photograph of me with the clay model. Because my work is gestural, I prefer to create three-dimensional plasticine clay studies rather than two-dimensional pencil sketches. I can create a useful clay study in about one to three hours. A scheduled paint/sculpt-out event not a common occurrence so I most often work on my own but I really do enjoy the camaraderie of other artist.”
Engle’s plein air sculpture A Colorful Character
“My many years of researching animals has lead to some remarkable acquaintances and opportunities. Last year I was in Poland and Germany to see some very rare 'primitive' types of dogs. -notably the Taigan, an ancient hunting dog originally from Kyrgyzstan. Strangely, this later put me in contact with someone in the US who was planning to import a Taigan from Russia. I now have the great joy and honor of paying host to a 7 month old Taigan pup that I just picked up at LAX and will keep until further arraignments can be made to send her on to her new owner. You can bet I'm doing studies of her.”
* photo by Tony Chong
Chaffy Community Art Association - Sharing the gift of visual art since 1941
D. L. Engle Featured Artist July 2011
“The creation of an art work capable of conveying emotions or feelings is mainly an act of intimate and loving exploration. My efforts have succeeded when they elicit from the viewer the same sense of wonder and discovery that initially drew me to a particular subject.
My muses are expressive animal and human forms, in particular dancers who have the ability to carry themselves with the same natural grace and self awareness instinctive to most animals. Within such physical presence lies the potential to convey all that human existence can experience. It can take many years of studying a subject to gain access to the level of understanding where the subtle nuances of its form and how it moves and carries itself will begin to speak its story.
An intensive amount of study from live subjects is needed including direct experience with their life force. These studies, which can include both two and three dimensional sketches done from life, will often take on the character of an animated sequence as the relationship of movement to gesture to mood is wrought into being.
The result is an organization of internal forces from powerful to subtle, into a sculptural form suggestive of movement. The effect of that arrangement is furthered by sensitive surface plains that flicker and lead over the work, achieving a life like presence and expressive emotion.”
D. L. Engle
* photo by Gene Sasse
National Open Field Coursing Association, Established 1964
A Special Unveiling at the 2011 Grand Course by D. L. Engle
This season the NOFCA Grand Course will see the unveiling of new artwork for the Alpaugh Trophy, a specially commissioned bronze sculpture titled “Hard Turn”. The sculpture will sit atop a tall pedestal that will hold the inscribed names of the winners since the inception of the award in 1990.
The Alpaugh is a perpetual trophy donated by Herb Wells, Dan Imre, Daniela Imre, Dan Belkin, Laura Belkin and Julia Holder to honor the Saluki with the highest total score over the three-day NOFCA Grand Course. Daniela Imre designed and executed the original artwork, which featured a hand painted saluki close behind a sculpted hare, mounted on a natural wood base. In 2009, the base had room for only one more winner’s name, and the years had also taken their toll on the fragile parts of the trophy. The donors decided that the artwork should be retired with the owner of the 2009 winner. Fortunately, that owner (Charlotte Wrather) did not want to see the long tradition of the Alpaugh Trophy come to an end, and she offered to replace the artwork.
When Charlotte approached me with the idea of adapting one of my existing saluki bronzes for the purpose I was of course thrilled and honored. But we soon realized the Alpaugh Trophy would require a new art work, one especially designed to represent open field coursing. Charlotte took a leap of faith and commissioned something that didn’t yet physically exist and couldn’t even be seen! What a depth of gratitude I owe her that she trusted me, for it allowed me to design a piece based on some of my most memorable experiences and deepest interests, those that are the foundation of my artistic work.
Though it was long ago, the time I spent walking canyons and fields with my hounds was a profound one in my life. I remember the horizon an unbroken 360º where the lonely wind is the only sound but for the occasional drumming feet of the coursers upon the Earth. Such were the long hours of quiet observation where I learned about animals. I noticed that what ever activity or feeling engages an animal does so fully. They exist unselfconsciously in unity with the moment’s purpose. The natural physical expression of their moods combined with athletic prowess is matched in humans only by highly skilled dancers. I became obsessed with studying how animals use their bodies, not just as exceptional athletes but also to display their emotions. Dogs are a perfect source for such observations because we can live and work in such intimacy with them. It is a rare privilege to have walked with fine coursing hounds, knowing theirs are forms that have stood the test of time for thousands of years.
These experiences I drew on when I began working the clay. I know I have only the shapes of shadows and the various degrees between light and dark with which to impart tangible emotions to the work; for that is the basis by which the human eye interprets objects. An artist is very conscience of this and composes these elements to purposeful effect. Preceding any touch on the clay, I have studied the nature and essence of each subject, their relationship to each other and the mood or feeling that the sculpture will express. In the case of “Hard Turn” that was heart stopping dynamic drama; the climax of a chase so close that either hare or hound might still prevail.
To create the effect of speed and excitement the dominant masses of clay are arranged in a spiral cascade that imparts swirling motion throughout. Hard edges, angular planes denote quickness of action and tension. The finish surface treatment creates flickers of light that chase over the piece as the viewer moves around it, thus teasing and drawing the eye onward to discover subtler patterns and rhythms with in the forms. Counter point balances point through out the composition adding dynamic rhythm. Expressive gestures give the work ‘presence’.
When I took the nearly completed clay to the Lompoc specialty I was very gratified that it received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from so many who are deeply involved in the sport. Time after time I saw the response to the emotional message of the work. People’s eyes flowed over the form, circling around it, open smiles and wonder growing on their faces. I felt a very satisfying connection with others through our shared love of the experience of coursing and of having delivered the message on point.
I like to think these works will continue to share their stories long after I’m gone, that people not yet born will look at them and gain insight about something that was of value or profound in our lives because of the way it made us feel. Works like “Hard Turn” will continue to give testimony of our ties to the beauty and mystery of the eternal life processes of which we are a part; the cycle of life. Our joy and fascination with this is deep and universal. We live more fulfilled for renewing and celebrating that connection thorough the shared experience of art.
about the author
D. L. Engle is a professional bronze sculptor who lives in Southern CA. Debbie, as she is known to friends, has exhibited at the National Sculptor Society juried exhibits in N.Y. and is also an exhibiting member of the prestigious California Art Club. Her bronzes have won many awards and are found in collections around the world including the Wildlings Museum of Fine Art in Los Olivos (Santa Barbara Co CA). Wildlings recently purchased her bronze “Puma Ways” for its’ permanent collection after it was awarded a major cash prize of $5000 in a juried art competition.
Though her work represents many species including humans, she frequently returns to dogs for their expressiveness, variety and beauty. “Hard Turn” is only the latest of several Saluki editions which include the coveted “Got It!” and “Gotcha!” (a playful rendering of a puppy pair, now sold out) and the sublime “Desert Winds” which amazingly sold out half the edition before it was even publicly announced.
Her latest saluki work; “Hard Turn” is being produced as a limited edition bronze, and is currently available for order.