Arts

A blue metal piece stands in a green yard with tall pines.
Celebration of Life. Photo courtesy of Cynthia McKean.

Steel as Marvelous Medium: An Interview with Sculptor Cynthia McKean

By Kathleen Schenck
April 4, 2019

Holland Weekly first noticed Cynthia McKean’s work at Douglas Beach. It was a pleasure to exchange emails with her over the last several days to learn a bit more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I’d like to learn more about the path that led you to sculpture. You say you weren’t raised in a family that took art seriously as a vocation. What did it take seriously instead?
I loved art from the beginning, but grew up in a family that didn’t take art seriously as a career. College was for developing your intellect in fields such as math and science and language.

Was there a time or were there times art spoke to you? Can you describe those times–the work, the response, the feeling or thought process?
Upon reflection, I now understand that my affinity for creating art has always been there. I have always gone to it in times of great joy, overwhelming sadness, and other times as well. Too many ideas continually float through my brain. They all take time to process. Some I pursue to reality. Some lay dormant for years and then are revisited. And others are forgotten or discarded.

I’m wondering about your decision to earn a degree in architecture, and then work in marketing and sales at a “steel fab shop” in Holland (which ultimately led you to sculpture). How did that all come about? Do you believe it was meant to happen so that you would ultimately find your new day job as a sculptor, or did you make the best of a situation, or…?
As a young woman working in a university anatomy department, life as an artist never occurred to me. I had no exposure to such a thing.

It was only during the hiatus from the working world, while my children were very young, that I realized that I am an environmentalist. It finally occurred to me that environmentalists want to save everything. Architects build monuments to themselves. It is paramount that architects and environmentalists collaborate. The next step was architecture school.

It was while I worked in industry that the idea of becoming a sculptor emerged. In the early 1980s I was working at a steel fab shop in Holland. My job was in sales and marketing. The longer I was there, the more intrigued I became with the steel building components, large and small, which were being made in the shop. At age 53, I went to night school and took structural welding. Ultimately I left my “day job” in order to spend my time and energy creating steel sculpture.

A brushed silver metal sculpture graces a green garden.
Centennial Steel.

What has been one of the more challenging aspects of any given piece?
The early formative time is usually the most stressful. Taking a vague idea and putting lines around it is difficult. At the point where 2 dimensional drawings must be “popped” into 3D is hard. Sometimes it just won’t work.

You mention working with engineers. How did you arrive to the conclusion you needed them?
When working with structural steel, if your pieces reach any substantial size, you need an engineer. Thrusting 300, 500, 1000 pounds into the air is dangerous. Just moving the pieces around is a serious job. If a weld breaks or a part fails, it could kill somebody.

A working artist's studio with models and full-sized works in progress.
Studio. Photo courtesy of http://cynthiamckean.com.

Are you commissioned for each piece or do you work more free-form?
I enjoy both ways. To have some of each in the shop adds a nice balance because they are approached differently.

Birds are an inspiration. What else?
All kinds of things can be inspirational: water, the mountains, a forest trail, a beautiful flower, a gateway, a building (ancient or modern). Everything around us large or small has potential.

Why steel? Why metal?
Steel is a marvelous medium. Strong and pliable it speaks to me. If I work it, respect it, and treat it gently, it will reward me by telling my story.

The artist with welding gear on concentrates on a piece.
Cynthia McKean at work. Photo courtesy of http://cynthiamckean.com.

More information including work samples from Cynthia McKean can be found at her website http://cynthiamckean.com. McKean is part of the Artz and Gardenz Tour on Mother’s Day Weekend, Saturday May 11th and Sunday May 12th. Seven unique studios will be open to the public from 10 AM to 5 PM. Located in Saugatuck, MI, Cynthia McKean is studio #5. 


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