Hess ’86 sculpts with found materials

by Rebecca Asoulin | 11/16/14 5:23pm

Sculptor David Hess ’86 stopped by the College last Thursday to give an alumni lecture on his work. Hess, who focuses on found materials, has shown his work in collections including the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Industry, John Hopkins Hospital and Sinai Hospital. ​


When did you become interested in sculpture?

DH: When I grew up, my mom worked at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and she used to take me to work with her. I grew up with that in our house – not really just looking at art but also making it. My mom didn’t let us use coloring books growing up — just crayons on paper and making things out of stuff we found. My mom also has a very modern version of art that you don’t need to take art lessons, that expressionism is as valid as anything.


Why do you work with found materials?

DH: As someone who makes things, when you examine anything, there’s sort of two levels: one is what it is, how it was made and how it was crafted. What kind of layered craftsmanship went in to it, whether it was beautifully made or just kind of thrown together — which are two valid ways to do it. Secondly, the energy it holds — the history it holds and the time that is embedded in it. That’s the narrative. The object is what it is and how it’s made and the subject is what it used to do, where it was in time, who owned it, what it was made for. I always like having that embedded sense of both.

Any kind of material that you find, like this cup, has a found quality to it. It might just be a piece of garbage, but if you cast in bronze then it’s forever — or if you put it next to a bronze version it might be the same thing, but it’s kind of like the ghost of the first one. Everything in our man-made world and the natural world has those qualities. When you pick up an old tennis shoe you look at what it was and what it could be too.


How has Dartmouth influenced your career?

DH: I would say meeting [sculptor] Fumio Yoshimura is probably the most important thing for me because he was one of those people who felt like it was such a privilege to be an artist — an amazing craftsman and yet a really thoughtful person who was delighted by his work. It wasn’t a chore for him. I think meeting him was a pretty amazing moment for me. I also think going to Florence and seeing a lot of public work there in churches and squares and whatnot, where art is in the culture and it’s really embedded in the culture, was pretty important. I ended up going to Japan to study gardens my junior summer.


How did the gardens in Japan influence you?

DH: Again, they were these really beautiful spaces that were very different from European design. The whole Japanese garden aesthetic is just something I’d never seen before. I think in the West we tend to go with super rigid, symmetrical, kind of that Roman sense of space where things are [on an] x-y axis. [In Japan,] there are paths that sort of wind through, there’s nothing straight. [It’s] just very nuanced. I think if you look at traditional European design, it has its own geometry and logic to it. I think part of what’s interesting about Japanese design is that they frequently put a twist out there that’s very unexpected.


What has the experience of returning to campus been like?

DH: It’s hard to know when you’re here what a privilege it is to be at a place like this. But when you come back, you see not only how different it is from when I was here, but also just [that] it’s incredible, it’s such a vast opportunity, what goes on here, on so many levels. The art is a small part of it. It’s an amazing facility, it’s an amazing group of people. I think the studio art — what I know, I can say without question — is a much bigger, [more] comprehensive program, facility and faculty and student group than when I was here. That in and of itself will turn out many more thoughtful professionals and even people interested in art. There are lots of people who take classes, and this is their first time trying to draw, and they realize that a big window opens up for them.


What advice would you give to students pursuing a career in the arts?

DH: Follow your heart. I do think finding a community of people that are your friends, your family, the support in your life, is really critical. Finding those people and cherishing those relationships is the most important thing. And making your work something [with which] you feel like you’re making a contribution. Being able to make money doing that is an incredible thing, and you’re lucky if you can do it. At the end of the day, most people who are good at their work do enjoy it.


This interview was edited and condensed.