Carlton Newton, 72, has nurtured a lifelong fascination with nature and technology, which is clearly on view at his show “Drawings for Sculpture” at Reynolds Gallery.
One untitled sculpture is tightly woven out of stainless-steel wire and comes off the wall, like a 3-D wavelength or cell or organism.
“I’ve always been interested in wavelength patterns, X-rays and scientific imagery. They’re tools that extend how we perceive the natural world,” the artist said in his Church Hill studio.
Wearing an olive-colored button-down shirt and a pair of blue Levi’s jeans, Newton, with a full head of white hair and wire-rim glasses, looks like a fairly no-nonsense, spry science teacher. He has lived and worked in his Church Hill studio for 34 years with his wife and fellow artist, Elizabeth King.
Before coming to Richmond, Newton and King lived in New York and San Francisco.
They moved to Virginia in 1982 when he got a job at the College of William & Mary. They moved to Richmond when King got a job teaching at VCU in 1985. A few years later, a position at VCU opened up and Newton applied. He got the job, around 1989, he estimates, and changed the course of the sculpture department, helping it become No. 1 in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.
“It felt like an honest, hardworking studio — a good-feeling program with a minimum of baloney,” Newton said with a light chuckle. “We had no plan to stay in Richmond. But we found an incredible studio [here in Church Hill]; we found an incredible teaching program. ... And we immersed ourselves in it. It was a fantastic coming together.”
A sculptor by trade, Newton was interested in computer design as a tool to create his art. It was his idea to install the first computer lab for art students in the sculpture department. He wrote a grant for it, got it and the school bought 10 computers with it.
“That drastically changed the way students approached design and their work,” said Joe Seipel, dean emeritus of the VCU School of the Arts and former chair of the sculpture department. “Because of his influence and ability, that happened. That was pretty early for sculpture programs to embrace that opportunity. We were one of only a handful of art programs investing in that kind of technology. The only others were places like MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].”
“He was way ahead in that way,” Seipel said. “Now I can’t imagine an art student who isn’t using a computer.”
Technology aside, Newton’s new show, “Drawings for Sculpture,” seems much more rooted in the natural world.
The show is a fairly literal definition of the title: consisting of 12 drawings on paper for imagined sculptures, as well as a few sculptures from Newton’s lengthy career.
“The drawings are sculptures I’d like to make but haven’t figured out how to make yet,” Newton said.
They’re created with Sumi ink, which Newton describes as a “permanent, matte, big, black ink.”
“Being interested in sculpture, I’m interested in the physicality of things,” he said.
He uses a watercolor brush to apply the Sumi ink.
“There’s something wonderfully physical about making a drawing with a brush,” the artist said. There’s a “requirement of being present physically” and mentally, he said. Most of the drawings need to be completed the same day or the ink might look different when applied on top of earlier markings. Once a mark or a brushstroke is made, it’s permanent.
Some of them, he throws out, he said.
“It’s a little bit like playing a musical instrument,” he said. He described the process of creating the drawings as being like “playing scales and limbering up. It’s about finding a focus for each drawing.”
“I engage with them mentally as preparatory drawings for sculptures,” he said.
The drawings look organic, like cells dividing or multiplying, reminiscent of sea urchins and shells. Newton was on a residency in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when he became intrigued by maritime forms. “I was curious about what might make a shape like that,” he said.
“Shells interest me a lot. I’m interested in the way shell forms were structured and built up by the organism, lying down, layer after layer,” Newton said. “For a long time, I was fascinated with how things grow from the inside to the outside.”
Newton’s sculptures are intricate and three-dimensional, echoing the cause and effect of the natural world.
“The drawings can be an entry point to his work,” said Anthony Backherms, a spokesman for the gallery. He noted the juxtaposition — and the similarity — between the drawings and the finished sculptures.
“You can see how the forms start taking shape in the real world,” Backherms said.
The show at Reynolds is like a mini-survey of Newton’s work. Many of the drawings represent recent pieces from the past two years, while some of the sculptures, looking coiled and sprung, are older, having “lived” in his studio for several years.
“He enjoys having viewers consider the steps that went into creating a piece of art,” Backherms said.
“You can’t help looking at his work without looking at the process,” Seipel added. “What’s so fascinating about them, as you observe the object, is that you think, ‘How did this transpire? How did these pieces begin to take form?’ ”
Newton creates his sculptures by using a mandrel — a form or template, made from gypsum cement or fiberglass — and then building the sculpture around it with metal, cement or wire mesh.
When the sculpture is finished, he removes the mandrel.
“I’m interested in shapes formed by accretion, a building up, rather than taking away,” he said.
The Church Hill studio that he shares with his wife, the artist King, is also an interesting amalgamation of objects.
It was originally a neighborhood variety store from 1918 or 1920, Newton estimates, filled with all kinds of things: boxes of little boys shoes and packages stuffed with women’s hair combs. The mezzanine was a beauty salon. Newton and King turned the second floor into a small apartment.
“In the late ’70s and ’80s, corner stores in Richmond were perfect for artists to move into because they had a downstairs that was a store that was no longer operating and an upstairs for living quarters,” Seipel said. “A lot of artists had studios of that sort all along the Fan, Church Hill and downtown. Carlton’s and Elizabeth’s is quite spectacular.”
The space still feels like something of a time capsule, with its pressed tin ceiling and industrial shelving system, filled now not with items from the old variety store, but with sculpture from the two artists’ careers.
A hand created by King. A plaster cast by Newton that looks like a cell dividing.
A new piece of sculpture that Newton is working on for his next show.