CANAJOHARIE – Most of the stuff in Chris Duncan’s garage is typical of any upstate homeowner’s. Old fixtures and broken pieces of furniture are piled up, among other odds and ends and an array of tools that have seen years of heavy use.
But these fragments of steel and iron aren’t awaiting a trip to the recycling center. They wait for Duncan to give them new purpose as sculpture.
“To get started, I just start,” he said. “I assemble the stuff I think I might want to use, and often a piece will undergo many, many changes before it gets where it’s going.”
Many of Duncan’s abstract sculptures – several of which are displayed in his garage studio, in varying states of completion – comprise a mix of materials such as raw metal, wood or concrete as well as found objects significant for more than their shapes. Many such objects peek out from the recesses of his finished pieces, recognizable from their past lives as bolts, pipes, wheels or gears.
“Sometimes, it does have a significant personal component to it,” he said. “I try to make it a little more specific to me and a little less about formal relationships and balance and weight.”
But sculpture takes up space in three dimensions, he acknowledges, and its mass cannot be ignored.
“Sculpture has a lot to do with gravity,” Duncan said. “A sculpture, as an inanimate object, still has to respond to these forces that we deal with as human frames walking around.”
Early interest in art
A native of New York City, Duncan says he was interested in and exposed to art from an early age.
“I had a pretty arts-oriented upbringing,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in museums as a kid.”
It was as a student at Colby College in Maine in the early 1970s that he first studied sculpture, and though he wouldn’t become an upstate New Yorker for almost 20 years, Duncan traces one of his earliest influences to David Smith, a famous sculptor who lived and worked on a farm in Bolton Landing, near Lake George, in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Smith was one of the first American artists to make sculpture by welding and assembling found materials rather than the traditional methods of carving stone or casting metal.
“Even when I was a student, that kind of stuff attracted me,” Duncan said. “It was steel and it was abstract, but it was tied to observation … He drew from what he saw around him, so he wasn’t just working in a mathematical way.”
Likewise, Duncan says, he tries to instill his sculpture with some of the essence of lived experience.
“I don’t work by literally looking out the window and then trying to create an image from that, but I believe my work attempts to draw on what I see, what my experience is, and to give some kind of voice to those experiences.”
After graduating from Colby with a degree in English, Duncan decided to make art his major pursuit, and scholarships allowed him opportunities to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the New York Studio School. He worked and taught at Bennington College in Vermont from 1983 to 1988 before he joined the faculty at Union College in Schenectady, where he has worked his way up to the rank of full professor of visual arts.
Union, a private college then known mainly for producing engineers, was developing its Art Department around the time he was hired, he said.
“It was a great time to start there,” he said. “… I’ve realized over a period of years it was really a great opportunity.”
For several years, he and his family continued to live in New York City, but “commuting was really a drag, as you can imagine,” he says, and the college encouraged him to move closer to campus.
At first, he and his wife, Alice Smith Duncan, and their daughter, Ella, lived in Schenectady.
“But we wanted something more rural, and we came across Canajoharie almost by accident,” Duncan said. “We found this house and fell in love with the house, so we came out here.”
Alice, an art historian who has curated works by 19th Century artists Rufus Grider and Fritz Voght, said the family’s home on Otsego Street was built in 1821 by David Spraker, a prominent Mohawk Valley businessman. Spraker, incidentally, graduated from the college where Chris Duncan teaches.
He is the only professor at Union who specializes in sculpture, he said, and his colleagues include a photographer, a painter, a digital artist and art historians.
“Union’s been a very supportive place to work,” Duncan said, noting the college has given him several opportunities to travel abroad with students. “We’re going to Italy this spring, for the fourth time, so it’s hard to complain.”
Duncan says he was drawn to teaching because juggling art with any other type of career would be more difficult. He sees his dual career – making art and working with young artists – as being on “parallel tracks.”
“I thought teaching would be the one career where you could have a kind of balance between your job – which I love – and your work,” he said. “You could do both, and they would be feeding one another. It wouldn’t be like you’re trying to maintain two totally separate spheres in your head all the time.”
But art isn’t a practical career path for most students, Duncan acknowledges.
“Realistically, it’s not going to happen for most people,” he said. “Most people will drop it after a while; their goals will change.”
But studying art as part of a larger liberal-arts program is valuable, he said, quoting a former colleague who told him, “Essentially, you’re educating an audience.”
And students appreciate their time in the studio for the contrast it provides to their other academic work.
“They say they really like having that hands-on [experience],” Duncan said. “You’re working with real stuff, and it’s satisfying. There’s something about being able to work with things in the real world in a real way.”
When he’s not teaching in Schenectady, Duncan works in his studio in the garage outside his home. While his sculptures occupy the ground floor, the upper level of the building is devoted to two-dimensional works.
“2-D is an illusion, whereas sculpture is reality,” Duncan said. “I prefer working with actual objects.”
But even when he is drawing or assembling a collage, he thinks in terms of sculptural concepts such as layer, depth and texture.
“I am always trying to get some sort of dynamic relationship between different levels spatially,” he said. “A lot of my work is about balancing one element with another, about layering space.”
Explaining his approach to a visitor recently, he paused and admitted, “It’s not purely a rational process.”
“I think art should have a kind of unity to it that life doesn’t have. When I make sculpture, I want to make it look like a thing that’s complete but also has a kind of a dynamic energy – like it’s changing, like it’s alive and vital but also kind of contained or finished somehow.”
Duncan’s body of work continues to evolve as he experiments with new techniques and materials. He has plans to return to Germany, where he enjoyed a residency last year, and in April some of his work will be exhibited at the Kirkland Art Center in Clinton, Oneida County. He’ll be in Italy at the time.
“I don’t know what inspiration is exactly,” he said. “You do have certain moments when you see things more clearly. But I don’t wait around for it.”
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at [email protected].