Body Building: The Astounding Figurative Sculpture of Carole Feuerman

“Fine art sculpture” and “humor magazine” aren’t two terms you often associate with one another. But when the art is by groundbreaking sculptor Carole Feuerman and the magazine is the acclaimed National Lampoon, the association begins to make a little more sense, if in its own curious way.

The year was 1975 and Carole Feuerman was yet to become the celebrated hyperrealist sculptor she is today. Fresh out of a somewhat unsatisfying stint in art school and floundering in the role of emerging artist, she was selling paintings to magazines for cover art when National Lampoon came calling. The magazine was looking for a somewhat gruesome image for their “Nose to the Grindstone” issue, the head of a man with his nose chopped off. To convey this man’s pain, Feuerman introduced a technique that would become her signature: live casting a real human model. It’s a technique she has now perfected and uses with incredible dexterity to convey palpable human emotion, but this first attempt back in 1975 didn’t go quite as smoothly.

“The magazine’s art director had volunteered to serve as my live model and to ‘act out’ the feeling of physical pain,” Feuerman recalls. “But I had a difficult time removing the plaster, so he wasn’t really acting. It was terrible in the moment, but the piece was coming out so well. That November cover of the magazine made all sorts of headlines. It was incredibly successful.”

It was a defining moment for Feuerman, who began not only to hone her work around the idea of capturing emotion, but also to explore the many dichotomies her work so clearly seeks to divulge: pain and humor, emotion and stillness, metal and movement, survival and death, surface and soul.

The Swimmer

She began experimenting with figurative sculpture, casting live body parts that were designed to tell a story: two holding hands suggesting a couple in love, or two hands held apart intimating the loss of love. Some of the pieces were interpreted as more erotic in nature—at least for the late 1970s: hands caressing a torso and other pieces that explored passion and lust.

Survival of Serena, 2012 Lacquer on Bronze Dimensions (inches): 37 H x 81 W x 31 D Private Collection, The Hamptons

Survival of Serena, 2012
Lacquer on Bronze
Dimensions (inches): 37 H x 81 W x 31 D
Private Collection, The Hamptons

Early exhibitions of this “erotic” work were not well received, so Feuerman decided to change course. “I decided I’d go in the opposite direction and undertake good-old clean American sport,” Feuerman explains. “I didn’t really know anything about sports, but I did like going to the beach. Swimmers were sort of the ideal subject for me because they weren’t nudes, but you could still see their bodies.” Her first swimmer would eventually catch the eye of one particularly important collector: Malcolm Forbes. Forbes purchased her first swimmer and all of Feuerman’s “erotic” pieces—17 in total in her first New York solo show—and Feuerman’s career as an artist took off.

She continued to work to convey emotion, using the swimmer’s figure as her canvas. “People began to know my work as a feeling—not simply as cast sculpture,” Feuerman notes. “I think long and hard about what I’m trying to convey before I begin a piece. I hire actors and actresses to pose for me, and they have to convey the emotion authentically or it’s just not valid.”

To these figurative parts she began adding color, developing a photorealist painting technique on resin and later on bronze that looked so much like flesh it was hard to believe the pieces were not real. The fold of wet swimming suit looks like real fabric, drops of water beading on skin, tiny wisps of hair escaped from a colorful resin or bronze swim cap—all of these details only served to make the conveyed emotion that much more recognizable and real.

Above and Beyond

Monumental Fire and Harmony, 2015 Patinated Bronze and Stainless Steel Dimensions (inches): 120 H x 46 W x 28 D Currently on exhibit at Tampa Museum of Art

Monumental Fire and Harmony, 2015
Patinated Bronze and Stainless Steel
Dimensions (inches): 120 H x 46 W x 28 D
Currently on exhibit at Tampa Museum of Art

Parts of swimmers gave way to partial swimmers, fragments and, eventually she sculpted full bodies, complete with resin or bronze accessories and clothing painted in a trompe l’oeil fashion. Today, after 45 years’ experience and a wealth of national and international exhibitions and commissions, including four separate showings of her work at the Venice Biennale, Feuerman is the master of conveying emotion through her hyperrealist figurative sculpture. Embodied in figures of swimmers, divers, and dancers, she fabricates her bronze and resin pieces at museum, life-size, and monumental scale, and installs them both indoors and out. Many of her swimmers and divers have been installed at lakes, parks, or beaches, either in water or near it, something no other hyperrealist sculptor has done.

She works selectively, starting with a story, an emotion, or a client’s concept, and completes only a few pieces a year. Some pieces take as much as three years to complete. Feuerman continues to employ a combination of live casting and sculpting to get the emotional aspect of her pieces just right and works with only a handful of trusted fabricators in the U.S. and abroad. She develops her own patinas and finishes, hand painting hyperrealist sculptures with oil paint or auto paint, depending on where they’ll be displayed. Other sculptures are finished with black patina, gold leaf, or Swarovski crystals, while stainless steel works are highly polished for installation outdoors or in water. Architectural blueprints, public art guidelines, and engineering requirements have all become part of Feuerman’s artistic lexicon, as have the relationships she’s developed with architects, designers, city planners, public art agencies, and curators worldwide.

And while it would be easy for Feuerman to comfortably reside in the “hyperrealist sculptor” pigeonhole, she instead chooses to continue exploring a range of techniques and mediums. Over the last two decades she’s developed a dripped bronze body of figurative work using a technique she describes as “painting with fire.” Using a variety of metals, she splashes and splatters the molten material into hand-crafted molds, unveiling gorgeous color and rich texture on human forms, a study of element and surface. She continues to paint, and often collaborates with other artists on new media projects.

The Golden Mean, 2012 Patinated Bronze and 24K Gold Leaf Cap Dimensions (inches): 150 H x 54 W x 38 D Owned by the City of Peekskill, NY

The Golden Mean, 2012
Patinated Bronze and 24K Gold Leaf Cap
Dimensions (inches): 150 H x 54 W x 38 D
Owned by the City of Peekskill, NY

In 2011, she established the Carole A. Feuerman Sculpture Foundation to generate excitement, interest, and passion for the arts, and to inspire and award deserving artists with exhibition opportunities, internships for college credit, and grants. The foundation organizes biannual fine art exhibitions that showcase the work of under-represented artists. A guest curator selects the artists. Awards are given in the form of grants and internships.

Feuerman is also on the board of the International Sculpture Center, a member-supported nonprofit organization founded in 1960 to champion the creation and understanding of sculpture and its unique, vital contribution to society. Members include sculptors, collectors, patrons, architects, developers, journalists, curators, historians, critics, educators, foundries, galleries, and museums—anyone with an interest in and commitment to the field of sculpture.

As far as her own work, Feuerman always returns to her swimmers, not only as an exploration of beauty and emotion, but because the swimmer represents a universal persistence and the will to succeed. As she so eloquently notes, “I observe, photograph, and sculpt swimmers because we are all swimmers.”

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