Briefly describe the work you do.
On and off for the past 30 years, I have been creating biomorphic forms. For the past eight years, the driving force behind the sculptures has become more about the microscopic world of genetics. They are invented forms of genes and chromosomes that are abstract, figurative and gender-ridden in a playful, but eloquent manor in a minimal and essential way. They are bent, folded voluptuous forms full of life. Some forms are inspired by fused multiple living things and then put onto a microscope slide. Others are meant to bring together the primordial and futuristic. The near perfect surface of most of the works in this series is intentional suggesting “otherworldly”. The sculptures range in size a height of 24” all the way to over 9’.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
When I was young, I began copying illustrations from my Mother’s anatomy and biology textbooks. I can still remember some of the grotesque pictures. However, it was not until later that I became fully aware of how devastating and torturous diseases can be when I lost a family member to complications from a long battle with illness. This tragic event had a tremendous effect on the always present; yet underlying core focus and transcendent nature of my artwork. It was this exposure to the imperfect human body; disease, dysfunction, and witnessing the end of life that charted my artwork on a course consumed with what I refer to as “the human condition”.
I attended UMass Dartmouth for undergrad and received a BFA in Sculpture, and then attended Cranbrook for graduate school and received a MFA in Ceramics. Fortunately, I was exposed to wonderful mentors and artists that broadened my artistic concepts and philosophies at both institutions.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
True. The life style of many artists and the notion of what it means to be “in studio” can be more of a state of mind/place; especially for those involved with digital processes. For me, “studio practices” are those times when I am working at a foundry, a factory, a mold making facility, or even a workshop. “In studio” can extend to the location of an installation in a museum, gallery or temporary site. Whereas when I am “being in the studio”, I am in my environment, with my tools and many works in progress. My studio environment creates an alchemy that has become an extension of all my art, labors and my brain. I currently have works in progress at three different studio locations. I have a couple rooms where I live to work on small projects and flat works. It also serves as the studio office space. The 4,000 s.f. main studio is located a few miles away from where I live. The open floor plan and exterior concrete pad make this building ideal to do most of the mold making, casting, and the production of sculptures and large drawings. The third location of my studio is where I teach. It is one room studio area that I use to make small clay models in between classes or when I don’t have a meeting to attend.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Ever since I had a sandbox, I loved making stuff. Early on we called it playing. Right? We all played. Now as grown up artists we call it creativity, expression, inventing. I like to call it “meaningful play”. So play has turned into meaningful play and meaningful play has turned into meaningful slavery TO art. I am now an art slave and there is no turning back. It is how I developed and it will be how I pass. The notion of seeing yourself as an artist is one I can’t fully comprehend… I still don’t know my exact role. Sometimes I struggle and have to work for it, and sometimes I just see myself as a messenger in the form of an artist’s body.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I work on my artwork whenever I can. Ideas, creative energies and general problem solving seem to come in the early mornings. Although, creative energy comes any time, even in my dreams. Afternoons and early evenings are usually times spent physically working on art. Nighttime is usually used as a good time to gather research, purchase materials or take care of office matters. I try to get to the studio early every day and can easily work all day if time allows. I was recently on a 6 month sabbatical from teaching, which allowed me time to research and work in the studio nearly every single day. Now that I’m back to the grind of a real workweek, I will get to the studio early before I have to be at work, and depending on the day and processes, I may return after work as well.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The work expands and contracts. It has evolved and changed as I have. Technology is always evolving, therefore new concepts and considerations are added into the mix, but the fundamental baseline of my artwork, which I refer to as “the human condition” has not changed. I suppose the most notable change in my work has been a change in media. Ten years ago, as propane and natural gas prices continued to rise I was priced out of my familiar ceramic medium. The forms that I am called to make are more natural for me to make out of malleable materials and processes that can give way to permanent organic forms. So it took me two years of research and drawing to discover the full potential of polymer technology as I began to make and cast from molds. I have continued to work figuratively, but my focus has become on a more molecular level; yet, still large-scale. I still single handedly make every piece of my work.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Of course! While at Cranbrook I was fortunate to have the guidance and mentorship of world-renowned ceramic artist Jun Kaneko. Essence and eloquence also became key factors driving my sculptures as I paid attention to what other artists like Henry Moore, Tony Cragg, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Isamu Noguchi were making and what mediums they used for creating their artworks. As these masters influenced my concepts of creation, the significance of material usage and message became evermore important and personal in my works. Early on, I read and was heavily influenced by Jean Tinguely’s writings on kinetic art. It made me become serious and organized about creating and exhibiting experimental performance installations and for a period of 8 years I had collaborative shows throughout the country.
I am also addicted to documentaries that enlighten me about issues such as faith and science or astronomy. Basically, I am a vacuum for any information pertaining to the birth of mankind. Music and composed sounds are other big inspirations for me. I am always listening to music, and the combinations of sounds in the music allow me to visualize forms and landscapes in my head. I feel that the frequency of sounds, heard and unheard, are a contributing factor to the making and origin of all organic matter.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
It is hard to think outside of THAT box. The wild story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes to mind. Perhaps I’d be the owner, inventor, and worker for a “Factory for Man”. A factory that makes things that remind all human beings to feel how related we are to each other. However, I suppose I would have to invent, own, and work at the “Factory for Unman” so that there would be some degree of balance and the universe could remain intact.
Ralph Pàquin was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1954. During his adolescence, he studied with craftsmen and artists in California, Nebraska, Virginia, Florida and Rhode Island. He received a BFA in Sculpture at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he studied under New York painter, Edward Togneri; Italian sculptor, Dominick Angelo; and Chicago ceramic artist, Harvey Goldman. In 1980, he attended Cranbrook Academy of Art to study and work with world-renowned ceramic artist Jun Kaneko and sculptor Michael Hall. After Cranbrook, Pàquin shifted into large-scale artworks conceptually based on “the human condition”. In the following years, Pàquin held residences and teaching positions at MIT, Ohio State University, Furman University and Presbyterian College, where he currently teaches.
From 1984–2004, Pàquin’s ceramic art shifted from object to multi-media installation/performance using mechanical objects, sound, and light. For the next eight years, he collaborated on large-scale installation projects with artist Ann Stoddard at a number of venues including MIT, MediaLab, and Artist’s Space Gallery in NYC. Following the decline of NEA and other public funding sources, Pàquin left the collaborations and returned to creating large-scale ceramic sculpture. During the next ten years, he dedicated most of his studio practice to making the figurative ceramic works titled “The Distraught Series.” The series attracted the attention of New York City art critic, Donald Kuspit, who visited Paquin’s studio to write about his artwork.
The 2003-04 escalation in prices for natural gas, materials and shipping costs resulted in a major change of media choices for producing sculpture. Researching new media and processes, Pàquin’s sculpture and works on paper moved dramatically toward anthropomorphically reduced forms and shapes. This new body of over-simplified artwork consisting of sculptures and drawing continues to evolve into “essential forms” fueled by the science of genetics.
Pàquin currently maintains a 3000 square foot sculpture and drawing studio in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he lives.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.