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Fully Figured

Wood artist Carol Setterlund carves out a vision

By Gretchen Giles

ARTIST CAROL SETTERLUND lives alone, but her house is fully peopled. Opening the front door to her Cloverdale residence, she invites the visitor in and for a few moments there is absolutely nothing to talk about. We are silenced by the indoor view.

Set past a slight rectangular breezeway that leads off to her workroom, the front room that Setterlund has converted to a home gallery of white walls and skylights confronts the viewer with stark impact.

Standing caught in their acts are several of her life-sized wood sculptures of men and women, many with hands clasped in supplication, others blinded by scarves of metal gauze and cheesecloth. One proffartays back her shoulders to show the low valley between her breasts to be pocked with a found object, and a third has turned to reveal an obsidian jugular running from cerebrum to heart. The nude man in the corner balances a beach-softened root ball as a rakishly sacred hat.

"I don't draw, I don't use photographs, and I don't know what I'm doing when I start," says Setterlund settling atop a low stool. "I start with a piece of wood."

Hewn primarily from thick pieces of redwood, Setterlund's sculptures belie their origins. Whittled, chopped, shaped with chain saws and die grinders, these graceful figures and busts really look more like objects culled from the forge than the forest.

Surfaced in putty, sand, and acrylics, the wood grain is invisible and the seams--joining arms to shoulders, legs to hips--are lost. "I like the transformation," Setterlund explains. "I guess I see my hand on it more. And I hadn't known how to handle the seams. A lot of people have asked me why I don't show more of the wood, and I have tried to, but by the time I was through with a piece and satisfied with it, the wood was all covered up."

Completely self-taught, this artist--whose one-woman show at the Quicksilver Mine Company opens Friday, June 28--was given two fence posts 25 years ago. "I got some tools and started fooling around," she says--as if wrestling art from that which most people would consider to be good kindling were the most natural thing in the world.

Then a wife and mother of small children, Setterlund had been trying to compose short stories "before computers and rewriting got to be as pleasant as it is now," she smiles. "All of a sudden I was just completely sick of sitting over a typewriter and redoing and redoing. By the time I was finished, it wasn't something that I even understood. It was lost to me. I wanted to do something that I could have in my hands when I was finished."

Setterlund admits, "I have a problem with story. Beginning, middle, and end are really a problem for me, which makes me think that sculpture is really quite perfect. It's timeless, because beginning, middle, and end are all there in just one piece."

The kind of "fooling around" that Setterlund characterizes as sparking her early interest in woodworking led her to create highly glossed abstract pieces, studies in grain and form. Sitting in the cool afternoon gloom of her kitchen, she points to photographs of that phase. "I was interested in doing beautiful work, with far less tension," she sighs. "I think that then the tension was more in the craft than in how far I could push the work. Now, it's how far can I push the emotion or the idea.

"I have no interest in doing this kind of thing anymore," she says definitively as she turns the page.

ONE CAN SEE why. While her earlier work has an affable living-room quality--the sort of attractive, sensuous objects easily bought and caressed--the challenge of her current figures has brought her work to the fine-art level that tightens the stomach of the viewer: This is the real stuff.

An unfinished leggy torso stands with Sasquatch grace in Setterlund's small studio. Armless and headless, fashioned from redwood, and covered with rough paint and putty that cancel the desire for touch, it's called "Witness."

"It's a witness of being rather than seeing," Setterlund elucidates, citing the idea of paradoxes that characterize her work. "I try to get opposing things together without being too conflicted or having too much tension. That's probably my biggest problem."

With its pitiful mammalian evidence of nipples and navel, "Witness" is simply human, with the strength of a man's legs and a tender spot on the lower abdomen that curves like the belly of a young girl. Just below the thorax of the ribs' butterfly is one smooth swath of cool bluish paint; if "Witness" were a lover, this would be a cherished place.

"When I started out with this piece," Setterlund explains, "I wanted to make it be something that you couldn't decide whether or not you wanted to touch. You wanted to touch it but were repelled. I lost that urge along the way. It wasn't that I didn't want it to be that, but I just got engrossed in the being.

"This is very close to finished," she says as we get near the piece. "It had genitals, but I decided that it didn't need them. I hesitated a long time before cutting them off, because what I didn't want is attention in that area, and I was afraid that cutting them off would make that more of an attention area. I don't think that it has done that," she finishes appraisingly, looking at the wood putty patching she has applied to the figure. "He actually had a head and arms. The arms are over there," she gestures. "And," she says impishly, going up to the piece and turning it. "He has a great butt."


After the cackling has died down, she continues more soberly. "I decided that I wanted him just as a . . . it's hard to put in words exactly, how I feel about this piece.

"A head is not involved," Setterlund says slowly. "It's a piece that doesn't have a story. It just is. It's a being."

The exhibit of Carol Setterlund's figurative sculpture shows at the Quicksilver Mine Company June 28 through Aug. 4. A reception is planned for Friday, June 28, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. 154 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Gallery hours are daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. 829-2416.

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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