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National Gallery of Art Showcases Sculptures of Martin Puryear

Over a career that has spanned more than three decades, Martin Puryear has gained international acclaim as a sculptor. Now the National Gallery of Art, in his hometown of Washington, D.C., is paying tribute to the artist with a major retrospective. VOA's Susan Logue reports.

Hand-crafted from wood, wire, rawhide and tar, many of Martin Puryear's sculptures look like they might be tools, but it isn't quite clear how they would be used. Others are reminiscent of animals, boats or primitive shelters.

"He has always made objects that look like they should have a name, but we can't name them. They seem like something we know, but not really," says Ruth Fine, National Gallery of Art curator of special projects in modern art.

Boyhood Fascination with Woodworking

Fine says Puryear's interest in building began as a boy, growing up in Washington, D.C. "His father had some woodworking tools in his home, and Martin talks about 'if I wanted to learn archery, I made bows and arrows; and if I wanted to play guitar, I made the guitar.'"

Fine says he still does that. But Puryear is best known for creating objects that are less useful and more thought provoking.

Like a ladder that narrows as it stretches more than ten meters to the ceiling. Made from a single sapling split down the middle and joined with rungs, it appears spindly and fragile. He titles the piece, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, the renowned educator who was born a slave.

Martin Puryear studied painting at Catholic University and got a masters degree in sculpture at Yale.

Learns Craftsmanship Through Observation

In between, he spent two years with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where, Fine says, he learned more about craftsmanship. "He observed the artisans in Africa," she says. "He watched how well they made things using hand tools."

Puryear also studied at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art and spent a few weeks in the workshop of a Swedish woodworker. His admiration for Scandinavian furniture can be seen in many of his wooden sculptures.

All of his pieces are not only designed by him, but curator Ruth Fine says, made by the artist himself, and often without assistance.

"I think it is important to him that the viewer is aware that they have been handmade," she says. "In many pieces he leaves tracks. You see the staple marks where the wood was held together while he was gluing it."

But other times, the artist paints over those marks.

Lets the Work Speak for Itself

The curator says Puryear is an artist of contradictions, making it difficult to make any generalizations about his work.

And you won't get any explanations from him. Puryear, who is African-American, declines to do interviews, preferring to let the work speak for itself.

"I don't think he in any way wants to impose on his viewers what he was thinking about or what his history is," Fine says. "He appreciates the idea that his viewers bring all of their experience to his work."

One thing Martin Puryear has said is that he is very pleased to have a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, the museum he visited as a boy growing up in the U.S. capital.