Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

From a Barrel Racer to a Sculptor

Location: Chicago

Mileage: 5,160

Meal: Spicy kielbasa and rice (I made a worthwhile exception to meatless fare)

Music: “Sweet Home Chicago” by the Blues Brothers

Driving across Ohio and Illinois requires patience.  The incessant roadwork prohibits speeding, multiple tollbooths deplete wallets, and there is wind so fierce it threatens to steer you off the road.  However, if you can get past the distractions, and take the time to look out the window, you will be in awe of the picture in front of you.  Velvety green fields stretch themselves over the hills, interrupted only by forests of golden cornstalks, their leaves dried from the summer sun.  Friendly red barns dapple the rolling surface and idle cows look at the passing cars longingly with their moo-eyes.  I was in the Midwest, the landlocked states many referred to as “the fly overs.”  However, I didn’t quite understand what merited a fly over at all.

In addition to the beauty of ‘fly over’ Americana, the warmth of the people made me want to linger and stay awhile.  I had multiple offers for places to stay, meals, and activities, each person never too busy to reach out to another soul.  I wasn’t in Manhattan anymore.

One such lovely soul was Audry, an acclaimed sculptor that invited me into her home for dinner.  The burgundy walls of her huge loft were covered in artwork and eclectic hangings.  A large warm kitchen prominently covered a good third of the surface area, and area that Audry’s husband John was using to diligently chop vegetables and mix up spices for our dinner. “I don’t really cook much,” she explained, ”but John is a master.”  John and Audry had been together for 14 years, their romance launched on their first date at the ‘Spike and Mike’ cartoon festival.

Audry hailed from Colorado, born to a mother that was a state barrel-racing champion.  Audry grew up around animals, riding, farming, and participating in rodeo activities.  “In addition to barrel racing, I also used to tie goats,” said Audry. “I am mortified to tell my city friends exactly what that entails.”  I told her I was from Montana so her roping tales were in safe hands.  “Well, basically one runs down the course with the horse, jumps off to grab the poor tethered goat, throws him up and drops him until the wind is knocked out of ‘em, and then ties three of his legs together.”  It may have been the trauma of throwing goats or it may have been the teenage years but Audry eventually left animals to pursue other interests.  “At 16 it is either horses or cars or boys. I decided I was done with horses for a little while.”

Although Audry studied art and graphic design at Colorado’s Institute of Art, she experimented with different artistic and non-artistic careers and lifestyles  for years until she discovered her true calling as a sculptor.  To some Audry had led an unfocused life before she started sculpting.  To me she led a masterful one, embracing various experiences and people that likely make her work all the more profound today.  She lived as a ski bum, cocktailed, created theater sets, and worked on the “rough and tumble madness” called the Chicago commodities trading floor.

Audry started as a runner on the floor, where she would bring orders from the phones to the traders.  Six mon ths later she moved up to working the phone lines, placing orders from unknown men on the other side.  “They would call me from their yacht in the Caribbean.” she said.  It was during this time where she met her husband John, a derivatives trader, and also where her career as an artist was born.  “I had all this down time in-between phone calls….so I started cutting out images and making collages.”   When a trading scam erupted with the aforementioned ‘yacht men’, Audry left the money world for the artistic one, working first in theater set design, sewing and painting on a ‘large scale.’  “It was fascinating but it was toxic.  I remember blowing my nose in the shower, and the paint color of the day would come out.”  Looking for a less toxic career, Audry took her painting from large to small scale, working as a make-up artist at Bobbi Brown and Yves St Laurent.  However, even though Audry was a master with the brushes, she was not a masterful seller. “I sell with my own pocketbook…and I would never buy a $30 lipstick!  I just couldn’t get excited about it!”

Looking for something she should become passionate about, Audry remembered how her hands worked when she made collages….she felt as if they wanted to sculpt, to construct, to shape.  With fierce determination she marched to the library.   “I went to the library and got a book.  I made a skeleton and then formed muscles to put around him. I loved the feeling!  But knew I needed to learn more about anatomy and chiseling and so I enrolled in classes at an art school.”

From the first formation, Audry’s heart knew that she had finally landed at “what I was meant to do.”  A sculpture is like a 3D collage,” she said.  “I love working from life and then adding on my own interpretations.”

Like many artists that arrive at their true calling, Audry’s connection with bronze was a spiritual experience.  “I heard angels singing!” she said.  ”I started to look at the world differently, things were brighter as soon as I started sculpting.”

For ten years Audry has been making busts, figures and animals, her art featured at galleries and exhibits across Illinois and Colorado, including the famous “Cows on Parade”.  She also teaches classes at Chicago’s “Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Art.” Although Audry is trained in classical realism, she is now starting to work on more abstract pieces that add embellishment and intricacies to anatomically correct figures. “It’s my personal voice on it!” she said.

Audry’s work is beautiful. However, like many prolific artists, she creates out of passion, not greed.  Audry is a sculptor first and a saleswoman dead last.  “Sometimes it is hard to watch artists that are less talented than you reap riches just because they focus on selling.  I am true to my work….and feel the truth in the pieces should just sell itself.” Audry then laughs.  “But that is probably what all the poor artists say. The rich ones just sell it!

From writers to paintersm every artist know that inspiration comes in cycles, blocks a part of the pattern.  Her transformation from realism to abstract has been fraught with challenges. “I’m in a slump,” she said.  A sculptor that had worked with her to guide her next series had left, a past student had committed suicide, and her hands were unsure how to work the bodies.  “I need to start creating larges pieces for my collections, but it’s not working right now.” Audry had just torn down her latest attempt at a 32 inch figure.
When you are in a slump all you can do is keep working through it,” she said. “I cannot run away from the studio.  I keep showing up every day, even if it is just to clean.  Cleaning is cleansing….”  Audry mentions that learning to ride the ups and downs of the artist’s rollercoaster is crucial for success. “Besides, if you are not frustrated than you are not learning.  Of course, I do not know what I am learning right now, but it must be a ton!” And the barrel racing, snowboarding artist threw back her head and laughed again.

“You know, life is good, I am lucky…even in a slump.”  And Audry then quoted her 104 year old grandmother, “I cannot complain, it doesn’t do any good and no one wants to hear it anyway.”  After hugs goodbye, Audry sent me on my way into the dark Chicago night, my arms loaded with extra cupcakes and pieces of artwork.

“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

– Emile Zola

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“From a Barrel Racer to a Sculptor”

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