In Conversation : Art Historian Lauren Jimerson with Sculptor Melanie Furtado

Melanie Furtado, Lukiana, acrylic resin, photo: Simon Desrochers. Courtesy of the artist.

Women (States of Being): Sculptures by Melanie Furtado

Jour et Nuit Culture (Paris)

By LAUREN JIMERSON, December 2020

The sculpture series, Women: States of Being by Melanie Furtado, offers a novel yet distinctly familiar representation of the female form. Whether viewed together or apart, these sculptures defy traditional standards of beauty. Not conforming to a single body type, some are curvaceous, others skinny, one is wrinkled with age, while another is heavily pregnant. Contrary to an idealized or abstracted nude, Melanie presents the naked female body in profoundly intimate poses - standing before a mirror, reclining with legs propped up, collapsed over with head against the wall, and lying in fetal position. These unusual postures express an array of emotional states - wistful, forlorn, nostalgic, hopeful, overwhelmed...  The small scale draws us closer to these sculptures, as we seek to understand exactly what these women contemplate. Yet, on closer inspection, we are reminded that these are not simulacra. Massaged and stroked, the worked surface reveals the sculptor’s hand.  

As an art historian writing a book on the representation of the nude by women artists, I was immediately drawn to Melanie’s work. I came to her studio at Place Saint Michel in Paris to discover more.

LAUREN JIMERSON: It is an incredible opportunity to be here at Jour et Nuit Culture right in the center of Paris. Tell us about your residency and upcoming exhibition. 

MELANIE FURTADO: I've been an artist in residence here at Place Saint-Michel in Paris for the past 2 years, and in this closing exhibition I am showing work made during this time. There are 7 figures on show from my current series Women: States of Being. 

LJ: How did you arrive at the Women: States of Being series? 

MF: When I first came to Paris, I was struck by the volume of people in comparison to the town I’m from in Canada. We were all in our own little bubble, not really communicating with each other, but yet we were coexisting in the same physical space. I’m fascinated by the idea of a collective experience that we're all having, but we're having it within ourselves. It's a hidden introspective moment that we don't share with another person, but yet it could be happening simultaneously. So I began working in series where the collection of the figures is more important than just each individual piece on its own. This idea became even more relevant with the pandemic forcing us into isolation.

This series focuses specifically on women’s internal states. The language of the female body is very familiar to me, so it is a natural way to explore ideas. I also find that even today with various women’s movements, a lot of the representation of women's bodies in sculpture is very narrow and does not show a range of body types or ages. So it is really important for me to include a spectrum of diverse individual experiences. 

Melanie Furtado, “Women: States of Being”, installation view, Jour et Nuit Culture, photo: Simon Desrochers. Courtesy of the artist.

LJ: Thinking about sculptors who work with the human figure in a manner that shows realistic or true-to-life bodies that don't fit within a certain mold, it’s hard to find other examples.

MF: Yes, especially in representational sculpture, the idea of the classical female nude is ubiquitous. The topic has been addressed throughout history, and yet still women are not represented the way they really are. So I find that kind of a disconcerting lineage.

LJ: The size you chose is unusual for nude sculpture. Is there an experience that inspired this particular scale? 

MF: I saw an exhibition at the Rodin museum with a selection of plasters from their storage, including the original Thinker. The monumental bronze that we're familiar with is so bold and imposing, yet seeing the original plaster with this small, delicate kind of form changed it into an incredibly intimate experience. That made an impression on me.

LJ: Tell me about your process. How do you create these pieces from start to finish? 

MF: For this series, I am collaborating with individuals who come to the studio to model. This begins with sketching many different poses, and then selecting one to make a small maquette. The final figure is then built up in clay from direct observation with the model in the studio. The application of clay is quite visible on the finished texture, which means as I'm working, I have to be very, very focused because I try not to rework the surface too much. 

After the clay modelling begins a whole other process of mold making using silicone rubber. This creates an exact negative imprint of the sculpture which is used to cast the final material. 

Melanie Furtado, Paula, acrylic resin, photo: Simon Desrochers. Courtesy of the artist.

LJ: What material will the final pieces be cast in?

MF: It’s an acrylic resin that is almost indistinguishable from plaster. I really like how it indicates the same intimacy and everyday quality of plaster, but renders it more durable.   

LJ: You are clearly interested in the figure rather than abstraction, and you are also drawn to the body as a subject. What motivates you to focus on the figure?

The figure is universal - it's something we all have. Every aspect of life is experienced through our bodies. So it can communicate beyond language. You can connect to the body on a more basic human level, and potentially discover a sense of empathy or a reflection of yourself through the other. WM

Lauren Jimerson

Lauren Jimerson is an art historian whose research examines modern art in France and the U.S., with a focus on gender studies, women artists and visual culture. A Fulbright fellowship brought her to Paris in 2015, where she has remained ever since. Having received her doctorate from Rutgers University, she currently teaches at the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking and is writing a book on the nude by women artists in early twentieth-century France. She frequently lectures on female artists at academic conferences and is a frequent commentator on the TV channel France 24. Beyond her scholarship, Lauren is a licensed guide who leads educational tours at museums in Paris as well as French cultural experiences online.

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