Portrait of the Artist
Call of the West
An interview with sculptor Daniel Richmond
By Julia Mandeville
Daniel Richmond moved to Albuquerque in the fall of 2009. A Vermont native with a breathtaking talent for woodcarving and a long-standing connection to the Southwest, he came here to pursue his MFA in Sculpture at UNM. Just last week, he embossed the names of 112 New Mexico endangered species in red Jemez dirt across the university’s Smith Plaza. The meaning of the work rested as much on its creation as on its disappearance; within moments of its completion, students shuffled and skateboarded across the installation, wiping it away entirely. Over the next few months, he plans to repeat his 112 Endangered Names Embossed in Dirt project—and present many others—throughout the city. The Alibi wanted to know what motivates this fantastically curious new Albuquerquean. So we went and found out.
How did you find yourself in New Mexico?
I think it’s somewhat by circumstance, somewhat by serendipity that I’m here. When I first came to the Southwest, it was 1996. My friend Sue Ryan had buttoned me down from Wyoming, where I was living in Laramie, to do a carving demonstration at the Rough Rock Community School [in Arizona], and I was just blown away by the area. Over the next few years, I came back down to Sanders—also in Arizona, not far from Gallup—doing projects in Sanders’ middle and elementary schools. I’d pass through Albuquerque whenever I came by airplane, and somewhere in the back of my head I always thought, Someday I wish maybe I could live here. So this little seed was planted, and it lingered there, and when it felt like the right time to come back to school, I just remembered Albuquerque.
Have you always been a sculptor? Or was there something that came before?
My grandfather was a painter—a sign painter, actually, during the Public Works Projects in the 1920s. He then became an architect, but his true love was painting. And I would see him in his studio, and it was a magical place to me—to see these colorful images come. I was really influenced by him, I think, and wanted to paint when I first started, but it just wasn’t physical enough for me. I ended up moving over into sculpting wood and did so for a really long time. For probably 15 years, I just carved wood and didn’t make much other artwork.
So you sculpted, solely, for 15 years. What materials have you integrated into your work since?
The changes over the last few years are really the result of going to the Navajo Nation. I started a new relationship with the land and learned a lot from the people and the place. When I returned again to Vermont, I started all of a sudden finding pigments in the soil that I’d never even noticed. I found the same pigments of the Painted Desert of Arizona in Vermont! And I understood that these pigments were of my place, too, and I could use them to work with. So I began using them to paint. And I branched out from there, letting the place in. Trying to let where I was talk to me a little bit.
How did your work with pigments evolve into your present 112 Endangered Names project?
I’ve always been interested in animals, and I’m becoming increasingly interested in words and in language; in their power—or lack of power—to change things. Many artists use words and language to this aim. And we as people, of course, use them every day. Words can mean so many things, have so many agendas, tell so many stories, make their way into so many different conversations. I have an interest in communicating, entering into a conversation and participating in an ongoing conversation about animals, land usage, story telling, life in general.
Would you talk about the community improvement projects you’re doing right now?
I’m participating in a group that’s working with the old Route 66 signs that exist along Central Avenue. The project was started by Professor Ellen Babcock at UNM, and it came out of a seminar group that we graduate students were taking with her. We’ve been going to Highland High School, and their art teacher, Barbara Endicott, was nice enough to let us work with students there. We just finished, and there are some great designs that the students produced. The next phase is to raise the money to actually reconstitute the [fire-damaged El Sarape] sign with those designs.
I also just recently joined a group at UNM that’s part of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. I’m hoping to collaborate with NMWA in the future and use object-making in conjunction with some of the things that they’re doing.
What projects are you planning for?
I just did an installation [of 112 Endangered Names]. I want to try to find other locales off campus, throughout Albuquerque, to do more of these presentations.
I’m also hoping to go back to Costa Rica in a couple of months to work on a project at Bribri, Talamanca, with artist friends down there. We hope to carve the Bribri names of endangered species, including plants, and install them in the school at Watsi so the kids can have a hands-on interaction with the Bribri language—which is, like a lot of languages throughout the world, at risk of being subsumed by more dominant languages. I hope that trip happens; with the help of some nice organizations, it will.
Where do you imagine yourself when you’re done with your program? Or are you just thinking about now?
I want to continue making things, getting better at collaborating with other people who have various talents that I don’t have, myself. The strength of that can be so much greater than just the single solitary person working on his own. That’s what I’m striving for. That collaborative strength. Where I physically am ... I don’t think too far ahead about that. I’m just happy to be here today.
For the full interview, go to alibi.com
See Daniel Richmond’s work at richmondsculpture.com