My introduction to Darla and her work came at a First Friday event held at the art co-op she founded called the Sculpture Gym, a past haven for creatives and sculptors looking to make three-dimensional work. I was amazed at the design community she'd created, and her space quickly became one of my favorite gallery night stops—not only because of her beautiful space but also because of her vivacious personality. We caught up recently at an art opening, and after discussing a large scale piece she and her partner Paul were creating, I knew we had to feature her on our journal. Read more below to hear about her inspiring life as an artist and a mother.
Darla is wearing the Kamala Cross Front Dress in Jaipur Blush
How and when did you first get into the art of sculpture?
I had originally gone to college to be a Graphic Designer, however, once I got there I had the opportunity to try new mediums. Sculpture really appealed to me in terms of how varied it could be and how hands-on it was. I became interested in both clay sculpture and metalworking, however, a trip to Italy in 2002 pushed me firmly into the realm of making representational sculpture in clay.
Your current work (that's in your dining room!) is quite large—how do you prepare for a piece like that?
I love the challenge of working large! The Lioness that my partner, Paul Romano, and I are currently working on started off as a small sketch, which then we turned into a scale drawing. We had to construct a strong work surface to build her on and from there we built an armature, or the support that goes underneath the clay. This serves two purposes: to hold the clay up where it needs support and to take up space so the piece is not solid clay (which would make it so heavy). The armature is made of sheets of foam insulation board that are glued together in the rough shape of the piece, slightly smaller than the final piece will be. Clay is then added over top. So far we’ve added 1,200 pounds of clay and we still have a bit more to add! While working we continually look at reference photos to double-check our work and it changes slightly as we continue to work on it. We are getting close to done, which is exciting!
You and your partner are working together on this project—what's it like to collaborate together? Any tips for couples that want to do creative projects together?
We work quite well together because our subject matter has a lot of overlap and I think why and how we make art comes from a similar place. In terms of the specifics of this piece, we talked about it for a while before starting, to lay out the ideas. Once we were firm on the idea, we began the sketches and from there Paul did the large scale drawing based on the pose and scale we liked best. I then planned the armature based on this and we built that together. I started the clay off and then we worked together adding clay and defining the forms.
I think it worked well because we naturally let whoever had a particular strength take the lead at various points. Paul draws beautifully so he did the full-size drawing. I put up clay very quickly so I took the lead on that. We take time to stop and talk about what’s working with the piece and what’s not and nothing is taken personally. I think there is an understanding that we both want what is best for the piece and that speaking openly about what it needs only benefits us both.
Playing to each person’s strengths is so important. Paul is very calm and organized. I am excited and ready to tackle any new aspect of the piece. Talking things out and making sure we agreed prior to doing anything was very helpful. Continuing to talk throughout is also helpful. Sometimes something will come up that we had different ideas about how it would look, so we ask each other to show us what they had in mind.
Darla is wearing the Louisa Wrap Dress in Indigo
You’ve described your art as containing “an oddness that makes it compelling.” Can you explain that a little more? Where do you find inspiration?
I think that I’m taking ideas from the everyday, animals and other things that are symbolic or meaningful such as flowers, bones, ribbons, etc, and combining them in unconventional ways… a rabbit in a crow mask, snakes tangled up into a heart, birds with broken hearts from the game ‘Operation’. I think these recognizable things mashed up together cause viewers to pause and look more closely.
As for inspiration—emotions, music and images of animals are hugely inspirational. Often what happens is I will see an image or hear a line in a song that is like a lightning strike and get an idea instantly. Other times there will be a certain idea or emotion that I will want to talk about and I look around until I find something that suits it. While in school and for a few years out, I relied heavily on symbolism books, using things and animals that have been thought to represent certain ideas or emotions for hundreds or even thousands of years. Eventually I began to trust myself more and use whatever I feel is most appropriate to a piece, though oftentimes the symbolism still lines up if I go back and read about it after the piece is done. Additionally, looking at art, objects and movies is hugely inspiring. The Yoshitoshi show, Spirit and Spectacle, of his woodblock prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a huge influence for me this year. We saw Heavenly Bodies, an exhibition that captured the influence of Medieval art on fashion, at the Cloisters and the Met last year and I still think about that show. Similarly, we saw a film recently, Midsommar, and I have thought about it daily ever since. These things seep in and show up in interesting places in the work, and not always in ways that I am conscious of.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I usually wake up in the morning and try to drink a large glass of water before even getting out of bed. I stretch a bit and then head downstairs to start the coffee. Once coffee is made I head out to my studio (right now located on the sun porch of my house until the garage is finished) and sculpt until my daughter comes down and peeks in. We then lay on the couch together and talk about what we dreamt about and what we’ll be doing that day. At this point Paul will come down and make us all an amazing breakfast (he’s an incredible cook). I’ll take Olivia over to camp, which was the Arden Theater Camp and Fleisher this year. Then we’ll get to work. Recently this has been sculpting the life-size clay lioness that is in our living room AND the condor sculpture that I’ve been working on in the sunporch. We work on this until it’s time to get Olivia. Paul will make us dinner and after dinner it’s back to work for a while, sometimes returning emails or packing up sculpture orders to ship out. I then get Olivia ready for bed with a bath and we always read together. I love having time to draw at night after Olivia is asleep. Then Paul and I will spend some time relaxing on the couch or watching something (Father Brown or The Office have been recent favorites). Then Paul will draw me a bath and I’ll listen to a podcast or music while winding down, which is wonderful. I always try to read a little until I fall asleep.
What's something about being a mother that surprised you?
I think the thing that has surprised me the most is how you create the “normal” for this person. There are so many baby books and blogs out there telling you what’s right or good to do, but ultimately them watching you every day makes the biggest impact. It’s made me a better person for sure, where I am making sure I really mean the things I say or do, but it's also really funny to see what she thinks is a “regular” thing. Like once in her Kindergarten journal Olivia wrote “My mom gave a lady a baby head.” and her teacher was like “What…..?” She was referring to a time I did a commission for someone that involved making a large wizard head that, before it got its hair and beard, looked like a big baby head. This was normal to her. Mom running a shop with lots of tools and knowing how to fix stuff was normal to her. Sculpting a lioness in the living room is normal. I love this.
Darla is wearing the Kamala Cross Front Dress in Jaipur Blush
Where can people see and buy your art? Do you take commissions?
The best place to see my work is on Instagram. This is where it's most current and you can see work in progress as well. My work is available in person and online at both Arch Enemy Arts and Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia. It’s also available on my website at darlajacksonsculpture.com. Each of these locations/websites have different bodies of work available.
And I love doing commissions! Over the last few years I’ve worked on some large pieces for Founding Farmers Restaurant in King of Prussia and Washington, DC and both projects were a dream to work on. I’m currently working on a piece for The Civic, a new residence building in Philadelphia. I love making things for public spaces and it’s great that so many people see and interact with the work every day. I also do private commissions as well.
How do you know/decide when a piece is done?
Ah...the hardest question. Sometimes it has to do with time, and how much or how little time I have to work on it. But ideally, the way I think about it is that there is a point in a piece where I could spend 20 more years working on and refining it but it wouldn’t really make it that much better overall...that’s when I stop.
What are the most rewarding and most challenging things about working in the art world?
The most rewarding things for me are making things that create an emotional response in people and that I get to do what I love (make art and teach others how to make art) every day. When someone tells me how a piece affected them, it really is this amazing moment where what I’m doing does feel like it's connecting people.
How would you describe your style?
I am very straightforward most days...sort of like an inadvertent capsule wardrobe where the same things cycle through often, such as a few perfect t-shirts, dark denim jeans, black pants, a pencil skirt, a wrap skirt, and a few dresses. Most of it was black until recently, partly because it was easy and I’m an artist so I think it's in my nature. However, a lot of red and indigo items have found their way into my wardrobe lately because I periodically like to shake things up and wear what isn’t expected. I also have to be able to dress up or down because an artist’s life is in the studio and/or classroom one moment and then out to an opening the next. I’ll be a mess, covered in plaster or clay all day and then in heels and a cocktail dress later that night. I will also put my black jean jacket over anything.
You have a lot of very interesting treasures throughout your home. What's your most treasured possession?
Oh, I have three if that’s allowed. An old hat that is my grandfather’s, a drawer of love notes from Paul and a pair of books, one that is a baby book of mine and the same one that is Olivia’s. We also have so much art and so many books that are absolutely treasured, as well as our collection of skulls and other curiosities that we use as reference in our work. I love beautiful objects of all kinds, both manmade and natural, and love being able to combine them in unexpected ways!
Darla is wearing the Ella Top in White Coconut
Your house is undergoing a renovation at the moment—what are some of your future plans for decorating?
We have some wild plans in store. Our main living room will be based on Whistler’s Peacock room, but rather than teal paint and peacocks, we want to create a Rooster Room (as we are both Roosters in the Chinese zodiac) and picked out a really beautiful pink for the walls. We’ll make a new mantel for the fireplace as well with sculpted roosters. Our second living room, which currently houses our lioness and our collection of skulls and natural objects, we’d like to turn into a “forest”, adding trees that go from floor to ceiling. We’ll have a few reading nooks and a desk for drawing. Upstairs we are looking forward to building out the library because we have so. many. books. I can’t wait. Also, the guest room on the third floor is going to be painted like a circus tent from “The Night Circus,” an excellent book by Erin Morgenstern. Having many rooms gives us the opportunity to play a bit and I think we are both adventurous when it comes to decorating our home. The ultimate goal is to one day have the house featured in “World of Interiors” magazine...I’ll keep you posted!
Fine art can be an intimidating career for some to pursue, do you have any advice for someone looking to get into sculpture as a profession?
First is to learn processes and learn them well. Take classes with different people at either art schools or art centers. Fleisher Art Memorial is a wonderful resource for Philadelphians, but most communities have free or low-cost options for art classes. Continuing Education classes at places like Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts or your local college are a great idea also and are usually a fraction of the price of enrolling in a full-time program.
Second, ASK QUESTIONS. So often people don’t take advantage of having someone in front of them who knows a process or a medium extremely well. Ask everything you can think of...What works? What doesn’t? Brands they use and why? Brands they don’t use and why? Best tricks and tips? Biggest mistakes? Ask it all.
Third, keep records of what you learn. Write down what you did this time and whether or not it worked well and how you can do it better next time. Each time you do something it should be slightly tweaked for improvement. Keeping records helps you remember what you did and why and will become an invaluable resource guide for you one day.
Fourth, use proper tools and use tools properly! I have seen so many people try to sculpt with the tools that come in a kit for potters...usually to their own frustration. Good wooden sculpture tools are very easy to make with a bit of scrap wood, a bandsaw (or handsaw) and some sandpaper. Other things such as stainless steel tools, rubber-tipped tools or rakes are good additions, but you don’t need a ton of tools for clay sculpture. I have 2 I use very often and 3 more I use on occasion. Also when using tools (of any kind) always follow both safety precautions and common sense rules. Always.
Fifth, look at work. Old work, new work, work in person, work on the internet, work of people you like, work of people you hate. Look at as much as you can and you will learn about what you like and dislike, what you want to do and don’t want to do and what you can do and what you can’t. It’s so important to see what else is out there and learn what you can from it.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Paul and I have our exhibition “I imagine losing you all the time…” at Arch Enemy Arts, located at 109 Arch Street in Philadelphia, PA in October 2019. The show opens on October 4th (First Friday) and runs until the 28th. To request a Collector’s Preview of the exhibition, contact the gallery at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.archenemyarts.com.