Walter Horak



Early Years
While I can readily trace my creative roots back to action-filled, childhood drawings of heroes and villains, my art and aesthetics were crucially shaped by years of painting and drawing in high school and later by formal studies of art history at Harvard University. During those early years I seriously pursued athletics as well. Whether I was a participant or spectator, sport had a powerful aesthetic appeal and was clearly linked to my art at the time. In parallel fashion, my efforts as a young painter or art historian invariably favored artistic imagery, realistic or abstract, which had expressive energy or lively passages of forms. To this day, I perceive an essential affirmation of life - and an expression of my own life - in simple movement and gesture.
Career in Sculpture
My commitment to sculpture as a profession properly began in 1972 at the Rhode Island School of Design where I studied with Arnold Prince, a sculptor and dancer from the West Indies. The potent element of figurative gesture in Arnold’s work, together with the sheer physicality of carving wood and stone, struck a resonant chord with the artist/athlete in me. Extracting sculptural form from an otherwise motionless, obdurate material was an irresistible challenge, so I began, then, as a carver, wresting human shapes from logs and stone.
In the mid 1970’s I took my growing passion for wood and carving to a job as a frame-maker at an antique mill-museum in Arlington, Massachusetts. Exposure there to furniture makers and to techniques of joinery and wood lamination caused my work to become more open and attenuated. Referencing the movements of dancers and athletes, I sought postures for my sculpture that evoked something basic about the human condition: the yearning in the lean of a torso, life's transitions reflected in the fleeting turn of a head, and the compelling link between grace and power.


A return to graduate school (University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth) for a Master of Fine Arts degree in the 90’s deepened my focus. The yeasty atmosphere of an art school had the effect of extending and amplifying my vision of the human figure, and I became increasingly inspired by the similarities between the figure and the shapes of other things: tree limbs, calligraphy, and myriad organic and inorganic forms. The similarities made me think of sculpture as metaphor-making in three dimensions. I worked again with logs and tree parts and discovered bronze casting.

Current Sculpture
I am working along parallel tracks of representation and abstraction and seeking common ground between the two. With the small bronze figures, I create poses and gestures that are extraordinary or "supra-natural", many of these gleaned and composed from observation or photographs of dancers. While at one level they represent a single moment or sequence of moments, these pieces are meant to signify larger ideas of tension, balance, and transcendence. Consequently, I consider them abstractions. Conversely, with some of my concurrent large wood projects, the overall construction may read as a flow of apparently abstract elements but then resolve itself with a pair of realistic human hands at its two end points.
I have moved recently to a new home and studio on some remote Rhode Island pasture land, where for me the connectedness of things is everywhere in the landscape and where large ideas seem to be embodied in the smallest natural object. As I continue to warm to the physical and mental demands of giving sculptural shape to ideas and visions, I am grateful for and welcome this new fertile ground.

artist statement

The figurative tradition in sculpture is several millennia old, and any artist producing images of the human form invariably invites comparison to predecessors. The relatively idealized proportions of my figures and the balance in their spatial composition follow Western design principles going back at least to the ancient Greeks. At the same time, the surface quality of my bronzes - traces of the modeling process favored over a more precise rendition of anatomy - reflects a more recent, but still Western, aesthetic evident in Rodin and Degas sculpture. Elements of gesture and movement are also obvious, and they reference, especially in my early sculptural efforts, Daumier's drawings from the 19th century and Ernst Barlach's expressive carvings from the 20th.

While gratefully accepting historical roots, I am also trying to extend that figurative tradition with a notion advanced by art critic Donald Kuspit, who described sculpture as "metaphor-making in three dimensions". Because for me the human form remains a powerfully familiar and direct instrument of expression, I use it comparatively in order to extend my sense of the world or at least to make imaginative connections between sometimes disparate things.

Recent pieces, for instance, have an architectural theme and involve multiple figures. Although many of the configurations would be physically unattainable by even extraordinary athletes, my intention here is to create human embodiments of tension, balance, and grace - attributes essential to architecture. We cannot do physically what the sculpture does, but surely we may spiritually. The sculptural metaphor, the comparison of figure to architecture, underscores that potential.

Temporality is a long-standing theme which I explore similarly. Some earlier pieces involve a stop-action idea, in which a single figure executes a series of maneuvers, from beginning to end. More recent work involves multiple figures "frozen" in a moment that implies movement through time: like a flock of air-borne birds, individuals in the rear of a composition will move through the middle, to the front, and ultimately out of view. Embodying its title, the sculpture "Transients" has this implied movement: figures float down, touch ground briefly, and then float up and away. The piece tacitly acknowledges life as transitory, the finiteness of the physical realm as we know it. Other works have a tenuous quality which likewise points, however subtly, to temporal limits. Figures may be dramatically suspended or projected in air, but the sense is that they can't or won't stay there long. The moment is fleeting.

A current and main source for much of my imagery is modern dance. Gleaning images of dancers from books, videos, or actual performances, I put together poses and imagine movements that somehow resonate with my interests, and so I am as much choreographer as sculptor. From sketch to maquette to finished sculpture, I try to make inert material dance in ways that might extend our comprehension, and potentially our appreciation, of human experience.