Steve Linn Ai Weiwei

You have to be Passionate about what you do – Interview with Sculptor Steve Linn

Thomas Casteran Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

Steve Linn is an American sculptor who came twenty years ago to southern France. Although most of his clients and business partners are located in America, Linn feels at home on the mediterranean coast. Located in Montpellier Area between the mountains and the beaches, the sculptor rearranged an old building into a studio where he stocks his sketches and gives life to them making bronze, wood and glass sculptures. If combining the materials together to create an artwork is recurrent in his work, his real signature is the tribute to history and achievements of extraordinary people.

At our arrival in the studio, Linn explained his working process that few keywords could sum up: mastery, patience and organization. Kiln casting glass for instance can take up to several weeks! His current ambitious project in tribute to Stephen Hawking using holograms to illustrate the principal theories of the scientist invites his audience on a journey through the life of Stephen Hawking.

Stephen-Hawking-projectWork in progress: Stephen Hawking by Steve Linn

His path into the arts was far from certain. In fact, it was a series of opportunities that brought him where he is now.  An inherited passion for woodworking from his father, a cabinetmaker, his agricultural education,  his musical theatre experience,  taking drawing classes on the side,  and making sculpture at night. Audacity, patience, passion and determination are words to define the artist “I didn’t want to compromise my career as an artist […] I didn’t want to give up my dream of being an artist.”

A key element towards solidifying his involvement in sculpture and arts was his encounter with Robin Wagner, a young set designer at the prestigious Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.who went on to receive  9 Tony Award nominations [for the best scenic design on Broadway] “We talked a lot and he said “Look you know, you have two paths, sculpture and theatre design. You don’t have the personality for theatre design. It requires compromise. It requires getting along with a lot of people, working in a big group. You’re great one-on-one, or by yourself, but in a group you try to fight for what you want. But in the theatre if the director says “I want this blue” and you want it red, it’s blue, because he wins.”   So he said “what you should do is stay in the theatre and work as a technician to earn your living, because sculpture isn’t paying the bills.. Build scenery, paint scenery, but don’t be a designer.” So for 10 years, basically, that’s what I did. Making sculptures on the side until the time when the balance shifted.”

This notion of determination is recurrent in his work. It requires a lot of patience and also the ability to let go when facing uncertainty. For Linn, it is not rare that sketches stay in his sketchbook and finally become sculpture a few years later. Taking the example of his piece In the Air representing the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, the idea of using holograms occurred to him nearly forty years ago. “In the 1970’s a museum of holography opened [in New-York] and holograms fascinated the hell out of me and I had no idea how they would enter my work. […] This idea stuck in the back in my head some place,then in 2014, a long time afterwards, I got an idea to do a sculpture about Ai Weiwei. At the time he was not allowed to leave China. Yet he had exhibitions all over the world. Massive exhibitions and he was never there. It was this idea of his presence and his absence. Which is exactly what a hologram is. […] And that little idea that had been in the back in my head since 1976 went and popped out.”

Although Linn normally likes to work alone he admits that for this kind of project or when pouring bronze, he is bound to seek assistance. It is more a technological matter. However, he admits that conversations are an excellent way to refine his ideas and to spark other perspectives. “The concept is always mine. And sometimes within the concept there is a part that needs to be refined, which needs to be cleaned up. So I can show a sketch to a friend or my wife and say “what do you think of this, and then I accept or reject. what they have to say… When discussing ideas with my wife, who has an excellent critical eye, batting things back and forth may often lead me to an idea that is different from my original notion and different than hers, a third notion that comes from the dialog.”  

Steve-Linn-AiWeiWeiSteve Linn

After the interview we further exchanged on how art practices can be useful to develop particular skills. One very famous example lies in the museum program of the Yale Medical School initiated by Dr. Braverman. In this program medical students learn how to improve their observational skills by interpreting paintings: attitude, position, lights… All elements are carefully examined until a diagnosis based on all the elements available is established. They learn not to stop on first impression or symptoms. Here Linn revealed to us an improbable part of his past. He actually taught a course of sculpture to surgeons in order to increase their manual dexterity. “It was primarily a course in clay sculpture since that is a material that requires more small hand movements than other more resistant materials such as wood and stone.  Working in wax for bronze casting is also precise however in the circumstance there was no foundry available to cast the work so we stuck to clay”.

Please access the full interview with Steve Linn here.

If you like to learn more about Steve’s work we recommend the book Steve Linn Documentary Sculpture that was released very recently.

Additional source used for this article: Email to AoA from Steve Linn
Picture Sources: Steve Linn & Thomas Castéran


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