Sculptor draws on past work for new creations

Photography by John Rizzo.


For many artists, drawings serve as preparatory sketches for works in other media.

For sculptor Milton Sherrill, however, a recent series of drawings has been an end in itself.

“They’re simple line drawings, the idea being that less is more,” he says. “My sculpture influenced the drawings, not the other way around.”

Indeed, Sherrill’s drawings were inspired by his “Knowledge of Man I” and “Knowledge of Man II” series. These bronzes, many of which have an amber patina, possess a quality that evokes both the ancient and the futuristic. The heads are egg-shaped, recalling the elongated heads of Egypt’s pharaohs and queens as well as the headdresses of West African women while also suggesting creatures in a sci-fi movie. The bodies — spindly and angular yet round of belly — echo the shrouded figure in Martha Graham’s solo dance “Lamentation” and the sheathed royal women of ancient Egypt.

Working with pen and ink, Sherrill wanted to distill the sculptures to their essence.

“You get a sense of the form. It’s very simple, very powerful, clean. …You’re going to the core of the form and its work.”

While these drawings would grace any home or office, Sherrill, like many artists, says, “I have no thought of this when I’m doing the work. It’s the aesthetics, the flow of the work that matters.”

In any event, these drawings are now a closed chapter. Sherrill is a sculptor, and it is the three-dimensionality of sculpture — along with its tangibility and connection to humanity — that continues to excite him.

Viewers know Sherrill’s work, perhaps without even realizing it.  If you’ve seen the powerful, gesturing sculpture of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. outside the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains — a piece that offers the visual equivalent of King’s oratory — then you know Sherrill’s work. If you’ve seen what he calls his “futuristic totems,” one of which stands outside the Bank Street Commons in White Plains, then you know Sherrill’s work.

His sculpture has even found a home at the White House. Sherrill was moved by the election of President Barack Obama to do a head of the president that captures the curving planes of his face for his “Legends” series, which includes tennis’ Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, politics’ Adam Clayton Powell, basketball’s Michael Jordan and entertainment’s Michael Jackson.

How the sculpted head made it to the White House is a winding road, somewhat like the creation of Sherrill’s sculptures, which begin with clay models, move on to rubber molds and wax positives and then are cast in bronze at such foundries as Tallix in New Windsor, Cavalier Renaissance in Bridgeport and Bedi-Makky in Brooklyn.

Sherrill has a friend who knew an Obama neighbor in Chicago. From there it was a matter of the work passing muster with the White House staff before it was seen by the president himself, who wrote Sherrill a thank you note he still has.

He has been portraying people ever since he was a 5-year-old in Kannapolis, N.C., fashioning a life-size Santa Claus — right down to his cottony hair, beard and accessories — for the door of his grandmother’s home. He divided his time between North Carolina and his mother’s place in Mount Vernon.

Sherrill went on to boarding school at the former Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, N.C., where his “artistic interests took off.” He even sold works to the parents of his classmates.

“I had been doing paintings, but I wanted to do something in the round. To me, it’s more realistic.”

Sherrill’s family had its share of doctors and it seemed as if he might carry on in that tradition. But while anatomy classes give an artist a good grounding for the human figure, he soon recognized medicine was not for him and it was off to the Air Force. After an honorable discharge, Sherrill pursued art at Stony Brook University and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art before graduating from The College at Old Westbury, which like Stony Brook is part of The State University of New York on Long Island. He also holds a master of fine arts degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

At first, Sherrill tried combining teaching with his own work. But then the commissions started coming in and he was on his way. Today, he works out of Long Island City, which has been a vibrant center of contemporary art for roughly a quarter of a century. He’s working on a new series and experimenting with a foundry in China, which has been another focal point for contemporary art.

One thing that never gets old — the rush he gets from connecting through his work with people he may never meet.

Says he of his public art: “To get a sculpture out there where everyone can see it and be inspired by it, well, that’s something.”

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  1. says: Tony Walters

    Milton Sherrill is truly an artistic genius. He conveys a pride and dignity in his sculptures that rivals anything produced by African American sculpture giants, Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthe and Augusta Savage. I hope to see more examples of Milton’s work in the public arena soon.

  2. says: Tony Walters

    Milton Sherrill is truly an artistic genius. His delicate and poignant renditions of African American pride and beauty is reminiscent of master sculptors, Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthe and Augusta Savage. Milton is truly an artistic treasure who’s work continues to mature and amaze.

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