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interViews: Conversations with Ellicottville-ians By Jann Wiswall Get to Know: Dave Poulin

Title: Sculptor

A Few Facts: “My job is to tell stories,” said Dave Poulin. “Sculptures don’t talk or move, but they must tell stories in order to be meaningful.”

Poulin has been creating life-sized bronze sculptures, generally of human figures, for more than 25 years. He has more than 120 bronzes in public spaces all over the world, and you may have seen many of them in western New York.

There’s the Korean War Memorial at Niagara University – one of his largest public pieces. It is composed of three figures installed in a walkable, specially landscaped space on campus. It tells a story about the university’s ROTC program in the 1950s.

There’s the Underground Railroad tableau in Jamestown’s Dow Park. The piece features three figures depicting a runaway slave finding safety at the home of freed slave Catherine Harris with the aid of white blacksmith Silas Shearman.

There are the two figure skaters and three hockey players at the entrance to the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena. There’s a piece at Griffis Sculpture Park in Cattaraugus County and dozens of others at public schools all around the region. Plus, he has done numerous sculptures for individuals’ private homes.

While he always has done his art and kept a studio, Poulin started his career as a middle school art teacher in Olean. While there, he was working on his Master of Fine Arts degree at Alfred University and teaching sculpture part time at Jamestown Community College. After completing his MFA, he joined the faculty at St. Bonaventure University (SBU) and became chair of the department of visual and performing arts – a department that he created.

Dave is married to Connie Poulin, principal of Ellicottville Elementary School. They have a 3-year-old son. He is building a large new studio in Humphrey, N.Y.

Q: Tell me about your creative process.

A: Before you start a sculpture, especially for a public space, there’s an amazing amount of discussion and research that takes place. You have to bring all the diverse interests together and find the common idea. Most people don’t know how to describe the idea visually, so it’s my job to pull all that information together, do the research and come up with a concept that meets everyone’s needs and tells the story. With some of my more complicated commissions, it has taken years to get from the initial idea to the unveiling.

Once the concept is approved, the process of building the sculptures can take nine months or more. I start with making the clay model – the head, torso, arms, legs and other elements each are formed separately. That’s the fun and truly creative part. It’s also very exacting, getting the musculature, joints, facial expressions, hair, clothing and other details exactly right.

The clay is covered with plaster to create a mold. Then the clay is removed and replaced with wax. Each wax form is dipped once a day for 12 days into a ceramic mixture. The new ceramic mold is fired in a kiln to allow it to harden and the wax to melt out. Next, the metal is melted (at 2000 degrees F) and poured into the ceramic molds. The ceramic shells are knocked off with a hammer, the metal is sandblasted and the pieces are welded together. The welds are meticulously ground and smoothed, then patinas (chemicals used to create colors) are applied and the sculpture is complete.

Next the installation begins. Some pieces sit on bases that I design and build, others are placed within a carefully designed outdoor space – like the Niagara University piece for which we have paths, benches, a map of Korea drawn into concrete, landscaping and even a large rock that we brought over from Korea.

I am one of very few bronze sculptors in the country who does all of the foundry work in-house. Most other artists contract out that work.

Q: What prompted you to leave teaching? 

A: I love teaching, and truly it’s a passion, but in 1997 I decided I wanted to do three things: make art full time, teach outside the confines of traditional settings and travel. So I left SBU, studied a lot about business and marketing, set up a studio in Jamestown and went out on my own. I’m happy to say I achieved all three goals. My work has been featured in dozens of galleries, exhibitions and magazines around the country. I have done public art projects for cities, universities and many other entities. And, I’ve been invited to teach seminars and workshops all over the U.S. and the world – France, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil.

However, I’m still very much a teacher, and I still work as a visiting artist in the schools. I’m working now on a project at Portville (N.Y.) Elementary School taking the kids through the entire sculpture-making process. I had the kids each write a story about something they love about the “great outdoors,” selected one and brainstormed with the kids about what they thought the sculpture should look like. Then we started building the clay model. Every child in the school was able to help with the clay, learning all the while about anatomy, scale, dimensions, etc. It’s a great way to bring creative writing, science, math and other concepts together in a visual and fun way that makes sense to children.

Q: Which artists have most inspired you?

A: Of the artists of the past, Michelangelo and, of course, Rodin – the master of the bronze figurative sculpture. I know it sounds corny, but I’d have to say my 3-year-old son Nigel is my greatest inspiration today. There’s so much I want him to learn. He inspires me to challenge myself even more.

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